The Turner Contemporary 36

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.

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36 thoughts on “The Turner Contemporary

  • Matthew O'Donovan

    There seems to be a perception that Art should cure all social ills, thats just bullshit, the art market is speculation, the uber rich conspiring to maintain the value of their investments. The Tate initiative should be seen as it is; An opportunity for global capital to disseminate it's message to the unsuspecting public through the medium of architecture.

  • CanSpeccy

    Well don't they have any Turners?

    I mean, it's the pictures, surely, that should be the main attraction.

    I'd even contemplate a visit to Ramsgate — might even spend a coupla quid on fish and chips — if they had a decent collection of Turners.

    True the gallery looks like a factory farm:

    But since no one pays any attention to the heir to the throne's sensible views on architecture, what can you expect. Maybe the council could employ a bunch of artists to paint the outside: really big murals.

    But, anyhow, if you can see the pictures, shouldn't that be a sufficient reason to come?

    I understand though that Turner used unconventional pigments like toothpaste and custard power, which faded badly, so maybe there's much of Turner left to see. His stuff looked kind of faded to start with (as confirmed by this example in my personal collection:….

    • Craig_Murray

      Unfortunately the exhibits have no relationship to Turner at all – that tourists will be bamboozled must be the main hope for visitor numbers. I am however very confident that the youth of Margate will spray paint the building for us.

      • CanSpeccy

        Ha! Well if the contents are as crap as the building they might as well turn the building into low-cost housing for unemployed illegal immigrants. The public would then feel they had got something for their money.

        Or maybe turn it into a gaol for war criminals. I think that would pull in a crowd, with Tony Blair, Cam, Clegg in striped suits and chains. Outside each cage there could be an audio visual display, showing collateral damage to small children by high explosive, or the dispersal of DU aerosols in the environment and their genetic effects, etc., etc. It should do a lot of good for the local economy.

  • angrysoba

    Your anecdote about queueing for a Degas exhibition sounds similar to Theodore Dalrymple's experience in Venice.

    Scroll down to p.18 on this link:

    In fact, you might also like his take on the leading light of the brutalist movement, Le Corbusier. Dalrymple notes that graffiti artists tend to have a more refined sense of aesthetics than local councils as they always choose to spraypaint such monoliths while being relatively respectful of good architecture.

  • somebody

    A nice acerbic review from Craig whom the thought police will be visiting shortly.

    The architect of the shed/warehouse sounds a plonker. Good job it is not 'quite in the sea'!

    "The architect, David Chipperfield, has designed many acclaimed buildings round the world but he said he had read on an internet blog that the Turner Contemporary "looks like a shed". "If a shed is a large, multi-functional building then I think this is an elegant shed," he said. Sir David said he tried not to go into any project with a pre-determined idea and had begun this one with a "strange site"."We are not really in the town and are not quite in the sea so it is quite a tough site," he said."

    PS Can Specyy there is just one Turner painting there. There are many at the Tate Britain.

  • somebody

    A comment from another blog which hypes up the gallery..

    Anonymous said…
    Anon 5.47, give credit where credit is due. This was and is a KCC led project with TDC just a minor player with very little input. You should be thanking the council at Maidstone. The £17 millions build costs, plus the cost of road improvements and the £10 millions that it will cost to run over the next 5 years is all down to SEEDA, the Arts Council and KCC. Only time will tell whether it will be £28 millions well spent.

    Sat Apr 16, 07:57:00 PM

    Interesting that the actual cost is £28 million. I can'r find out how much SEEDA (Soith East England Development Agency) coughed up. The costly and useless regional development agencies were one of the brainwaves of the disgusting newly ennobled Prescott. Cancelled by the condems I believe.

  • John Seal

    Of course, if you'd had to queue for more than 8 minutes, the complaint would have been about how the British are incapable of organizing anything properly, incapable of anticipating demand, etc.

  • ingo

    Reading the positive blurb that is coming from the Independent yesterday, it was made clear to me that this is an attempt to change the make up of Margates sea front, clientle and those who live there. It talked of ambitious plans to change the socio economic structure of the near sea district with more arty pubs, boutiques and galleries already opening. There are also plans to change the drab one appartment bedrooms into family friendly accomodation and Cliftonvilles apartments are already on the plans for such change.
    So fun was had by all. The increasing use of seaside towns as overspill for Londons benefit recipients, reversed by this shiny new plan supported by local Tory's.

    Question is, what happens to those who live there, who eek out a meagre existence in these one bedroom flats and who might be able to look forward to a job in the shiny new pub/gallery/bistro? and will they have a chance competing with all the good looking blond Lithuanians and Russians, also eagerly applying for same jobs?
    Will it sell and make for a good club when its gone bust?

