Seaside postcard: Turner Contemporary The last time I was in Margate, three years ago, a nice lady in the Tourist Information Centre pointed at the neighbouringcar park and told me it would one day be an art gallery. She was right. Margate's latest landmark, the Turner Contemporary, opened its doors on Saturday bringing a much needed splash of culture to the Thanet foreshore. It's built on the site of the lodging house where artist JMW Turner used to stay, and whose landlady was to become his long-term mistress. It sits beneath the same 'loveliest skies in Europe' which Turner so loved to paint. It's been designed by top architect David Chipperfield, brought in after the previous seafront design proved too challenging. It's the seaside town's best hope for regeneration, bringing an influx of well-to-do visitors, fingers crossed. Just don't bring your car, because there's no longer anywhere to park it.
I know not to visit a new art gallery on Day 1. The building's rammed, the artwork's obscured and the weather's rarely up to scratch. Day 2, on the other hand, was a belter. I arrived early enough for the galleries to be relatively clear, well before long queues set in later in the day. And the weather was just lovely, bright blue skies all day long, which made my visit to Margate sheer joy. The cloudlessness might have disappointed Turner, but he'd surely have been hugely honoured by the thousands who turned out in his name.
The first thing to be seen as you walk up the steps to the Turner Contemporary is its café. Important things, cafés, because some Londoners can't be tempted out of the capital without the promise of a frothy coffee and organic lightbites. Next up, through the glass doors, comes the shop. That's important too, because the gallery charges no admission fee so needs every penny it can raise from flogging greetings cards and arty knicknacks. Rest assured, the shop's tastefully stocked.
Despite being fairly enormous, there are only two works of art in the entrance hall. One's a neon page-turner on the wall above the information desk, while the other fills most of the northern window, floor to ceiling. Daniel Buren has fixed parallel strips of grey and yellow stickytape to the glass, leaving a giant empty porthole in the centre, then added large mirrors to either side so that the effect appears to go on for ever. So simple, and yet this dramatic scene commanded the attention of every single visitor (and their cameras too). Most will have assumed this to be part of the permanent design of the building but no, come September the tape will be ripped off and the full North Sea skyline made visible.
Down the corridor near the toilets hangs a Victorian painting showing Margate as viewed from the end of the (now-destroyed) pier. The canvas was purchased by a town councillor in 1925, ready to be hung in the town's first art gallery, but only in 2011 has that particular dream been realised. The main galleries are upstairs (themselves a work of art). There are a couple of exhibits on the landing, but only one (on one wall) in the huge studio to the right. For this first show - Revealed - alas the art works are few and far between. The curators would argue that this gives each piece a chance to shine, whereas critic Brian Sewell was disappointed by the "meagre handful of examples of the familiar Serota-Saatchi orthodoxy". He was downright disappointed by the entire experience, to be honest, describing the building as "a cluster ofsuper-industrial sheds" more suitable for the outskirts of Slough. Bit tough, Brian, but if you prefer your art to be either classical or bountiful, it's probably best to heed his words. At least noteveryone agrees.
Only one of Turner's works is on display - it was never the intention that the Contemporary would act as a retrospective. This is his depiction of an erupting Caribbean volcano, one he never actually saw, only heard about, but its vibrancy shines through all the same. Nextdoor is Conrad Shawcross's installation Projections of a Perfect Third, which was the only thing in the gallery Brian liked. A giant three-armed whirly-thing hangs from the ceiling, each arm controlling two further limbs, while a light on the very tip creates mesmerising repeated patterns in the artifical gloom. Local visitors were especially taken by Ellen Harvey's Arcadia, an entire wooden room whose interior walls are covered by engraved mirrors showing a panoramic view of Margate Bay. Less so perhaps by the dangling globes in the West Gallery, shaded then completed with flowing text about the natural landscape. "I could have done that" was my first thought, except obviously I couldn't, and didn't, and wouldn't.
One of my favourite works was a tableau of modern Britain housed in an alcove at the top of the stairs. It comprised two families with pushchairs, a pair of elderly couples, plus an attendant - immobile and perfectly spaced, as if awaiting some unseen call to arms. And then the doors closed and they all sank slowly back to the ground floor (the gallery, it must be said, has one hell of a spacious lift).
Worth a visit? Most definitely, especially over the forthcoming week with a continuing series of artistic events under the "YOU ARE HERE" banner. Be warned that the TC is closed on Mondays, except for Bank Holiday Mondays, which will be damned useful over the next fortnight. But be warned too that the Turner itself is never going to fill even half your day. Its true aim is to lure you into the town, where you'll then discover copiousother means to spend your time and money. This weekend, that plan has worked in spades. "I haven't seen it this busy in years," exclaimed an old lady in a wheelchair being pushed along the Harbour Arm by her husband, and I fear she was right. Sunday's glorious weather brought summer-like crowds to the centre of town, and I reckon the event's official photographer must have been able to snap sufficient scenes of mass contentment to fill next year's tourist brochure several times over. Further inland, conveniently out of sight, the town's many social issues lurked unseen and unresolved. But Margate's entire community hopes that Turner heralds something new, something positive, which might help revive the contemporary landscape.
See also... » Harbour Arm: Decently tarted up over the last few years with cafés, artists studios and ice cream vans, this is a great spot to sit and gawp out across Margate Bay. [photo][photo] » The Old Town: A charming maze of alleyways, boutiques and cupcake dispensaries (and therefore the complete antithesis of Margate's main High Street). [website] » Margate Museum: Closed in 2009 when council funding elapsed, but opened specially this weekend to great interest, and thus with high hopes for the future. [museum website][an ace 1950s poster] » Tudor House: A row of three 500-year-old cottages, intermittently open to the public. [sometimes is] » Shell Grotto: Margate's underground mystery, which most visitors seem to think too far from the seafront to bother seeing (shame). [I've been] » Dreamland: The famous amusement park, mostly razed, one forlorn burnt rollercoaster semi-remaining (but hurrah, there are plans to rebuild). [photo from 2008] » Margate beach: A perfect crescent of sand, which makes you wonder why Londoners ever go to Southend or Brighton. [photo]