Turner Contemporary sits above Margate sands, a series of white boxes that, from a distance, looks like a municipal sports centre, but as you get closer and enter its immediate surroundings, pass the concrete benches and desert-chic flowerbeds and descend the gleaming white stairways, looks more like a piece of LA dropped into the down-at-heel Regency seaside town. But you can tell it’s still Margate because the gallery café has shiny ashtrays on the terrace tables and serves fry-ups.
The opening weekend saw 15,000 people pass through the gallery doors, in an event presided over by Tracey Emin, the gallery’s patron and impresario. It cost £17.5 million to build, and many locals have understandably felt the money could have been better spent: unemployment in Margate is three times the regional average and there are whole streets that seem to be boarded up. The night before the grand opening, according to the local paper, a builder and friends put up ‘Ladies’ and ‘Gents’ signs on the side of the building (it looks ‘like a toilet block’, they said).
The suspicion has been that the gallery will be patronised almost exclusively by Londoners – the town needs their money, but are they interested in the town? – and on its first Thursday it was busy with visitors down for the day, with their children dressed in Boden and clutching buckets and spades. But it was busy with locals too. Beyond Daniel Buren’s picture window installation in the entrance hall – a giant circle framing the sea – Margate’s elderly residents were queuing for the enormous lift to transport them to the upper floor.
One room is hung with Russell Crotty’s paper globes painted with cliff and beach scenes; white-gloved assistants turn the pages of giant books and explain the pictures. In London galleries, the staff tend to eye you with suspicion, as if they think your child is about to destroy a Matisse, but here they smile and tell you things – like at a National Trust house, but without the manic gleam the volunteers there have.
Next door, Ellen Harvey’s installation Arcadia is a room within a room, like a seaside resort’s room of curiosities; inside, beyond a velvet curtain, a series of backlit engravings on glass show scenes of modern Margate – a sunset, a line of houses, a Primark sign. A family point out the places they recognise. The mother asks: ‘Can you tell us the technique that was used?’ And then there is Conrad Shawcross’s Projections of the Perfect Third: in a large white room, a three-armed structure slowly rotates, projecting patterns on the wall, the lights on the ends of the arms reminding me as they open and close of a stately fairground ride. The Dreamland fairground is being restored just along the coast. Things may be looking up.