The Turner Contemporary owes it to visitors to display a few Turners

While the space is an exciting addition to Kent’s arts scene, it’s missing the ingredient that would raise it to greatness

Turner Contemporary: it is the ultimate misnomer. Contemporary? Absolutely. In this beautiful space, I saw some of the most thought-provoking pieces of modern art I’ve witnessed in years. But, Turner? Well, no. He’s just not there – unless you’re looking for the great master in spirit, rather than in his oils.

Search the gallery’s name and the following paragraph pops up in your web browser before you’ve even finished typing the words for yourself: “Dramatic spaces displaying art by JMW Turner and contemporary artists, in an eye-catching gallery”. On the basis of that, and the rhapsodic reviews of its collections that greeted its opening in 2011,  I booked a short break in  Margate. In winter. And there’s really not much else to do but the art and the pubs in Margate in winter.

Of course I knew this was a contemporary space, but I had also – and quite fairly, I believe – expected to see a collection of Turners too. In the end, I saw one: a lone watercolour sketch, the germ of an idea perhaps, but not a patch on his finished works. Later reviews suggested there may have been two, perhaps three, small Turners visible that day, but they must have been further works in progress, because I definitely did not stroll past The Slave Ship and miss it. 

The gallery is, nevertheless, in a spectacular location: two bright, white structures, marking one end of Margate’s golden sands, are pinned together by a vast picture window from which the view can be admired. And that view! 

The building sits on the spot on which the home of Turner’s landlady and mistress, Mrs Sophia Booth, once stood. The great vista of rolling tides and tempestuous skies is the very one over which the artist spent long hours gazing. You are sharing Turner’s perspective, and it is a thoroughly inspiring one. Which begs the question: why can’t you see more of exactly what it inspired him to do?

The exhibition I saw – centred on the concept of risk, and the risks that artists take in execution of their craft – was nevertheless fascinating and excellently curated. Francis Alÿs films his movements as he runs into the eye of a tornado; Ai Weiwei expresses his dissatisfaction at structures of governance that place citizens at risk by raising his middle figure to the world; a quadriplegic yachtswoman sails solo around Britain, charting her brushes with mortality.

These are all interesting works. But wasn’t Turner among the first great artists to take risks, too? 

Whether based in fact or mere fiction, the legend behind Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth – in which Turner is thought to have strapped himself to the mast of a steamboat during a storm at sea to experience what it is like be among the elements – is the ultimate tale of risk- taking for art’s sake. Its lack was palpable.

One assumes the difficulty and the expense of obtaining Turner’s works, either on loan or indeed as part of small permanent collection, is a frustration for the gallery as much as to visitor. But while the space is an exciting addition to Kent’s burgeoning arts and culture scene, it’s still missing the core ingredient that would raise it to greatness: the  man who inspired the whole enterprise.

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