Turner Contemporary

Photograph of Margate showing Turner Contemporary and Droit House.

Turner Contemporary is a contemporary art gallery in Margate—on the Kent coast—which opened in April 2011 after lengthy gestation. My first involvement with the project came in 2000 when Kent County Council commissioned Locum Consulting to prepare a visitor forecast and outline business plan to be included in the briefing pack for an international architectural competition for the proposed gallery.

The winning entry was an imaginative plan to build a gallery actually in the sea next to the harbour wall. This was a very attractive idea from the point of view of putting Margate back on the tourism map. What's more, the architects argued that because the original site - on land - would be available for residential and commercial development, the effective cost of the gallery would be lower too.

Photograph of works by Conrad Shawcross in the Turner Contemporary opening exhibition.

© Michael Child/thanetonline.blogspot.com

Unfortunately this was not the case in practice. Over the next few years, as the design team sought engineering solutions to the environmental challenges, the projected construction cost rose ... and rose ... and rose. I wasn't part of the design team and merely had to keep an eye on the operational implications of the successive design approaches. The initial concept was the delightful one of building the gallery of reinforced concrete and cladding it with oak as if it were one of the sailing ships that JMW Turner knew. I found myself asking the churlish but practical question: when the graffitists arrive with their cans of spray paint, how much would it cost to clean it off the weatherbeaten oak?

Eventually, with the projected construction cost four times the original figure and still rising, Kent County Council had had enough and halted the project. 

But the logic behind Turner Contemporary was as strong as it ever had been: to improve the quality of life and the quality of place in Margate and the surrounding areas of Thanet and East Kent; to attract visitors; to form a kernel for the regeneration of Margate's Old Town—all of which would bring money and jobs into the area.

Map of Margate showing Turner Contemporary and Old Town.

In fact the the project began to attract new artistic and creative businesses to the Old Town even before construction started. The first employee of the organisation that became Turner Contemporary—long before the difficulties of the original building design were understood—was responsible for education and community outreach. Not long afterwards a Director was appointed and Turner Contemporary was in business, organising events and exhibitions in various locations and temporary premises around Margate. This demonstrated Kent County Council's commitment to the town and the project, and over the years built strong community support.

So after abandoning the original design, Kent County Council metaphorically rolled up its sleeves and started again. Architects were invited to offer new, practical land-based designs and David Chipperfield was commissioned along with a new design team. My Locum Consulting colleagues revised the visitor forecasts and I updated the operational/financial model and the business plan. Together with an economic impact appraisal prepared by GENECON with my input, these gave the funding partners—Kent County Council, the South East England Development Agency, and Arts Council England—confidence to go ahead with the project.

The gallery opened in April 2011. In July it achieved its annual forecast of 156,000 visits, a testament to the work of the director Victoria Pomery and her team and a very encouraging sign that even after the initial excitement the forecast visitor numbers will be sustained.

Works by Russell Crotty in the opening exhibition at Turner Contemporary.

© Michael Child/thanetonline.blogspot.com