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Art is a catalyst for regeneration

Clive Stevens

“So, the other day I went to Turner Contemporary, it has made me look at life in a different way, that there is more to life than spending time sitting at home on social media. You have one life and you have to make it count.” Visitor, aged 15

Art is a powerful force for regeneration. Since it opened 11 years ago, Turner Contemporary has attracted 3.3 million visitors to Margate and contributed over £70 million to the community. As I step down as Chair of Trustees of the gallery, and after more than 13 years as a Trustee, I’m proud to say that this project has revitalised Margate – and changed my life. 

Drawing in the crowds

My work with Turner Contemporary has crossed over nicely with the work we do at The Frameworks; the business principles of sound finances and internal cohesion are transferable. Ultimately, Turner Contemporary is a branding project for Margate – and a very successful one at that. The artistic community of Cliftonville, Margate, has earned a top ten spot in Time Out’s 2022 “51 coolest neighbourhoods in the world” list.

Margate is a seaside town. Visitor numbers have traditionally been seasonal, so a big goal for us was to get people to visit all year round. Our exhibitions run throughout the year, so we encourage local businesses to keep their doors open as well. The result is that people stay in town longer than they used to, visiting more of the town than just the beach, and spending more: people now spend £50 or even £200 if they stay overnight, and that money turns around four or five times. Now Margate is vibrant whatever the season.

For a regeneration project to be successful, there must be support from the local authority and engagement within the local community. Kent County Council built the gallery and has supported it from the start. The council’s original target was for the gallery to produce 156,000 visits a year; it managed that in the first four months. Pre-pandemic, it had 380,000 visitors a year; now it has about 240,000 and I hope to see these numbers return to their previous level soon.

Turner Contemporary was designed by David Chipperfield. He also designed The Hepworth in Wakefield, where art has had a similar regeneration effect. 

More than a gallery 

Crucial to the regenerative power of Turner Contemporary was making the gallery free to enter. Instead of a fixed collection it has a revolving programme of exhibitions, which encourages people to return. I believe art can change lives for the better and I’m proud to have played a part in making first-class art accessible to everyone.  

Thanet is one of two areas in Kent classified as being in extreme need of levelling up. An art gallery is not just an exhibition space. It’s an education tool that facilitates exploring ideas, learning new skills and developing confidence and aspiration. Turner Contemporary regularly hosts schools and a diverse range of community groups for courses, lectures and other projects. This helps engage the local community and continues the mission of ensuring that art is accessible.

At Turner Contemporary art comes in many forms, including music and dance. And it doesn’t always hang inside the gallery. Much of the art it commissions is in the public domain; Antony Gormley’s Another Time statue stands on the rocks outside.

God Save the Queen

The gallery has had so many fantastic exhibitions, it’s difficult to pick a favourite. The most visited was the 2015 Grayson Perry exhibition. I’m also incredibly proud of the Journeys with the Wasteland project, which was the first exhibition by a major gallery to be curated by a local community group. Tracey Emin’s shows have also been very popular. She was brought up in Margate and has been a tremendous supporter of the gallery. Indeed, she has since moved her studio to Margate along with several other artists, which is a testament to the regeneration of the town. Tracey is right when she says, “Where art goes, money follows”.

As Trustees we debated taste and decency in displaying art, but never censored artists or their exhibitions. We did remove one piece of art, but only temporarily. Our Nothing in the World But Youth exhibition contained a depiction of the Sex Pistols’ cover of “God Save the Queen”. When Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip came to visit the exhibition, it was only polite to remove that from the show. 

As my time as Chair comes to an end, it’s an understatement to say that these years have been wonderful. Where else could I have had lunch with the Queen, hosted the Turner Prize and seen my organisation on the £20 bank note? My first job was on the deckchairs on Margate Sands at a time when the old seaside town was fading away. Never could I have imagined the revitalisation that Turner Contemporary would bring to my hometown.

I’ve loved every minute and I can’t wait to see what the future brings.