Published: 14:33, 10 October 2018
| Updated: 16:52, 10 October 2018
Charging for entry to the Turner Contemporary would cut visitor numbers and its economic boost to Kent, the gallery's director says.
Victoria Pomery OBE was responding to calls for an entry fee to be introduced as it was revealed a £6 million expansion of the building will be half-funded by Kent County Council, which already subsidises the popular attraction.
Turner has been widely credited with triggering a wider cultural regeneration of east Kent, but critics say the money should be diverted elsewhere at a time of widespread cuts to public spending.
Mrs Pomery, however, says introducing an entrance charge would have an adverse effect on Margate and the wider community and economy.
"Free entry makes Turner Contemporary’s world class offer and learning programme accessible to everyone, particularly children and young people"
"We are aware that charging for entry in visual arts organisations significantly reduces visit numbers.
"Our model has led to more than 2.9 million visits to the gallery, generated £68 million for the Kent economy and seen businesses in Margate grow as a direct result of our high audience numbers.
"Margate and east Kent contain some of the most disadvantaged wards in the UK. Turner Contemporary’s pioneering learning programme has already had a significant impact on the lives of many individuals.
"This includes activities to improve wellbeing and reduce social isolation as well as opportunities to develop skills and gain recognised qualifications."
An academic study conducted by Canterbury Christ Church University revealed 960,000 people have been to the Turner Contemporary who would not have otherwise visited Margate. Out of these, 80,000 had never previously been to an art gallery.
Mrs Pomery says this demonstrates the gallery’s "significant social and economic benefits," adding: "It shows that free entry encourages audiences who are new to galleries to visit, hence thousands of individuals have connected with world class art for the first time at Turner Contemporary."
The expansion plan - dubbed Turner Contemporary Phase 2 - will be funded by £3 million from Arts Council England and £3 million from KCC, with construction set to start in 2020 if planning permission is secured.
Mrs Pomery said: "The proposed capital project will make Turner Contemporary more sustainable and resilient in the future, enabling us to generate more earned and fundraised income, including voluntary donations, while continuing to have significant social and economic impact.
"Margate’s regeneration remains fragile and our view is that free entry allows us to be inclusive. At a time of increased automation and rapid technological change we are committed to widening access to the arts and supporting a new generation of creative individuals with the skills and inspiration to thrive."
Although in the early stages, the proposals include increasing the exhibition space and improving the education area, café and shop.
Access would be improved and more toilets put into the building, which will be reconfigured to allow the gallery to connect with more people, increase cultural tourism and generate vital income.
Details of the expansion were met with mixed reaction on the Extra's sister website KentOnline, but many commenters were quick to suggest the introduction of an entry fee.
One wrote: "KCC has cut so many needed services, closed care homes, cut road maintenance, cut funding to social services and the list goes on, yet they can find funds to finance this. Why is there not a token fee charged for entrance? People would not begrudge handing out a £1 to get in."
KCC councillor Mike Hill, who has been involved with the gallery since its inception, says he understands public concern, but hopes the expansion will make the gallery less reliant on taxpayers' money.
“It is hoped by offering this capital investment Turner Contemporary will become more self-sufficient with the means to generate its own income," he said.
“I understand the public’s concerns but it is up to the gallery to decide if they want to introduce a charging structure.
“All galleries are subsidised to an extent, but we hope the Turner will be gradually weaned off as it develops.”