Ann Jones introduces the first of an occasional series about new art galleries.
Over the last couple of decades art has acquired an unprecedented audience in Britain. Blockbuster museum shows still draw big crowds but contemporary art also pulls in visitors in huge numbers and the London art market is thriving – in so far as such a thing is possible in the current economic climate.
In response, towns and cities across Britain have sought to use art to attract visitors and aid regeneration either through staging festivals, commissioning landmark public art works or building new museums and galleries. The most prominent of these art works has been Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, commissioned by Gateshead Borough Council and funded in the main by the National Lottery. The best known new museum is also in Gateshead: the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. BALTIC is a converted flour mill, part of a trend for converting disused industrial spaces into galleries and museums that also gave us Tate Modern. Most of the high-profile gallery spaces opened in recent years have, however, been new buildings, often partly commissioned to attract not just art tourists but architecture fans as well. (Examples include the New Art Gallery, Walsall; Nottingham Contemporary; the Towner, Eastbourne; and Mima Middlesborough.) The spectacular success of the Guggenheim Bilbao seems to have played a part in the design and commissioning of each of these buildings, albeit tempered by a traditional British reluctance to wholeheartedly embrace contemporary architecture – the Bilbao effect versus the Prince Charles effect, if you like. This is the landscape in which Turner Contemporary has opened in Margate.
A small seaside town in North Kent, Margate was only really on the radar of those interested in contemporary art as the childhood home of Tracey Emin, artist and divider of opinions, some of whose best known work has referenced her time there. Though there are affluent parts, North Kent is in the main quite run down and a stroll through Margate certainly suggests that this is a town in need of regeneration (and people – during my visit there, on a Friday afternoon in summer, it felt a bit like a ghost town). Ten years from planning to building, Turner Contemporary finally opened on 16 April 2011, This was only a few of weeks after Arts Council England announced its funding decisions for 2012-15, leaving many arts organisations facing a very uncertain future, or no future at all. Though Turner Contemporary and some other new spaces (such as the Hepworth in Wakefield, which opened in June) got a modest uplift in funding, this is nonetheless a very difficult time to be opening a new space. And gallery directors can’t assume that the funders who provided the capital to build will come good when it comes to revenue funding if times get hard. The Centre for Visual Arts in Cardiff – housed in the Old Library, the conversion of which was funded by the Arts Council of Wales – closed after a year, hamstrung by its unrealistic business plan (unless there is an established audience for contemporary visual art in the area, charging admission fees is not going to work).
Those connected with Turner Contemporary don’t always seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet when the subject of regeneration is raised. The gallery’s welcome brochure explicitly mentions it as part of the aim and a quick trawl of press coverage reveals that the Director, Victoria Pomery, has talked a good deal about Turner Contemporary as a catalyst for regeneration, but its architect, David Chipperfield, who also designed the Hepworth in Wakefield, places less emphasis on this, describing it simply as “a good, local arts space”
In one respect at least, the gallery can already be considered a success. The target of 156,000 visitors in the first year was achieved in only 12 weeks. This is likely to please the funders, but stronger indications of success will only come if Turner Contemporary can demonstrate that it engages the interest of local people, attracts visitors from outside the area, and has its exhibitions well reviewed in both the mainstream and specialist art press. So, as one of those first 156,000 visitors, what did I make of the place and will I be going back?
Well, firstly the building. From the outside I like the building’s simple lines a great deal but I’m surprised by how small it is and in some respects I find its presence slightly jarring in relation to the town. The pitched roofs make it feel as though the building is looking out to sea, which in turn makes it feel like it has turned its back on the town. The starkness of the architecture feels appropriate for such a windswept place, however, and it seems to take on something of the colour of the sky. Inside, the building feels, if anything, smaller still and this may be my biggest criticism. There just isn’t very much space.
This needs some elaboration. The rooms themselves are beautiful – of a size to work with all but large-scale installations, and modest enough not to overwhelm smaller works – but there just aren’t very many of them. Chipperfield is quoted by Architectural Review saying he wanted “the gallery spaces to have more the quality of artist studios, rather than traditional museum spaces”, which aptly describes their comparative feeling of intimacy. There is plenty of natural light but this has been achieved without compromising on wall space.
The gallery areas are all upstairs. There are a few things in the foyer, but the ground floor is given over to a cafe/restaurant and rooms for talks and meetings. This makes looking at the art become a more determined, deliberate act. Someone wandering in having seen the cafe from outside might easily leave again without venturing upstairs. There is, in my view, a strong general argument for making art visible from the outside and immediately visible to those entering the building. The art on the outside is a key feature of both the Pompidou Centre in Paris and Guggenheim Bilbao. Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, which I have long wanted to visit, has a glass side wall so that people are visible moving around the gallery space, making the casual visitor feel confident that this is also a place for them. At a seminar organised by BALTIC in April 2000, Tuula Arkio, Director of Kiasma, talked about seeing the museum not a something static but as “the citizens’ living room”, with the aim that the art should be “a part of people’s everyday life, not just something you go and visit once or twice a year”. Obviously there are different imperatives for museums with an established collection to showcase and galleries with a changing programme of commissioned and borrowed work, but if a publically funded gallery is seeking to engage a local audience, the idea of the citizens’ living room is one worth seriously considering.
So what of the art itself? Well, the opening exhibition – Revealed: Turner Contemporary Opens – is really very good, albeit a bit small. Each artist’s work is shown in a separate space which, given that there are seven artists in the show, may make you think I am being unreasonably mean in finding the gallery small. However, Daniel Buren’s Borrowing and Multiplying the Landscape occupies the large window of the foyer and upper landing, framing and reflecting the sea and feeling more like part of the building than part of the exhibition; Douglas Gordon’s Afterturner (2000) takes the form of a wall text in the stairwell and JMW Turner’s The Eruption of the Souffrier Mountains, in the Island of St Vincent, at Midnight, on the 30th of April, 1812, from a Sketch Taken at the Time by Hugh P. Keane, Esqre (1815) is hung in what is essentially a corridor. This is the work that sets the tone for the show; the precision of the start of the title suggests a work based on first hand experience but Turner worked entirely from someone else’s sketch and hadn’t seen the volcano himself. The experience was imagined. Using separate spaces for each artist makes it harder than it might be to determine the curatorial concerns behind the exhibition but it does allow each artist’s work in turn to hold the full attention of the visitor. For me, the show is stolen by Conrad Shawcross, whose Projections of the Perfect Third (2011) mesmerised me, keeping me in the room for as long as I spent looking at the rest of the show. The lights of Ellen Harvey’s Arcadia (2011) are seductive but the views of Margate in darkened space leave me cold. Russell Crotty’s installation The Cape explores the landscape and his response to it with an obsessiveness I find fascinating; his spherical drawings would make even the most familiar places pleasingly strange.
Overall then, I find a lot to like here but with the exhibition taking no more than half an hour to view – including the time I spend watching Shawcross’s piece – it feels rather slight as an exhibition. And with this opening exhibition running for nearly five months – and subsequent ones scheduled for only a little less time – it’s likely to be a good while before I visit Margate again. If I were local to Turner Contemporary I’d have been hoping for something more than a gallery that might occupy at most an hour of my time three or four times a year. Of course there will be a lot of work with local schools, and talks and short courses on offer. The impact of the gallery will in part come from external projects and links built up with other institutions in the area. But fundamentally galleries are about showing art and this one feels to me like it’s not doing enough of that.