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Making over Margate

  • Date: 21 December 2009
  • Area: South East
The Dreamland Cinema c.1935

The Dreamland Cinema c.1935. Credit: (RIBA Photographic Collection)

It's hard to miss Margate in the news these days, whether it's featuring as a location for The Apprentice or in a report about the latest installment in the story of its remarkable makeover.

Heritage amusement park Dreamland in Margate is receiving £3.7 million from coastal regeneration programme Sea Change, while Turner Contemporary, poised to be one of the south east's premier visual arts galleries, is inching closer to its 2011 completion with its recent topping out ceremony.

Margate is a great example of how art can play an effective role in regeneration. Once a popular seaside resort in the 1960s and '70s, Margate has been marred with multiple social and economic problems, dwindling resources, and a shrinking tourism industry.

As its most famous resident, artist Tracey Emin wistfully wrote: 'I want someone who is a giant to come along and treat Margate like their very own special model village. Make Dreamland a place possible for teenage lovers to have dreams, the Teddy Boys to whirl on the wurlitzer and Mods to dodge with their girlfriends on the dodgems... Margate has become Britain's tragic Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard, almost nothing can save her.'

Thankfully, Margate is no longer a lost cause. A combination of agencies, councils and organisations have played a crucial role in changing the town's fortunes. In 2006, Kent County Council and Thanet District Council joined forces with Government Office South East, English Heritage, South East England Development Agency, English Partnerships, and Arts Council England, South East to create the Margate Renewal Partnership, which has been overseeing regeneration plans.

At the heart of these plans is a cultural vision that sees art and creativity as the driving force for invigorating the local economy, inspiring residents, and attracting visitors - not as just an add-on feature.

'The change in Margate is palpable,' says Sophie Jeffrey, Regeneration Officer for Arts Council England, South East. 'When you get off the train now and see Turner Contemporary rising up on the horizon, it's as if you can actually feel regeneration in the air. And the Sea Change award to Dreamland - one of only two large awards in the country - is testament to that.'

'Having an arts partner changes the viewpoint of an organisation, from being site-driven to thinking about its communities,' says Sarah Wren, Arts and Regeneration Officer for East Kent, Kent County Council. 'The Margate neighbourhood plans are focusing on areas of deprivation and looking at the way council services are being delivered - and how arts and culture will be a key part of that. Turner Contemporary, for instance, has been successful in working with local audiences.'

The Margate Renewal Partnership's 10-year plan has earmarked development for 10 prime sites, including Turner and Dreamland. When complete, the new developments will also create 633 full-time equivalent jobs, 1565 residential units, 16,000 m2 of retail space, 13,000 m2 of leisure facilities, 37.5 acres of reclaimed brownfield land and 350 new hotel rooms.

Art and regeneration work has already benefited other areas in East Kent such as Folkestone, Dover, and Canterbury. 'All East Kent towns are fairly distinctive so the way in which arts and culture features in their regeneration plans is slightly different,' explains Sarah Wren. 'Dover is focused on the built environment and heritage, while somewhere like Folkestone has been good at setting up cultural agencies and small and medium-sized enterprises.'

Investment also increases an area's levels of talent and aspiration. Whitstable Biennale, Folkestone Triennial and Quarterhouse in Folkestone are all good examples. 'The Biennale has been successful at raising the game of the area in terms of visual arts, and it's put the town on the map in terms of its contemporary arts,' continues Sarah Wren.

As Alan Davey, Arts Council England Chief Executive, said at the Culture is Right conference, arts investment is a crucial aspect of regeneration - money attracts money. For every £1 the Arts Council invests, £2 is brought in. 'Private money likes to follow success,' he added.  

The Arts Council's investment in time, money and resources across the region means that we'll be seeing more regeneration successes like Margate's in the future.