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Seaside with a squall coming up by Iain Aitch

When it was first announced, back in 1999, that Margate was to build itself an art gallery of international standing it was hard to tell whether the hoots of derision from the London-centric art world or the massed sounds of locals spitting out their tea in shock and bewilderment were the loudest. The solidly working class, crumbling seaside resort was seen as culturally bereft by outsiders and equally so by many residents, some of whom were perfectly happy for it to stay that way.

The idea of the Turner Centre, as the gallery was then to be known, was to change all that. Taking the fact that JMW Turner drew inspiration from the spectacular sunsets across the town’s harbour as a starting point, Kent County Council (KCC) announced its vision for the regeneration of the town through art, with the £7m building placed to draw restaurants, galleries and studios to an artistic quarter in the adjacent old town area. It even chose the most daring and stunning of designs for the gallery, which would rise like a sail from the sea on the outside of the harbour wall. Bilbao, Gateshead, St Ives: eat your hearts out.

But it was to be far from smooth-sailing for architects Snohetta and Spence’s iconic fin-shaped design, as costs sky-rocketed, locals doubted its ability to weather the rough seas and the completion date slipped from 2004 to 2007. What had been a £7m design became an £11m one, then £20m and soon leapt to £29.5m, with a zippy change of name to Turner Contemporary somewhere along the way.

Last month the price of the complex construction project reached almost £50m and KCC decided to stick. The hoots of derision returned. Stupid over-ambitious little Margate had not been the butt of such laughter since the days when jokes about the questionable quality of its bathing waters were a music hall standard.

KCC announced that a cheaper land-based gallery and leisure complex would be built on dry land, but they had lost most people at ‘cancelled’. Local traders, already hit hard by a seemingly conflicting piece of regeneration infrastructure, in the shape of an out-of-town shopping complex, threw up their hands. £6m has already been spent, but the town has little more to show than the staff for a gallery that does not yet exist and a couple of new cafes and galleries, drawn by the promise of an influx of middle class art-lovers and their disposable incomes.

In one such venue, The Harbour Café, I meet up with Victoria Pomery, the gallery director without a gallery. As we talk I occasionally catch myself staring over her shoulder to the spot where her gallery should now stand. I imagine the fin rising above the harbour wall and the tourists that go with it. But this is March, with the North Sea blowing drizzle along the seafront. Donkey rides and cockles are still a way off and cultural tourism in Margate remains a pipe dream.

Pomery seems down, though not beaten. The former senior curator of Tate Liverpool has put Margate back on the map once and seems convinced she can begin to do so again when KCC’s new vision for the gallery is announced next month. She also believes that she can retain the goodwill of those whose support she has gained locally.

"I think we had turned a major corner over the last eighteen months," she says. "People could see the potential benefits of having a gallery. There are always going to be those who doubt vision and don’t like taking risks."

Pomery peppers her conversation with long and thoughtful silences, betraying her huge emotional investment in the project and the original design, which she has had to defend for the four years since her appointment. She seems more than open to the idea that a new land-based design can work, but there also seems understandable concern in her voice that Turner Contemporary mark two may lean more towards the municipal than the iconic.

"As long as we work with the right architects, it has to be well managed as well, then we should be able to get something," she says. "I think mark two needs to be a different type of building. I don’t think that it is not going to be as good as, I think it is just going to be a different building."

Original design architect Stephen Spence, of the Anglo-Norwegian Snohetta and Spence team, is, however, more convinced that different will mean not as good.

"I think they will do something," he says of KCC. "The problem is that once it gets to committees it just becomes the lowest common denominator, rather than special and unique, which it could have been."

Spence accepts that the cost of his design had become untenable, but believes more could have been done to find a solution that did not involve abandonment. He is also sure that Margate will come to regret that it did not get to see his vision completed.

"Whatever they do build, there will always be something in your mind about the lost opportunity," he says.

Lost opportunity is very much on the mind of those in the area that the project was supposed to regenerate. Old Town Gallery owner Stephen Roper moved in to the area in 2002, expecting art tourism to be booming by 2004. He now sees 2009 as potentially being the earliest that he can expect business to pick up.

"Twenty-three businesses have come and gone since 2002," he says. "No doubt many of them came in on the promise of the [Turner Contemporary] gallery bringing regeneration. My fortunes are really linked to it. My concerns are that there has to be a real sense of urgency, so that the momentum is kept going."

Around the corner, at the bottom of Margate’s largely closed and shuttered High Street, local trader Philip Page is questioning whether even 2009 is a tad optimistic.

"I think they will bang on about it for another five years, spend a lot more money on it, get absolutely no benefit for the town and then cancel it," he says.

Page has, from his piercing and jewellery shop, acted as a champion for local arts regeneration and ploughed his own money into a self-published arts magazine, but even his boundless enthusiasm seems on the wane with this latest setback.

"It not happening has had a dreadful affect on businesses throughout Margate," he says. "It is a big knock to confidence. A lot of traders who have been hanging on in the town are likely to be on their way before a brick is laid."

Tracey Emin, whose name many will associate with the town before that of Turner, is still convinced that the town will get an outstanding gallery, but she is also concerned that more locals should get behind the scheme. As with many capital projects involving the arts, there is a vocal section of the local populace who claim that the money should be spent on hospitals, schools or local sports facilities.

"I have always been worried about that," she says. "Some people are really ignorant and think it is their money. They go ‘we don’t want our money spent on that’. What they don’t understand is that it is that or nothing. They are not going to get the money for anything else."

What will eventually appear on the newly proposed site for Turner Contemporary, which is what would have been part of the car park for the original design, is still largely unclear. The addition of a hotel, ice rink and a sailing academy have all been mooted, but as KCC are halfway through an eight-week self-imposed silence on the issue locals are being left in the dark. A good number seem keen on the idea of leisure facilities being linked to the gallery, but without a world-class design that incorporates a stand-alone gallery the project is unlikely to attract tourism on the scale needed to aid regeneration.

"I don’t think there is any point in building something that is not iconic," says Isle of Thanet Gazette editor Rebecca Smith, whose letters page has been the local debating ground for all issues surrounding the building of the gallery. "It does depend upon it being iconic: something that is different and that is going to regenerate Margate, not just another civic building plonked in a bizarre place on a car park."

Iconic is certainly what Margate deserves after 30 years of waiting for an upturn in its fortunes, but whether that is what it gets remains to be seen. Anything less would be a slap in the face for a town promised so much, not to mention a waste of the large amounts of money and energy expended thus far.

(written for The Guardian in March 2006 but not printed)

All content copyright © 2012 Iain Aitch


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