The opening of the Turner Contemporary certainly attracted a moderate crowd of the curious. I entered the gallery at 2pm, and had to queue for precisely 8 mins (I timed it) to get in. So not quite the crowds the media are making out. I once queued for a couple of hours to get in to a Degas exhibition in the Met in New York. The queue at the Met wound through several wonderful galleries, which those queuing ignored completely. This included queuing past the Met’s own permanent Degas collection, which the vast majority of the noisily chattering queue failed to notice.
But once they got to the well signposted Degas exhibition which had been so publicised and queued for, they fell into reverential silence broken by loud stage whispers: “Fantastic, isn’t it!” “Wow, that blows my mind!”. This was art made easy; they had been told this exhibition was a record breaker, and switched on admiration at the signalled point.
I eavesdropped the crowd carefully in Margate. I genuinely did not pick up a single “wonderful”, These are comments I noted. This is a fair overall reflection of what I heard.
“Why don’t they have more books if this big bit is a bookshop?”
“No, it’s not pretty, but I think it’s meant to mean something.”
“They say £15 million of our Council Tax went into this”
“Well, it’s not what you’d want at home”
“It must be good or they wouldn’t have spent so much on it.”
I predict that a year from now the place will really be struggling for visitor numbers. I once saw (ready to groan) an episode of Top Gear where Jeremy Clarkson gave some devastatingly bad statistics for attendance at showpiece provincial art galleries. I am loathe to ally myself with Clarkson, but I have always thought it intrinsically improbable that putting an art gallery into an area of dramatic economic, social and educational deprivation like Margate, is going to make a positive impact.
It is hard to appreciate art, particularly art which is in large degree conceptual rather than aesthetically pleasing, if nothing in your education and experience has given you a cultural context for it. Plonking down a gallery of modern art will have almost no effect on improving the cultural level of the lcoal population. To expect the same gallery also to contribute substantially to solving the economic and social problems is madness.
Still, hope springs eternal. Retail space in Margate is very cheap indeed: until recently 40% of retail space was empty -the worst in the South and Midlands of England. Suddenly little art galleries have sprung up all over the town. I have no doubt at all that 80% of these will shut again within two years.
The BBC cites the Guggenheim in Bilbao as an example of an attraction that can make a real difference. But that is a beautiful building people travel to see. The first thing to say about the Turner Contemporary is that the architecture itself is really, really ugly. It is the kind of brutalist blank that I thought had thankfully been left behind. It is so bad you could sit it down in Victoria Street, London and it would blend in perfectly. It reminds me of the Peterlees of my very early childhood. God, it is just horrible. And it is brand new. When all that white concrete and slab glass gets dirty, it will be even worse.
Also – and no art critic or journalist will tell you this – on the grand opening day, the lift from the ground floor to the galleries, rather a spectacular lift that takes a hundred people, broke down. So there was no way of getting a pushcahir or a wheelchair to the galleries. The building is not just ugly, it’s buggered already.