  • Simon

    It is a really, really ugly building though, and it reminds me of that nuclear power plant at Fukushima.

  • Craig_Murray


    It is best to post on the relevant thread – in general, the latest three or four threads will all still be actively read and commented

  • Dick the Prick

    Architecture is much more important than art on a Sunday with yer picnic, but it seems odd that people queue and don't know why. My best chum takes his troop to art galleries and insists on telling me about artists he's seen and it baffles me unless (as he knows i couldn't give a monkeys) it's a cheap day out and it shuts the bird up. Seems a bit odd chucking a few Turner's in a £28 miilion shed but if dumb gits want to chuck their hard earned at a load of crap then I guess we've got the Turner Prize. Old stuff is genuinely better than new stuff. Art nouvelle is engineering. Architecture can be both new and beautiful but art, pffff, not dissing it, just concerned about valuations.

  • pinhut

    Without guidance to provide the necessary context, paintings don't really 'mean' anything, particularly if they break from the figurative. The Vettriano guy, like it or not, represents 'real painting' for a lot of people.

    The thing is, the fact that art now requires this textual explanation, an induction into its discourse, is itself a penetrating comment on its status, that it's part of the state apparatus, rather than something that is a lived part of everyday experience for the general population.

    This is why there is a sort of hybrid approach to this 'problem' (which is not really a problem, it's just a structural reality of the type of society we live in), of 'trying to interest people in the arts' etc, of 'outreach' of 'increasing access' etc. All of this is founded upon a recognition of the above distance between lived everyday and 'the art world'.

    Because I've had the art school education, I can think through some of these issues and unpick what's going on, and because I did not choose to try and join myself on to the funding system, I can speak about it without an interest. But you're not going to, generally, hear an informed but critical appraisal of projects like this, you either hear those inside praising it to the skies*, or those without an arts background criticising it as a waste of resources, etc (easily repelled as 'the enemies of culture' / philistines, etc).

    *As in the Tracey Emin clip that is running on BBC World News, where she basically contends that because she thinks it is a good idea, it *is* a good idea, and that the public basically don't know what they want until they are given an art gallery and then they know what they want – an art gallery.

  • Chater

    A Turner gallery with no Turner?! Surely that contravenes the Trade Descriptions Act?

  • deep green puddock

    ok I don't get much into art -in fact I avoid 'art' at home apart from the private and personal and I wouldn't buy 'art' or wall decoration which is really performing a variety of functions, although I admire the skills of many people . Primarily, it helps people to define themselves socially and demonstrate their taking part in some collective consciousness of civilisation and culture. We live in a very insecure, material culture focused on possession so it is inevitable that 'art' is reduced often to that element of 'possession and demonstration of worth'.
    However i have huge fun going around public galleries. just about any gallery to be honest although i was in a real dud the other day- a hideous corporatised thing-all sponsorship and hidden advertising . 'Art' does exist, somehow, even in the current difficult world. Just recently I was at the MOMA in New York where I think I could have spent a week. The striking quality of nearly all that was on show was the human qualities, and human scale. It was all extremely accessible. I could relate to just about everything in the sense of "i could do that' (with a bit of effort) but in a positive way, and it was actually rather life affirming, that my ideas and thoughts should resonate with others.
    I think it is the other side f the coin of the contemptous "i /my 6 y.o. could do that', meaning, there is no gulf between me and the artist (as venerated creature of finer qualities than myself). I think the MOMA leads people through the development of ideas without a heavy duty lecture. I think it was an excellent example of 'show, don't tell'. I think this is the quality that all art galleries and museums should aim for, and one that American galleries seem to achieve more readily than British galleries.

    I suspect that the gallery in Margate may well struggle to maintain viability in terms of visitor numbers. It seems to me that the vast scale of the MOMA and the huge range of material at their disposal actually permitted the selection of coherent narratives to guide the visitors.
    Perhaps if Margate can create a small number of such narratives it will create its own significance.

    • pinhut

      To me, this is a really interesting comment.

