New exhibition spaces at the Turner Contemporary in Margate can take large installations such as Daniel Buren's Borrowing and Multiplying the Landscape

Last resort?

John Holt, Issue 11/07, p28-33, 01.07.2011
From traditional end-of-the-pier shows to modern art festivals, can culture turn the tide of decline and get people flocking back our seaside towns? By John Holt
With its grand hotels, sparkling spa complex and lofty perch atop a limestone cliff, Scarborough has the well-to-do air of a classy coastal community and desirable holiday hotspot.

But there are other facets to the town the tourist websites don’t mention: areas of shocking deprivation – including two of the most rundown wards in Europe – poor education and housing and, anecdotally at least, the cheapest heroin in the country.

“A lot of people come here when they are released from prison, either to check out its drugs reputation or simply because they are given a train ticket and head for the seaside because they have happy memories of it,” says Shirley Collier, chief executive of Scarborough Museums Trust.

“There’s a lot happening ‘under the radar’. We certainly don’t really have the ABC1 museum-going population that people might expect.”

Like many other seaside towns, Scarborough has struggled to recover from the loss of kiss-me-quick thrill seekers to cheap foreign travel since the late 1970s.

There’s a feeling of isolation about the place. This could be because of poor transport links – the main road to York is still single carriageway for half its 40 miles – or the plain fact that, as Collier describes it, seaside towns often feel they’re both geographically and demographically “at the end of the line”.

In recent years, however, there have been efforts at encouraging a cultural shift. The new local campus of Hull University began to attract a young generation of web and graphic designers looking to start their own businesses with promises of professional nurturing and purpose-built studio spaces.

This was followed by a culturally-inspired, European Union-funded Urban Renaissance project, which – as well as providing much-needed new sea defences and harbour infrastructure – also supported the £4.4m restoration of the town’s Rotunda Museum.

Community pride

“Culture can certainly play a part in turning a place around, in that it’s all about looking outwards, using your imagination and learning new things. Seaside towns are never going to be about manufacturing – they need culture to give them a sense of place, which is what regeneration is all about,” says Collier, who believes the secret lies in personalising your offer.

“People round here can be resistant to stuff coming in from outside. A lot of urban centres wouldn’t feel patronised about art arriving from London, for example. But the people here prefer to get behind the ‘Scarboroughness’ of something.”

To that end, Scarborough has initiated its own biennial cultural extravaganza – Coastival – which invites folk from all over Yorkshire to the town every other winter to enjoy arts of all kinds. The event has a distinct focus on community participation and pride in the town.

“It’s made Scarborough people see themselves differently,” says Collier. “Identifying potential is the key to regeneration wherever you are.”

Like Scarborough, Folkestone on England’s south coast fell spectacularly from grace when the tourists stopped coming. The Kent town’s economic woes were further exacerbated by the decimation of the channel ferry and local fishing industries.

Once a glamorous destination dominated by Victorian cliff-top hotels, Folkestone became blighted by soaring unemployment, some of the worst schools in the country, record levels of teenage pregnancies and night-time no-go areas around the rundown harbour.

Seven years ago, however, a transformation began when philanthropist Roger de Haan started ploughing back into the town some of the millions of pounds he received when he sold the Folkestone-based Saga Group, which provides services to the over-50s.

He charged his new Creative Foundation with the task of encouraging a Folkestone facelift, making it a place fit for a brand new community of artists who are tempted to relocate by cheap accommodation and studio space that is a 50-minute train ride from London.

Seaside philanthropy

“Culture is the locomotive of the whole regeneration process,” says the foundation’s Andrea Schlieker, co-curator of British Art Show 6 and former Turner Prize juror, who now oversees the Folkestone Triennial art show.

“The town, for example, used to have an unbelievably bad secondary school, but I work closely with the new Folkestone Academy, an out-of-this-world place designed by Norman Foster,” Schlieker says. “I have never actually seen a facility like it.

“Now there’s also a university centre specialising in arts, culture and business for young talented people who, in previous times, simply had to move away to get on,” Schlieker adds.

Alongside a new performing arts centre called the Quarterhouse, the foundation is transforming properties in the old harbour area for use by the cultural industries.

But local reaction has been mixed, says Schlieker. “Some people are very sceptical and say it’s too late to lift Folkestone out of its misery, but others are really excited. The triennial obviously contributes a high footfall in the town, with more people going to hotels, cafes and bars and more businesses evolving as a result.

“There is still no public gallery or museum so I thought the idea of placing art in the street or on the beach would work,” Schlieker says, “A lot of people are still scared by contemporary art, but put it in front of their noses, so to speak, and they become directly involved.”

