Thursday, February 03, 2011
Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, has a lot to answer for. Now used by city developers the world over as a paradigm for how to regenerate a city, before the Guggenheim Bilboa was a working class industrial town fallen on hard times. After the Guggenheim opened (and EasyJet provided cheap flights there) suddenly Bilbao was famous, a hot tourist destination (even I went there) and most importantly, bought in lots of money.
How much of this money benefits the locals is a moot point and as the European Urban Knowledge Network points out, 'the cultural needs of the city may be different from those of the business and tourist industry'. Okay, it's a great building and local cafes and hotels are probably doing really well because of it, but why it was plonked in Bilbao is something of a mystery.
In recent years there's been a flurry of 'edgy' galleries opening in decidedly 'unedgy' English coastal towns. And as with the Guggenheim, the question begging is who exactly benefits.
Bexhill's magnificent modernist building the De La Warr pavilion re-opened a few years ago as a contemporary arts space. Previously, Bexhill was seen as a place to go and die, consisting mainly of retired, white, middle England people. And whereas it's great to see the pavilion open again, it's a moot point to wonder whether any of the locals will be going to watch Patti Smith perform there in April, or see an exhibition of John Cage's little-known prints and drawings (also in April). The locals are presumably bemused by 99% of the stuff shown there (but at least it gives them something to do and moan about). Late last year Laurie Anderson performed her only UK concert there; Bat for Lashes, Speech Debelle and Kings of Convenience have also played there; previous exhibitions include Joseph Beuys; Will Self has given a book reading.
It does seem almost perverse having the gallery in Bexhill. Okay, it gets half a million visitors a year, but no one under the age of sixty is going to move there (and certainly not just because of an art gallery); there's not much else to do in the dilapidated town, and it is a hassle to get to from anywhere else (such as London).
The Towner gallery, Eastbourne's award-winning but stupid-sounding new contemporary art museum recently had an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe's photography; the £4m Jerwood gallery is opening this year in Hastings, Sussex (a stone's throw from Bexhill); as is Turner Contemporary, an art gallery 'inspired by JMW Turner's spirit of enquiry' , to open in 'decrepit and deprived' Margate, birthplace of Tracey Emin. In Folkestone, Quarterhouse, a 'sleek, new' £4m performance space has recently opened.
This is all great, I'm sure. But aren't we in a recession and in the midst of cuts left, right and centre, and isn't the arts meant to be first on the chopping board? As Bilbao is going to find out sooner or later, one art gallery cannot transform the fortunes of a single town, and to rely on it to do so is foolhardy.
Perhaps because of their isolation, their magical natural light, the spiritualism of the sea and cheap rents, there is a fine tradition of thriving artistic communities in English seaside towns. Folkestone has definitely seen better days but has a vaguely striving artistic community called the Creative Quarter (though it's more like a hill of mainly boarded up shops). St Ives, although the heroin capital of the UK, has a Tate gallery and a fine artistic heritage, with sculptor Barbara Hepworth and painter Ben Nicholson among the famous artists who lived there. Southend-on-Sea has the Focal Point Gallery and Chicester the Pallant House Gallery. Then there's places like Brighton and Whitstable, which have a pretty arty vibe to them.