      I've often thought there are two types of art, broadly, one has a quality that makes it beyond the reach of those who enjoy it, where the very fact of "I could never do that" gives it a value. I have many musician friends and many are into jazz and virtuoso playing. They appreciate the difficulty involved, the technique, etc. I have never found that gripping, as I don't have the ears/training to pick up on what is going on. So I prefer stuff that might be rudimentary in terms of skill, but has a particular feeling, so I go for lots of post-punk stuff like Wire, Gang of Four, Swans, etc, because that has creativity and immediacy and directness. The general mistake is to then conclude, magically, that "Post-punk is better than jazz", whereas it is about what your own needs are and how they dictate you will value. (There are similarities between art and politics)

      Anyway, the other aspect is, that you are content, it seems, to be part of 'the public' who consume the art in these institutions. But the point is, like the Margate example, we won't see some new generation of critics, curators, artists, etc, arise from this project, because there is a separation at work, and those people that people the institutions that constitute the art world as it is at present, will continue their journeys through the art schools, there is no transition between viewer and commentator. It feels to me like there are two worlds, brought into contact in the space of the art gallery – absent artist who appears through their artworks and passive recipients who view them, who are, magically, said to be enriched somehow (metaphor of culture as a sort of intellectual/aesthetic manure that helps people 'to grow'), even if 'they don't understand what they have seen' (there are usually enough prompts that what is displayed is of high quality, and I expect in due course, again quite magically, an aura will be similarly cultivated around the Margate development, so that it has 'an excellent reputation' etc, while the artists whose work is displayed will be 'award-winning' or Turner Prize nominees, etc) There really isn't much that is left to chance in these sorts of institutional set-ups, everything points towards the idea that the work is good and if you don't agree, you're an idiot/wrong. That's why you tend to see these negative truths like the one Craig quotes, "“It must be good or they wouldn’t have spent so much on it” a classic of the genre.

      • Deep green puddock.

        Thanks for the response. I am now trying to figure out why I enjoyed myself at the MOMA. First of all the space is physically exciting, with all sorts of clever and unexpected vistas and views so it has an element of the exploratory walk along an interesting and rather impressive landscape. The architect has been very inventive and playful and the novelty of the arrangements makes it difficult to resist. There is also the sheer novelty of seeing things that are mostly only seen in illustration or books. Often the scale of the original is more realistic and attainable than it seems in a book. It has more interest. The same difference there is between recorded and live music

        Not all the material was comfortable, with a lot of the displays focused on chaos and decay, even the part that I saw in half a day, although I think it is a fair comment that the museum presents modernity in a rather positive light, with some considerable emphasis on the (preserved) technology and the successful technology narrative, and the wonders that it has brought. I think that is probably a very American perspective.
        The darker facets of art, such as Andy Warhol, are not presented in the most challenging way, I would probably have to agree, as they are not entirely consistent with the sense of progression and enlightenment that the curators wish to give us, although to be fair I didn’t sense manipulation, more enthusiasm.
        The point I was trying to get at in my previous comment is that a great deal of the art I saw seemed to me to be mostly successfully adaptive to the stress of technical change and as such, I related to the way that the artists had responded with what was available to them in the world they were in.
        It seemed to suggest there was a way to ‘negotiate’ the complexity of the world we are in –to counter the constant anxiety and perplexity that I usually find myself in.
        The other aspect I remember being aware of, is that the work demonstrated the confidence of the artist, something I have noticed in other people who produce other creative work-music, poetry etc. Art seems to emerge from self -doubt, for a moment or two at least, and being exposed to that in a public space is helpful to managing self-doubt.
        Not exactly sure what I am arguing- maybe that it is possible to do public art reasonably well, I suppose and that it has a purpose.
        I appreciate the analysis of the Myra Hindley picture. I always thought that the hand picture was an attempt to de-demonise her. Her demonization had become hysterical in some/many quarters and the human connections (the child hands) seemed to be asking us to confront the painful possibility that she really was human, regardless of what she had done.

        • pinhut

          "I always thought that the hand picture was an attempt to de-demonise her."

          Hindley and Sutcliffe are/were, after their capture, state-controlled figures. Quite literally, every moment of their lives is/was managed by the authorities for decades. I don't have it to hand, but there was an incident where public anger was mounting over the death of Ian Tomlinson and that very weekend, magically, for the Sunday newspapers, a story about Peter Sutcliffe topped the billing in the red tops.

          You only need eyes to see what is going on.

          So, on that level, the Myra Hindley artwork was a surefire way of annoying a public carefully trained over the decades. And, from having lived in various countries, it is noteworthy that not every culture has its Myra Hindleys, individual monsters guaranteed to whip the masses into a frenzy. The point I made regarding powerlessness goes even further, because, of course, most of the great British public would've liked Hindley executed, thrown to the mob, etc, but instead could only be exercised by her image. I watched my parents continually moved to apoplexy by every appearance of *that* photograph of her (and look at how carefully the media/state worked to maintain that single image as the only public perception of Hindley).

          What genius for the state to focus so much public anger on an individual, rather than on itself, when it has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, millions, of children as it pursues its own aims. They even groomed Maxine Carr to take over as Female Public Enemy #1, just as Hindley expired.

