Millions of people have enjoyed free entry to Margate’s Turner Contemporary since it opened its doors in 2011.
But with taxpayer funding for the gallery recently slashed, the debate over whether visitors should be charged admission has reared its head once more, as Paul Francis and Millie Bowles report...
The razor-sharp edges of one of Kent’s most iconic buildings have cut through the skyline on the Thanet coast for 12 years.
In that time more than four million people have poured through the doors of the Turner Contemporary in Margate.
The glass-clad gallery was opened in 2011 by the town’s very own Tracey Emin, with the £17.5 million project largely funded by Kent County Council (KCC) and the Arts Council.
It has since been credited with triggering a wider cultural regeneration of east Kent, and boosting the local economy to the tune of more than £80 million.
But with the free-to-enter gallery propped up by taxpayers’ cash, there has long-been pressure to introduce an admission charge to ease the impact on the public purse.
And it continues to intensify as cash-strapped KCC - the Turner’s main sponsor - struggles to balance its books.
The annual £805,000 subsidy the gallery received from the authority in the last two years has been cut to £605,000 - a drop of more than 25%.
It has triggered a call from one local politician for Turner bosses to consider admission charges to help alleviate some of the financial pressures facing KCC, which was recently named among a list of councils at risk of going bust.
Labour’s Barry Lewis, who represents Margate on the county council, believes visitors should have to pay a modest fee, with entry remaining free to local residents.
“The Turner Contemporary centre is a wonderful attraction but it should not fall to Kent taxpayers to pay for holidaymakers,” he said.
“So the solution is to have a nominal charge for admission for visitors, but Thanet residents should be able to enter free.”
The Turner Contemporary is a registered charity governed by a board of trustees.
Figures published by the Charities Commission show that between 2018 and 2022, the Turner received £7.12m by way of taxpayer support.
It also secured additional separate capital investment from KCC to the tune of £1.28m, plus £495,000 from the Arts Council, for various improvements to the building to create “an enhanced experience for the thousands who visit the gallery each year”.
But supporters argue the public subsidy is worth every penny given the economic boost the Turner provides to Thanet, as well as the part it plays in a social regeneration that extends well beyond pounds generated.
Among them is the world-renowned Tracey Emin, who has exhibited some of her most famous works at the gallery and is a leading figure in the town’s thriving arts scene.
“Turner Contemporary has done an amazing job for Margate,” she told KentOnline.
“It’s brought new people and alternative industries; it’s brought hundreds of thousands of visitors to Margate, and 100% it should stay free.
“But if people want to make a donation to visit, then they should.”
Among those to benefit from visitors drawn to Margate by the Turner are Marcus Mohanty and Louise Litman, who own Lulu’s Gelato ice cream shop, a stone’s throw from the gallery.
Mr Mohanty, 49, believes introducing an admission charge would be a “backwards” step for the town.
“The Turner puts Margate on the map,” he said.
“Scaling back anything for this town at this stage in its development is very backwards.
“I’m very worried that it would impact on trade because Margate is already suffering with train strikes and the sewage smell, which the council is responsible for, and it’s not been a great summer this year.
“We rely on the Turner as a reason people visit us and it brings lots of people here.
“These people spend a lot of money in the town and support local businesses.”
Mr Mohanty believes Cllr Lewis’s suggestion to introduce an entry fee is a “pretty poor show”.
“It’s completely missing the big picture of what's going on with Margate,” he said.
“Without the Turner, a lot of people stop at Kings Street and don’t go any further - especially with the Winter Gardens shut as well.
“To put pressure on one of the things that is adding something to Margate is just typical.”
Dean Mason, 36, says an entry charge would put him off visiting the Turner.
“I’ve been there a few times, but I probably wouldn't go if they brought in a fee,” he said.
“If there was something of interest I might go in there and have a look, but if it's a case of paying to get in I wouldn’t bother.
“There is also not a lot around it; you come all the way up here to look in there and go back again.”
