From down-at-heel seaside resort to artists’ haven, the tide’s turning in Margate, says Jenny Rowe
Beside Margate’s beloved beach and built on the same plot as the former boarding house where its eponymous artist JMW Turner once stayed, Turner Contemporary symbolises the start of a new era for Margate. Instead of pulling the plug on the town’s distinct personality and starting a rash of gentrification, its opening in 2011 allowed Margate to remain grounded in its punchy past, while also looking to its future as one of the UK’s most close-knit creative destinations.
One visit is enough to prove this. Unlike some London galleries, hostile silence does not loom in the exhibition spaces: they’re filled with a curious, excited, melting pot of visitors, thanks to an eclectic mix of pop-ups, workshops and live poetry readings that spring up in corridors and entice you through open doors. Plus, its recent exhibition, Seaside: Photographed, demonstrated that Turner Contemporary retains a certain interiority, even as it attracts national (and growing international) acclaim. Drawing on the rich tradition of seaside holiday photography, the exhibition elevated Margate’s seaside town identity into a trophy, defying anyone who might construe its story as one of decline and marginalisation. Often associated with cheap holidays and bad weather, other traditional British seaside towns lumped in the same bag have taken up the torch: Hastings Contemporary, a reformed neighbour on the south-east coast, breathed new life into the ailing Jerwood Gallery this July.
Perhaps the uncertainty of recent times is the very reason why art has thrived here. Communities may have cracked in the ’60s (mods and rockers) and ’80s (mods and skinheads), when gang violence in Margate hit the headlines, but it also generated a climate of freedom and self-expression. And of course inexpensive housing and inspiring views have always summoned artists to take up posts by the sea.
After Turner, Margate’s artistic spirit was championed by former YBA, Tracey Emin. Born in Croydon in 1963, but brought up in Margate, she plans to bequeath her legacy to the town by transforming her working studio into a posthumous museum. Best known for her confessional artwork My Bed (1998), an installation portraying the state of her life after a break-up, Death Mask (2002), moulded from her own face, was exhibited at Turner Contemporary over the summer. Emin describes her home town as ‘hip’ and ‘better than Shoreditch, because it’s got the sea. It’s kind of rough, it’s gritty,’ she says, ‘it’s not a twee seaside town, it’s got a bit of guts to it.’
Art, after all, is rarely synonymous with fame and fortune. For most artists, it’s about more important values such as community and collaboration. Even before Turner Contemporary made its splash in the town, the tide had been turning in Margate.
Marine Studios is this year celebrating ten years of providing a co-working space from which many local artists, designers and organisations have been launched, including Dreamland, the Margate Mercury magazine, and feminist arts festival, POW! Thanet. In that decade it has seeded a grassroots arts movement that’s now in its prime. First and foremost a social and creative space for people to meet, show work, share ideas and research together, Marine Studios has launched kooky, collaborative projects such as Sophie Herxheimer’s Pie Days and Holidays. This collection of food stories, originating in Margate, culminated in the commission of 45m of printed murals on the seafront, that can be read as you walk from the train station to the town centre.
Elsewhere, Hantverk & Found, a seafood restaurant, also fused food and art by launching its own small gallery space to support local artists.
This spring saw Carl Freedman Gallery open with a show by Billy Childish, and the new Joseph Wales Studio booked by artists well into 2020. Established show spaces include King Street Studio and Gallery (which also puts on public art classes), Margate Art, whose mainstay collection is Julian Samiloff – a painter, photographer, sculptor, ceramicist and psychotherapist who fell in love with Margate as child – and Lombard Street Gallery, which curates the local craft scene. All are individual and dedicated to supporting local people.
With exhibition spaces growing in number, artists and the studio complexes in which they work are increasingly in demand. Luring talent to Margate, with affordable studio rents and inspiring speaker programmes, are Resort, Flat 38 and Bon Volks.
2017 saw the non-profit organisation Open School East move into town and and this September the launch of the Young Associates Programme, a free, accredited, ten-month art and design course for young people aged 16 to 18, complementing the adult version that has already run for six years.
Russell Tovey, an art collector and actor best known for The History Boys, Being Human and Him & Her, will guest curate an exhibition to mark the Turner Prize, which this year is presented at Turner Contemporary. Celebrating the prestigious prize ‘coming home’, Margate Festival has invited 500 artists and performers from Margate and Kent to produce 60 events on the theme of ‘NOW’.
So if the British seaside continues to be a historical metaphor for the state of the nation, there are brighter times to come. Margate’s earlier ebb is surging back to shore with the full force of an unstoppable creative wave.
Autumn Arts Dates
An exhibition of ceramics and paintings inspired by the shapes and patterns of land, sky, birds, songs and sea. 27 Sept to 8 Oct. piefactorymargate.co.uk
Margate Now Festival
A programme of events and exhibitions, some of which continue beyond October, until the winner of the Turner Prize 2019 is announced in December and its exhibition leaves Margate on 12 January 2020. 28 Sept to 13 Oct. margatefestival.org
Turner Prize 2019
Presented to a British visual artist, with an accompanying exhibition at Turner Contemporary. 28 Sept to 12 Jan. turnercontemporary.org
This exhibition will explore printmaking in Thanet and is part of Marine Studios’ tenth anniversary programme. 4–31 October. marinestudios.co.uk
Adventures In Comics #6
This annual exhibition celebrates art from graphic novels. 1–30 November. marinestudios.co.uk