In 2019, the Turner Prize hits the regions again – and while it’s recently gone to big cities like Glasgow (population 600,000 – 1,000,000) and Hull (population 260,000) this time, it’s coming to Turner Contemporary, Margate (population 40,000).
A big show in a small town will have a huge impact; in Glasgow the show attracted 75,000 visitors, at the Baltic in Gateshead 149,770, and it’s reasonable to expect more in a venue only 1.5 hours from London by train. And especially, in a place that already fills with London visitors every weekend. Turner Contemporary has been an incredible success, and its most successful show was Grayson Perry’s Provincial Punk, with 192,177 visitors – so that’s the target to beat.
The Turner Prize comes at a key time for Turner Contemporary, too. Opened in 2011, visitor numbers would be expected to drop off a little about now – Dreamland’s two reopenings (first in 2015, then again while still in administration in 2017) have undoubtedly helped keep numbers up for the gallery, so an extra publicity boost in 2019 is a good thing.
The gallery are keen to look for a long-term impact from the Turner Prize, and are keen to engage local people in a conversation about how to maximise the show’s impact. It’s worth remembering that Turner Contemporary owes its success to a local ecology of cafes, small independent galleries, boutiques and vintage shops that mean a two hour gallery visit can easily become a weekend stay. Day trippers are bad for the economy: they typically cost more to attract and to service than they spend locally. So making Margate a place where you can spend a weekend is vital to both the gallery’s and the area’s long term success.
The first open conversation about the Turner Prize was held at Turner Contemporary yesterday. About forty people attended, representing a mix of local authorities, arts organisations, and visitor attractions. It was clear from the attendance that the show was attracting interest from Canterbury, and the wider East Kent area. Artists were keen to be in the room, and were vocal contributors. There were notable local absences, too – nobody from Dreamland, for example.
The conversation took the (dreaded) World Cafe format – where you sit around tables, have a guided discussion around a central proposition, write your thoughts on the tablecloth and then move to the next table and the next proposition. I can see there are merits to this methodology; but it’s used at every Turner Contemporary event, and the central propositions are never strong enough for a real debate. Can anyone argue strongly around ‘People of all backgrounds should be able to thrive’?
Having spent 17 years attending meetings very much like this, I’m always amazed by the lack of ambition these events bring out. Most of the discussion focused on things so obvious, it’s hard to believe they’re being discussed and not done. We should ensure visitors can find other attractions, we should link up with nearby attractions, we should ensure local people come to the gallery, we should welcome people at the station and so on. Well, yes.
The Turner Prize has the possibility of being a big gear change for Turner Contemporary and everyone involved in the local creative ecology. It also has the potential to misfire, as it’s always controversial – the potential to accelerate the way property funds are buying up the area and do real damage to affordable living locally – and perhaps worst, the potential to just be another show at Turner, which many local people still don’t visit.
So – in the spirit of starting a proper conversation, here are my ambitions for Turner Contemporary and the Turner Prize. This isn’t a costed, prepared plan – it’s a quick response to yesterday’s event. And it’s not everything; of course we should join up with other local attractions (Margate Caves open their new visitor centre in 2019), encourage more local people to visit and so on. That’s all a given. But here’s some ambition.
1. More Turner, everywhere
Turner Contemporary is a charity, established to stimulate Margate’s culture-led regeneration. That’s worked, and there’s a vibrant creative ecology around Margate – but it’s fragile. Rent is already going up; artists are already leaving. Currently, Thanet District Council is undergoing a massive asset disposal – small buildings, workshops, and anything not needed for core service delivery is going. So here’s the idea: Turner Contemporary should become the preferred new owner for any assets being disposed of. Between now and the Turner Prize, Turner Contemporary should take on a range of buildings around the town. Some can be let as studios or workshops, some as residential space for artists, some let commercially to generate extra income, some run as Turner Contemporary satellites. For example, as Northdown Road’s footfall is growing, a Costa has opened. Turner Contemporary has driven that footfall – it should be a Turner Contemporary coffee shop that reaps the rewards. A bold move, but acts like this would create additional income streams, and maintain, preserve and enhance the ecology around Turner Contemporary, and make sure it doesn’t become a victim of its own success: a gallery surrounded by Costa, Cath Kidston and White Stuff isn’t worth a weekend stay.
2. Everyone’s connected to Turner
Turner Contemporary should become the major training body in Margate. It shouldn’t just train people in unambitious ways, to be volunteers in their own gallery; it should support proper job training across the area. Coffee shops would have Turner Contemporary-supported baristas, cafes would have Turner Contemporary trained chefs, shop staff will attend subsidised Turner Contemporary training courses, teaching assistants and nursery staff will be taught at Turner Contemporary, and local electricians will learn new specialist skills with the gallery’s help. At the same time, Turner Contemporary should develop apprenticeships in all the roles it needs, from Front of House to maintenance. Again, this is about that ecology: Turner Contemporary’s success is because of the Old Town, the lower High Street, and increasingly Northdown Road. If you’re attracting visitors to Turner Contemporary, your customer care extends outside the gallery to all those places, so making them good is protecting your name and reputation. And at the same time, you’re ensuring that young people locally have good quality jobs, and real prospects. In an area where 50% of children are still growing up in poverty, that’s vital.
3. Chipperfield hacked
Let’s hack the Turner Contemporary architecture. The building, by David Chipperfield, is a few years old and we know its limitations now. The outside plaza is underused, the legibility of the front of the building is awful, the front doors are unfriendly and stick, the foyer is a dead space. The green space at the side is unloved and never used. The space between Turner Contemporary and the sea is a carpark, recently vandalised with clumsy road markings. The outside of Turner Contemporary lacks the life the inside has. Jane Jacobs would hate it. Margate is brilliant at using space – look at the slightly chaotic life of the Harbour Arm, the buzz around the Sundeck at Nayland Rock, or the anarchic spirit of Fort Road Yard. And when Turner Contemporary has used those spaces – for example, with Dwelling for Summer of Colour (pictured), it’s been transformational. By the time the Turner Prize arrives, let’s have a plan in place for the front, the outside, and the areas around Turner Contemporary; let’s make Turner Contemporary a place, not a building.
Turner Contemporary should be governed by the people it represents and works with. The Board of Trustees does great work in keeping the gallery going, but the mix of people from the banking sector, big organisations and art world establishment could do with hearing more local voices. The typical local panel or representative group is still an exercise in power: and doesn’t encourage real listening and debate. There should be three local board members, chosen for their potential: they should be given support and training to join the board and a mentor to help them become confident contributors.
If we do this right – all the other stuff will happen, because Turner Contemporary will be properly rooted in Margate.