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Behind the scenes of Turner Contemporary’s opening

  • Date: 12 August 2011
  • Artform: Visual arts
  • Area: South East
Droit House and Turner Contemporary buildings on the sea front Droit House and Turner Contemporary, Ady Kerry

Margate visual arts gallery and Arts Council England regularly funded organisation, Turner Contemporary, welcomed over 14,000 visitors during its opening weekend in April - and over 45,000 in the first 10 days.

The organisation's business plan anticipated 156,000 visitors in its first year, a total that was exceeded inside the first three months. Increasing numbers of visitors to Margate will have a major impact on the town and on wider East Kent, injecting an estimated £4million into the local economy.

A boost in visitors will raise Margate's profile, attract new businesses and support local investment in the historic town centre and seafront.

Karen Eslea, Head of Learning and the first member of staff to join Turner Contemporary back in 2001, looks back on the opening: 'We were all overwhelmed. We didn't expect that many people. Seeing queues out the window at 5pm was like a dream. All those years we hoped that local people would come - and they did.'

The team at Turner Contemporary have been working hard for almost a decade to ensure the gallery's opening was a success.

We go behind the scenes to find out more about their incredible journey and how they reached where they are today.

Engagement - beginning with the local community

Since 2002, over 690,000 people have been involved in activities, or seen exhibitions that Turner Contemporary have organised.

Karen Eslea says: 'When I started, there was nothing here at all. My job was to make sure that the gallery felt - and feels now - that it is part of the community.

'We set up projects to get all kinds of people involved, from preschool age to older people, and we've built up some incredibly strong partnerships. It feels like we're part of the community. And people who've taken part in  our programmes are now ambassadors for us.'

This includes their annual Cultural Ambassadors course and the 2009 intergenerational project Time of Our Lives, which won a National Transformation Fund Adult Learner's Award.

The organisation also recently ran a 15-week course for the unemployed called Art Works. Participants received accredited training to work in a public facing role, as well as having a chance to meet and work with artists and art organisations.

Karen says: 'People who did the training are now working in the gallery.'

In 2006, Turner Contemporary used an empty high street shop as an exhibition space for 18 months.

Sarah Martin, Head of Exhibitions, explains: 'The space was fantastic - many people who were used to going into the shop just walked in. We programmed exhibitions that had participatory elements, aimed at families in particular. It was a good testing ground for the new gallery.'

The foundations - building the gallery

In 2006, Kent County Council awarded the contract to design and build the gallery to award-winning David Chipperfield Architects. They carried out a formal public consultation at Wintergardens and other venues, including libraries, hospitals and the Kent County Show, involving over 7,000 residents, community groups and businesses.  

The new gallery sits on Margate's seafront and houses 700 square metres of exhibition space, a dedicated education room, a seminar and multi-function room, café, retail and administration space.

Karen says: 'Learning is at heart of the organisation, and the Clore Learning Studio reflects that: it's at heart of gallery. It's the same design spec of the gallery, and it's beautiful. People love working in it.'

The launch week - You are Here

To celebrate their opening, Turner Contemporary launched a 10-day programme of free events at the gallery and Margate's Old Town called You are Here.

Sepake Angiama, Curator of Public Programmes at Turner, worked with the Learning Team to put together the programme.

Sepake says: 'We really wanted people to feel a sense of ownership, to see the town as Turner's home. We wanted to create a buzz in the town and the gallery.

'The final day was a community-led celebration. Whitstable Samba Band led workshops and performances. There was one amazing moment where the band led people along the harbour. It was a lot of fun and a great finale.

'We also wanted to create opportunities for local artists and creative practitioners to deliver the projects and to be active participants. Willi Dorner's Bodies in Urban Space used local dancers.

'The weekend opened with Orlando Gough's community choir The Big Sing, developed in partnership with Thanet District Council, which had 79 local people in the choir and 44 in the orchestra. They'd been rehearsing since January. They performed in the opening weekend in the foyer. We had a huge response - lots of people knew someone who was singing.

'Many partners helped make the launch have a celebratory feel across the town. We worked with Kent Arts Development Unit, Creative Margate, Margate Renewal Partnership, Margate Creatives, Thanet District Council, Marine Studios, The Science Museum and many artists. We also hosted the Kent Cultural Baton. We couldn't have done it without their support.'

The first exhibition - Revealed: Turner Contemporary Opens

Sarah Martin is Head of Exhibitions at Turner Contemporary. She and her team worked closely with Director Victoria Pomery on the opening exhibition, Revealed: Turner Contemporary Opens.

Sarah says:  We have been working on this exhibition for over a year. It's all gone really smoothly. All the contemporary artists we selected to take part in the exhibition were enthusiastic, engaged and gave lots of energy to the show.'

Revealed: Turner Contemporary Opens centres around JMW Turner's 1815 painting of a volcanic eruption, called The Eruption of the Souffrier Mountains, in the Island of St Vincent, at Midnight, on the 30th of April, 1812, from a Sketch Taken at the Time by Hugh P. Keane, Esqre.

Sarah explains the choice: 'The painting was unusual for Turner in that he painted a scene that he didn't witness himself and that he had to imagine. Imagination and curiosity, as pertinent to artists today as in Turner's time, became the overarching themes of the show.'

The exhibition also presents work by six contemporary artists, including four new commissions.

Sarah says: 'It was important for us to show contemporary art alongside the work of JMW Turner, an approach that is at the heart of our programme. We invited artists who were already exploring the themes that Turner's painting suggested, such as nature, landscape, light, and science.'

They commissioned four new works from French artist Daniel Buren, California artist Russell Crotty, New York-based Ellen Harvey and British artist Conrad Shawcross.

'We didn't ask artists to respond to his painting in a literal way,' Sarah explains.  

They also selected works from New York-based sculptor Teresita Fernández and Scottish artist Douglas Gordon.

Sarah says: 'People have responded positively to all the works in the show. We have found that many people want to spend a lot of time in the gallery with the works, which is great.'

What's next?

The Turner team are currently working on their next exhibition Nothing in the World but Youth, which opens in September. The exhibition celebrates youth, from the 19th century to the present, and will include over 200 works by artists including Andy Warhol, Blake, Paula Rego and Mark Leckey.

Turner Contemporary recently launched its learning programme at an event that brought together 400 teachers, youth workers and young people. One of the highlights of the programme includes training 40 Year Nine students to be gallery guides for the Nothing in the World but Youth exhibition.

The exhibition will also be joined by Auguste Rodin's life-size marble sculpture The Kiss (1901-04), which is on loan from the Tate Collection until 2012.

Sepake Angiama says: 'There was a feeling that other things should be planned in the future to bring this level of excitement to Margate again. Hopefully with 2012, there will be more opportunities to celebrate. We definitely look forward to more of the same!'

Exhibition Revealed: Turner Contemporary Opens runs until 4 September 2011. Nothing in the World but Youth runs from 17 September to 8 January 2012. Rodin's The Kiss is on display from 4 October to 2 September 2012

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