Natasha Marsh, who lives on the Isle of Sheppey, says forcing people to pay is a “terrible idea”.
“It wouldn’t be fair - art is for the people,” said the 50-year-old.
“When I was younger the fact art galleries are free to go into was really important to me.
“If I didn’t have any money then I wouldn't have been able to see those wonderful works of art.
“If you had to pay to go in I wouldn’t have visited as much as I have done. It would be a shame.
“I get it from KCC’s side too, money is short everywhere. But they built it for a reason and I gather it is popular. I think it brings a lot of money to the town in tourism. I know lots of people who have come here just for that and probably wouldn’t bother coming to Margate otherwise.”
Margate resident Perry, who would not give his surname, is in favour of an admission charge.
“I think since the taxpayer is funding some of it people should have to pay,” he said.
“It’s not my cup of tea. I've been in there once and found the whole thing quite boring.
“I probably wouldn't go there again unless it was for a wedding or to use their lavatory - which is a big plus because we don’t have enough toilets here and I won’t use those plastic buckets (portable loos) on the seafront.
“They shouldn't be charging kids or older pensioners, but for people of working age if it only costs a couple of quid to get in that's OK.
“I personally wouldn't go if they brought in a fee, not that I do much anyway. We would rather go to Wetherspoons for breakfast or something.”
Since opening, the Turner has displayed the work of over 2,000 artists across more than 100 exhibitions.
There are mixed views on whether it has shown that cultural regeneration can work effectively in tackling the social and economic problems of a deprived area.
A study conducted by Canterbury Christ Church University on the impact of Turner suggests it can, with an independent analysis showing the net SROI (Social Return on Investment) ratio for Turner Contemporary’s Lifelong Learning programme was 4.09 to 1. This means that in one year, for every £1 invested by Turner Contemporary, £4.09 of net social value is created for participants in lifelong learning activities.
On the other hand, Thanet remains Kent’s unemployment and crime blackspot, and while there has been a proliferation of new shops, bars, cafes and restaurants, most have been in the immediate vicinity and have not spread beyond.
And while visitor numbers have far exceeded expectations, the number of local people from Margate who do so is just 4% of the overall number, with the bulk - 59% - coming from outside the county.
Few would contest that the gallery has put Margate on the map - it hosted the Turner prize in 2019, a further fillip for Kent - attracting a record-breaking 141,550 visits. Overall in the same year, visitor numbers reached 403,649.
There was inevitably a drop when the Covid pandemic hit, and the gallery is having to react to the inevitable tensions over the need to bring in more revenue without compromising its primary function.
Responding to the latest calls for an admission charge to be introduced, the Turner highlighted the “crucial role” it plays in “supporting the local economy and community, and encouraging visitors to Margate and Thanet”.
A spokesperson said: “As a registered charity, we remain committed to our civic responsibilities and offer year-round free exhibitions and learning programmes for the Margate community and beyond.
“We aim to ensure our work is relevant and representative of diverse audiences, particularly those in our immediate vicinity. We provide crucial resources for children and young people and raise awareness of pressing ecological issues.”
The spokesperson added the gallery is looking at new ways of generating money in the wake of the recent funding cuts.
“Turner Contemporary is focused on developing a new comprehensive business plan to increase existing revenue streams and create new opportunities for income growth,” they explained.
“We have an ambitious programme of exhibitions and events planned expected to increase our visitor numbers, and we believe that free entry is fundamental in supporting our targets and for the benefit of the local economy.
“ For this reason, we remain committed to offering free admission for all.”
KCC says the introduction of admission charges would be a matter for the Turner’s trustees to consider.
A spokesperson added: “KCC is particularly keen to maintain inclusive access to the gallery and would work with the trust, should it wish to explore options, to ensure any plans for charging maintain the high visit numbers currently experienced by the gallery”.
And that is the conundrum facing not just the Turner but other galleries – how to weather the economic storm while preserving artistic integrity.