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Turner Contemporary gives ‘brand Margate’ much-needed boost

Nearly half of visitors to faded seaside resort in south east of England come to see the gallery, research reveals

Turner Contemporary, which opened in 2011 in a David Chipperfield-designed gallery on Margate seafront, has led the town’s regeneration attracting nearly one million tourists as well as a growing number of artists and other creatives who have moved there, many from London. Now the gallery has the statistics to show funders and any  sceptics that the £17m-project would fail to deliver value for money.

Since it opened five years ago, 48% of visitors have come to Margate specifically to visit Turner Contemporary, researchers at Canterbury Christ Church University write in a report presented on Monday (31 October). In total around two million people have visited the gallery so far, drawn by an exhibition programme that has included work by Tracey Emin, the town’s most famous artist (after the gallery's namesake, J.M.W. Turner, who was a regular visitor in the 19th century) as well as Grayson Perry, Yinka Shonibare and Piet Mondrian among others. Current shows include videos by John Akomfrah and works by Turner himself, respectively Vertigo Sea and Adventures in Colour (both until 8 January 2017). Admission is free to the gallery on the north Kent coast, which is supported by Kent County Council and Arts Council England.

The researchers also point to the number of artist-led studios that have opened in the town over the past decade, there are now five. Dan Chilcott, an artist and the founder of Resort Studio, which is housed in a former furniture storage warehouse, says that it hopes to expand within the building such is the demand for affordable working spaces, often from artists who have been priced out of London. The exodus from the capital has led to Margate being dubbed "Shoreditch on Sea". Resort Studio provides space for 40 people, including photographers, architects and designers. He is looking forward to the free art school, Open School East (OSE), moving in to the building next February. OSE, which provides free teaching and studio space, has been based in Hackney, east London.

VIP visitors to Turner Contemporary (and Resort Studios) have included the Duchess of Cornwall, who went last year to meet local schoolchildren and artists as well as see an exhibition organised in association with the National Portrait Gallery in London. In April, Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, launched a new-look £20 note featuring J.M.W. Turner at the gallery.  

Margate’s Member of Parliament, Roger Gale, who spoke at the launch event for the report into the gallery’s social value, which was held in the Palace of Westminster yesterday, praised the contribution of Turner Contemporary’s longstanding director, Victoria Pomery. He recalled the institution’s early days more than a decade ago in a “derelict” shop on the High Street, a former branch of Marks and Spencer. “[Pomery] started by putting in things called ‘installations’ when no one heard of an installation”. The success of Turner Contemporary has proved the “naysayers” were wrong, he said.