The Art Resort: Margate unveils its Turner Prize

A glamorous new gallery opens in Tracey Emin's home town today. It could be just what the place needs, reports Jay Merrick
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The Independent Culture

Can a £17m visual arts centre designed by one of the world's finest architects bring new life to Margate, the Kent town stigmatised by its reputation for being Benefits-on-Sea? The Turner Contemporary, designed by Sir David Chipperfield, opens today, and its interlocking segments, sheathed in white glass, form a suitably virginal cultural brandmark.

The play of light on the glass produces wonderfully subtle shifts of colour, and the naturally lit galleries have the welcoming feel of artists' studios. The community contact work led by the Turner's director, Victoria Pomery, is equally significant. "Six years ago, the idea of the Turner was an alien concept here," she admits. "It requires a real leap of the imagination, but there has been a sea-change in local people's expectations."

A minute's walk from Turner Contemporary, the Cliftonville section of the town is being socially re-engineered by Thanet District Council: benefit claimants out, middle-class families in. "I don't think Turner Contemporary can succeed if it is in a bubble," says Derek Harding, director of the Margate Renewal Project. "The rest of the area has to grow as a cultural destination."

The collision between demographic fact and cultural aspiration is stark. As the barely profitable high street funnels into the basin of 18th and 19th-century buildings in the Old Town, there's 10 per cent off at Bling Bling Bling, and netted tutus and Ironfist T-shirts go cheap at The Emporium on Mondays.

Margate was where J M W Turner produced more than 100 paintings, even as Cliftonville became the most fashionable seaside resort in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Margate's descent into "crap town" status followed the onset of European package holidays in the late 1960s.

It became Tracey Emin's teenage haunt, and where Ian Dury's Billericay Dickie must have planned his rendezvous with Janet from Thanet. Here, too, T S Eliot sat in the Nayland Rock seafront shelter and wrote these lines of "The Waste Land": "On Margate Sands./ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing./ The broken fingernails of dirty hands./ My people humble people who expect /Nothing."

The creation of Turner Contemporary counters that poetic aura of defeat. The Reading Rooms B&B charges £150 a night, the Dreamland amusement complex will be running again in 2013 and, in the Old Town, the chi-chi Cupcake Café and its patrons appear to have been teleported from Islington or Brighton. More than a dozen other recently opened art galleries, boutiques, cafés, and a brew-pub convey the same archly cosmopolitan vibe.

The council's Housing Intervention Project will spend more than £20m to buy big properties in the Cliftonville West and Margate Central wards. Depressing warrens of one-bedroomed flats will be transformed into family homes with high rents to reduce the influx of benefit claimants and vulnerable families sent to Margate by social services agencies in London.

"You can't erase this aspect of the town as if you were Pol Pot," says the architect Nick Dermott, Margate's Heritage Development adviser. "But you can get a more diverse group to visit or live here. This place has an island mentality, and it has kept its local distinctiveness. You know when you're in Thanet. There's a lot of freedom, nobody criticises you.

"Freedom is a religion here, but it has no church – [it's] something transcendent that's about some other part of you. Turner Contemporary could be part of that."