Saturday, 31 March 2012

Cultural regeneration in Sussex & Kent

I seem to have crossed the boundary from not blogging enough to not blogging at all, but a journey around the south of England provided so much food for thought that I've decided to give it another go. The principal purpose of our trip was to attend the premiere of my brother Pete's fabulous new film, The Pirates in an Adventure with Scientists, now showing (in 2D and 3D) at a cinema near you - . But we prefaced this glittering occasion with a visit to Oxford, followed by a look at the new cultural attractions of Sussex and Kent: The Towner in Eastbourne, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, the brand-new Jerwood Gallery in Hastings and Margate’s Turner Contemporary.

Pallant House Gallery

To complete the set, inevitably dubbed the “string of pearls”, I’d already seen the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. It is a very beautiful showcase for 20th century British art in new galleries added to the original historic house by Colin St John Wilson and M J Long. The new Pallant House cost £8.6m and opened in 2006. Both the permanent collection and the exhibitions programme are exemplary and the building is a delightful addition, skilfully inserted into the fabric of the old city: .

Towner, Eastbourne

The Towner Museum of Contemporary Art, an £8.5 project designed by Rick Mather, replaced a much-loved but outdated gallery and opened in 2009: . It’s hard to appreciate the building just now because the Congress Theatre, to which it is attached, is currently under wraps. I have to admit it didn’t do much for me, but I was more concerned about content and management than the architecture. Only a miserly selection of the Towner’s wonderful permanent collection is on display, with much larger areas of gallery space devoted to community projects and temporary exhibitions. I felt short-changed, even though admission is free, and I was depressed by the state of the building: the cafe was unkempt, circulation in the shop is impossible even though there is plenty of spare space, and every available surface seemed to be covered with notices printed on A4 paper. An investment of that scale and ambition deserves better.

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill

Heading east, and another £8m has been spent on the restoration of Bexhill’s wonderful De La Warr Pavilion, Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff’s modernist masterpiece which opened in 1935. This investment is being complemented by an ambitious programme of improvements to the sea front, the Next Wave. The individual elements of the Next Wave, designed by HTA, are very nice, but so much has been thrown at a narrow strip of land – seating, shelters, showers, play equipment, lighting – that the effect is a bit chaotic, but there’s no doubt that it’s a change for the better: . The Pavilion, meanwhile, looks sensational – as it should, because it’s a building of international importance. The current exhibition, sculpture by Cerith Wyn Evans, was designed specifically for the building and is exceptionally good: .

Jerwood Gallery from the beach

There’s been a bit of a to-do about the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings mostly, as far as I can tell, because the new building at the Stade (HAT Architects: budget £4m) and the adjoining public space have replaced a coach park: a depressing but familiar gripe. A fellow guest at the B&B – the excellent Black Rock House - told me that her taxi driver claimed that the gallery had been paid for by the Jedward brothers, which is an excellent idea. I suspect that, when the fuss dies down, everyone will be very pleased with it. The gallery was wholly funded by the Jerwood Foundation to provide a showcase for its collection, and it sits very comfortably between the town’s famous net shops and at the back of the wonderfully chaotic section of beach which is home to the fishing fleet. The first selection from the collection is a treat: not exactly challenging or ground-breaking, but thoroughly enjoyable and likely to please a lot of people: .

Turner Contemporary, Margate

So finally to Margate to see David Chipperfield’s Turner Contemporary, at £17.5m easily the most expensive of these projects when it opened in 2011. Visitor numbers so far have far exceeded expectations, and they should get another boost when the Tracey Emin show opens in May 2012. I thought the building – plain, bordering on austere - was a huge success, with beautiful, calm gallery spaces.

But visiting Margate brings you face to face with the rationale for projects of this kind, because – despite faint stirrings in the Old Town: galleries, studios, smart shops et al – the evidence of poverty and deprivation is daunting. Will the gallery help? Probably, yes. But the scale of the problems facing Margate is startling. There are huge tracts of sub-standard property, “entrenched and interlinked cycles of deprivation, ill health and incapacity, and worklessness”, and large numbers of children in care and other vulnerable groups. An excellent report by Shared Intelligence (2008-09) tells the story. The problems are profound and systemic; as in many seaside towns, they date back to the 1970s and 80s when surplus holiday accommodation was converted into low-cost housing for the benefit claimants. Two council wards, Margate Central and Cliftonville, are among the 1% most deprived in England; and more than a third of the shops in the town centre are empty:

There are boarded-up kebab shops, a 99p shop, fish and chips and independent fast-food outlets of every description, derelict pubs and grotty amusement arcades where the feckless and witless are encouraged to gamble their dole money. It is a hellhole. It's so bad that Marks & Spencer packed up and left some time ago. The Primark shop front is tatty and letters are missing from the signage. (Independent, October 2011).

Margate is a reminder of both the limits to what cultural regeneration can be expected to achieve and how long it will take. Turner Contemporary will bring more visitors to town, and there is already evidence that they are spilling out into the still fragile, but improving, Old Town. Decent restaurants and cool hotels and B&Bs, like the wonderful Reading Rooms - - will, in all probability, follow. A new fast rail link to London may encourage more entrepreneurs and creatives to take the plunge, as they have in Folkestone. It is reasonable to anticipate at least modest economic growth and diversification.

But it is not at all clear that the benefits of growth will reach the town’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, and there is a real fear that changes to the housing benefits system will drive another wave of migration from London and other more expensive markets to the benefit ghettoes of Thanet, Folkestone and Hastings. With the exception of the Old Town, the centre of Margate already belongs almost exclusively to the troubled and deprived: their marginalisation has been compounded by the development of a huge new shopping and leisure complex at Westwood Cross, between Margate and Ramsgate.

I am an enthusiast for, and consumer of, cultural regeneration. It has made a positive difference in Folkestone, where the emphasis has been more on enterprise than on infrastructure, and it should help to strengthen the modest but measurable turn-around in the fortunes of Hastings and Margate. Conditions are very different in Bexhill and Eastbourne – two thoroughly respectable (and rather dull) resorts – and in the prosperous cathedral city of Chichester. But the smart new or refurbished galleries fit very well with their image and quality of life and should help to attract more day and overnight visitors. All this is fine, but it’s not a cure-all. In Margate, especially, but in almost every traditional seaside town, we encounter deep poverty, stretching back over 2 or 3 generations. Breaking that cycle of misery and indignity will require much more than a string of pearls, boutique hotels and fine dining.

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