Monday, 30 May 2011


Image from
The opening of the Turner Contemporary last month has certainly got a lot of tongues wagging. Will it regenerate Thanet's economic prospects, or will it end up just being a 'white elephant'? Is there a genuine cause to be optimistic? Chair of Turner Contemporary and respected journalist, John Kampfner, certainly seems to think so. In this week's Thanet Gazette, he writes that: 

"Culture-led regeneration works – almost always. There have been one or two examples of failure over the past decade and a half, but these have occurred through poor management or governance. The principle is not at stake. The Guggenheim in Bilbao is held up as the great example, and it is."

Reading Kampfner's mention of Bilbao, I was reminded of a Little Atoms podcast about urban renaissance which was released four months prior to the opening of the Turner Contemporary. In it, critic and broadcaster Jonathan Meades (in the picture above) was a guest speaker and voiced his opinion on 'the Bilbao effect'. 'The Bilbao effect', for those not in the know, is a term used in reference to the Guggenheim Museum to describe how building a piece of architecture – an art gallery, usually – can magically transform an entire region into a cultural destination.

Since Thanet has been blighted with social deprivation problems and a declining tourist trade for many years, it's easy to see why decision-makers felt that building an art gallery in Margate could indeed bring 'the Bilbao effect' to East Kent. A lot of this is just wishful thinking really. Even the Guggenheim's architect Frank Gehry has dismissed 'the Bilbao effect' as "bullsh*t." All I will say is, I hope those who decided to spend £17m to build the Turner Contemporary are correct and don't end up with pie in their faces if it all goes pear-shaped.

Jonathan Meades recognises 'the Bilbao effect' as being a key driver in modern architecture these days, arguing that "everyone from Bremen to Bristol thought 'if Bilbao can do it, we can do it too.'" He went on to elaborate on his point: 

"There are thousands of projects across the world which attempt to replicate what Gehry did in Bilbao. In Manchester, you've got the Imperial War Museum of the North and the Lowry. All these museums and galleries incidentally beg the question of 'What do you put in them? Is there enough art to go round?'

There's also the implied idea with museums like the Guggenheim, like the Lowry, that art is somehow good for you. It seems to overlook the fact that every member of the SS could play Schubert concert standard and did so after a little light gassing.

Art is not good for you – this is not the way to improve cities. The money that is spent on a particular gang of forever peripatetic architects – this money could be spent on useful things like literacy or pharmaceutically perfect drugs for people.”

Well, there's not much chance of pharmaceutically perfect drugs once Pfizer packs its bags, is there?! All in all, Jonathan Meades raises a very interesting point about art as a tool for cultural regeneration and the possibility that the money might perhaps have been better spent elsewhere. This is something which I'm sure many local people may sympathise with, but who am I to judge? I too am guilty of occasionally wondering why it's so tempting for people to believe that art can cure so many of society's ills, particularly Thanet's. Will Auguste Rodin's The Kiss solve our problems of chronic unemployment? Does Russell Crotty's star chart promise to stem the problem of rogue landlords or address the need for affordable housing? 

No, of course not. The gallery was only ever intended to be a catalyst for change, something which has the potential to usher in a new wave of investors and business interest which can boost the local economy, even I can understand that. Whether that change occurs or not is yet to be seen, but the signs so far are definitely promising, especially if you also consider the booming popularity of Margate Old Town's shops. But what do you think? Is Jonathan Meades right? Is art bad for us? Can an art gallery bring a reversal in our area's fortunes? Would the money have been better spent elsewhere? Is seeing a fancy painting in a gallery enough to set us free? Art macht frei? Only time will tell. But for those of us whose hopes and aspirations are tied to the local area, we can only hope so.


  1. Art is just one element. It brings people down who are then likely to be the people who will spend, stay over night, eat local produce and support small businesses. But the town has to have restaurants that are open in the evenings, hotels and guest rooms of a certain standard for them to stay in and shops selling things they are moved to buy. At the moment, there are still hardly any businesses that stay open to cater for an over night staying visitor from Sunday to Thursdays. Most are forced to leave and go elsewhere once the evening comes.

  2. Is there any subject you don't have an opinion on?
    Talk about rent-a-gob.

  3. At least I have an opinion, unlike many other young people my age. I'd rather be rent-a-gob than rent-a-brain.

  4. Anon 14:39

    Just. Plain. Stupid. Comment.


    Great blog, thoroughly engaging and good to see young 'uns like yourself tackling a wide range of local issues.

    I've supported Turner Contemporary all along but have reservations about it's impact on Margate. I doubt whether it will win over many of it's detractors: I feeel they are anti-contemporary art anyway and will never be swayed.

    As for regeneration on the scale of Bilboa: I reckon that is a big ask. It will, no doubt, be a bit more modest but hopefully create a vibrant place for visitors and investors alike.

    I live in hope that regeneration will materialise in the shape of jobs and tourism and also help the growth of Margate's arts community. Dreamland and other attractions should come about on the back of this and keep the majority happy, I only wish they'd see the worth of art and that it appeals to a sizeable minority of local people, like myself. Let us, the "arty-farty" types, have something we find interesting to engage with and the rest can have their escapist fun on fairground rides and the like.


  5. Too right, Luke, great blog, keep posting on any subject you like, your ideas make good sense and ignore your critics who obviously cannot think of anything intelligent to say.

    As far as Margate and art is concerned Margate's old image of a "kiss me quick" seaside resort will have to modify, but Dreamland is retaining the old style, I don't know if the two will sit happily together.

    You also highlighted another problem in the dilution of art and art lovers, you mention Bilbao, Bremen, Bristol and Manchester, I also know of new galleries in St Ives and Colchester is building one, not the mention Tate Modern and all the London Galleries. How much art can we take? Art needs to be innovative and if it can be found in nearly every major town will people actually travel to view it? Only time will tell.