  • JimmyGiro

    The reason some art is expensive, is because people want it; and conversely, the reason modern art is a public charity, is due to its unpopularity.

    I see no objection to public funding of unpopular institutions, as long as they have public function. The only function of art, is aesthetics; therefore public funding of art can only be justified by popularity, which is indirectly measured by the market.

    • Craig_Murray

      But modern art is a strange phenomenon where the highest price items are things the public would not want at all, but are sought after by the super rich for showing off purposes.

      • JimmyGiro

        And that is surely where modern art belongs, in the space of those that 'appreciate' it. Museums should be for the things the public treasure, but cannot afford themselves.

        'pinhut', below, makes an excellent point, regarding the publicly funded institutions being one of imposition. I recall in the mid 80s, working part-time at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry; and it was taken over by the Marxist-Feminists supplied by the Manchester City Council. Their sole aim was to hijack the social and economic history of Britain, as a conduit for their foul religion. I recall being denied an opportunity to catalogue for the Museum, the 'Japanese rocket suicide plane', otherwise called the 'Cherry Bomb' by the Americans, simply because feminism was against the the principles of war. "Very principled", I said, adding "Can I write about those warmongering Suffragettes, handing out white feathers?"… I was told to shut up!

      • canspeccy

        Yes, exactly. The purchase of a rat squashed flat on a canvas by a heavy weight dropped from a great height (which work was to be created/performed in public in Vancouver), or a gold-plated turd, is proof that one has money to burn, or that one is nuts. But having so much money one cannot be nuts, so one must be a genuine plutocrap.

    • pinhut

      "the reason modern art is a public charity, is due to its unpopularity."

      So why does the state do it?

      If you read the French critic Paul Virilio, he links the history of modern art to the iconography of the Nazi death camps, which he sees as marking the end of the human subject. Seen in this context, modern art is often a means of rubbing the public's nose in unpleasant truths about their own powerlessness in modern societies. For example, the piece that used children's handprints to make the image of Myra Hindley, it was brilliant in what it affirmed, that, protected by institutions of the state, the police not deeming the artwork obscene, the gallery not objecting to its content, the artist having 'freely' expressed himself, etc, the physical security provided to stop the public attacking the work, etc, what you see is that the 'decency' that is offended is completely powerless when it is what the state deems to be acceptable. People are no more able to leverage their sense of moral disgust into action against this artwork than the anti-war protests were able to change the policy regarding the Iraq war (or the recent march against cuts).

      So, sure, much modern art is rightly received by the public as unpopular (because, foundationally, it *is* against the public), while the state continues to support it, perhaps because it is an entertaining form of asserting its power.

      • pinhut

        In the same way, the fact of not bringing PC Harwood to account for the death of Ian Tomlinson is an analogue of 'shocking modern art'.

        And, look at this story The Guardian just put up,

        and see the comment from the gallery director, which is a priceless inversion / appropriation :

        "The gallery's director, Eric Mézil, says he will keep the exhibition open to the public with the destroyed work on show "so people can see what barbarians can do"."

        • canspeccy

          It is remarkable to what extremes social values may be pushed: from puritanism to libertinism, from Victorian crinolines over table legs, to crotch shots by the billion available to any horny kid with a computer. And in religion, from universal deference to the name of Christ to state protected blasphemy and state enforced intolerance of the expression of Christian faith:

  • Thanet Media

    As a local resident the initial response to the gallery was that we didn't need it here, especially considering the cost and the delays, but now it's here there is optimism that this could be the thing to reinvigorate Margate and get further investments into the place.

  • BGD

    Very sparse exhibit wise and much of that not likely to encourage those from far afield to make a journey. The Old Town is pleasant enough though and the excellent Victorian architecture in the area is going ridiculously cheap, encouraging exiles from the area back and newer entrants to venture in. But outside of the bubble comprising the TC and Old Town the rest of Margate is still a disconcerting place, 'edgy' in the current parlance. Hilariously 'Nasty Nick' from one of the Big Brother series has bought a large building almost opposite to open a gentleman's club! One of course hopes that like Shoreditch the place turns around but whether it will actually attract employers of any significance benefiting the wider population rather than just creating a trendy oasis is arguable.

  • mary

    Fingers in pies. This is John Kampfner.
    Turner Contemporary

    John is Chair of the board of Turner Contemporary. Construction has been completed on the £17.4m gallery in Margate. On 8 December 2010 the gallery was handed over to the board. It will open to the public on 16 April 2010 – the largest and most exciting visual arts project in the South East of England and one of the most important culture-driven regeneration projects in the country.!/TCMargate

    PS Never thought of you as a land dwelling member of the Testudines (the crown group of the superorder Chelonia} Craig!

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