The first Folkestone Triennial left eight permanent works around the town from the likes of Tracey Emin and Mark Wallinger. It is hoped that this year’s second event will provide similar long-lasting landmarks and talking points; top of the list is Cornelia Parker’s bronze Folkestone Mermaid – modelled by a local aerobics instructor and mother-of-two – which will look out to sea from Sunny Sands.

Properly constructed and cared-for in the community, culture can make a real impact in improving a town down on its luck, says Schlieker.

“But there have been examples of regeneration where art has simply been used as a decoy,” she says. “It’s very deceitful when artists are settled into a quarter or a trendy street before being turfed out to make way for expensive apartments once the area has been cleaned up. Here, there’s a true commitment to culture and the difference it can make.”

In East Sussex, seaside philanthropy was in full effect back in the 1920s when Alderman Towner donated some paintings to the good townsfolk of Eastbourne with the aim of complementing their fresh air and fun with some morally fibrous Victorian narrative.

Over the years, the admirable collection grew to some 4,000 pieces including work by Picasso, Henry Moore and Eric Ravilious, who taught at the town’s old school of art. Two years ago, the Towner Art Gallery reopened in a brand new Rick Mather-designed building under the leadership of Matthew Rowe, who’s becoming something of a dab hand at the regeneration game.

As an assistant curator at the new Tate St Ives in Cornwall back in 1993, he took part in the transformation of the Cornish settlement from out-of-season ghost town into an all-year-round visitor must-see.

Cultural regeneration

Rowe has brought that experience to Eastbourne, which is now repositioning itself as a cutting-edge cultural destination, with the Towner and its burgeoning reputation helping to attract considerable outside investment. This is quite a change from the town’s traditional image as a world-weary conference centre with an ageing, conservative population.

“Galleries have a fantastic ability to re-energise the communities on their doorsteps,” says Rowe, who has overseen a programme of community projects aimed at local people at risk of social exclusion.

“It may be as simple as encouraging some back into formal education or enabling them to display their own artwork in their own residential areas,” Rowe says. “There is a real social function to this kind of regeneration in seaside towns where the population comes and goes.”

Scheduling a gallery programme that appeals to all these disparate groups, summer tourists and art lovers can be a bit of a challenge, Rowe admits.

But he says that like Tate St Ives, the Towner has an advantage in that its collection can form the basis for learning programmes and links with schools and community groups.

“To engage new audiences, we counterbalance traditional work with national and international contemporary artists in charging and free exhibitions. I think we’re continuing the work of Alderman Towner in terms of both making the town a welcoming and sustainable place and ensuring people feel comfortable when they come into contact with visual art.

“The south coast has long suffered from being in the shadow of London and the fact that it missed out to the north in the first round of lottery money,” Rowe says. “We’re now a significant region for the arts and the advantages that they bring.”

A sea change is certainly in the air along the shoreline; recent developments include the restored De La Warr Pavilion leading a revamp of the seafront at Bexhill, the Jerwood Foundation’s plans to create a new home for its collection in Hastings, and the galloping gentrification of Brighton with the refurbishment of the Dome, and a new library and media centre.

Over in Margate, the Turner Contemporary is now making waves in the local community and the wider arts world, but its voyage of discovery hasn’t always been plain sailing.

Victoria Pomery has been director since 2002 and has witnessed the ebbs and flows at first hand. “There have been downs, such as the first scheme not happening on schedule, but the ups have included learning from that experience, carrying out more audience development and taking the chance to think about what works in a difficult funding climate,” she says.

“The years of Margate’s decay and decline had taken a massive toll on the people – there are some huge social challenges and some very low aspirations,” Pomery says. “But there’s a positivity and energy about the place again. It seemed the whole town came out to celebrate our opening in an outpouring of civic pride.”

Culture in itself cannot transform the fortunes of a town, but it can be a significant catalyst for change, says Pomery, who also sits on the board of the Margate Renewal Partnership, a taskforce charged with rejuvenating the area through a mixture of modern creative thinking and traditional seaside attractions.

There are plans, for example, to open a new version of the famous Dreamland amusement park complete with the kind of old fashioned rides that thrilled tourists in the golden age of holidays at the coast.

“Seaside towns are special places,” says Pomery. “They can be nostalgic on one level, quite melancholic on another. But they are also full of potential and opportunity.”

John Holt is a freelance journalist.

See Turner Contemporary review, p46

This year’s Museums Association conference takes place in Brighton on 3-4 October.