How art is transforming Margate for families

My position on amusement parks has changed very little in 30 years. When I was growing up, i was always excited about the spectacle of the funfair, the heady collection of sounds and smells that made up the ultimate family day out, far more so than the nervous energy and anticipation that resulted from ‘rolling-up’ to test your wits against the Whip, or hold your nerve on the Ghost Train.

I’m now very pleased to report, that the seaside town of Margate will soon unveil a brand new amusement park that is just my cup of tea. An amusement park where reluctant thrill-seekers like me can choose whether to get involved or just enjoy things from the sidelines. In actual fact, the restoration of Dreamland, one of Britain’s oldest surviving amusement parks, is one of a number of ways that art is slowly transforming Margate, from a scruffy old south coast town, to a vibrant seaside destination for family visitors.

Dreamland has seen over 10 years of adversity. To the backdrop of Margate’s own depressing picture of 20% unemployment, empty properties and a deserted high street, the site ran into disrepair, and was finally closed in 2003. Threatened by redevelopment, The Dreamland Trust rapidly formed and came to the rescue with a bold vision of restoring it to its former glory. Having overcome other major setbacks, such as an arson attack in 2008, the trust has worked tirelessly to secure £12m of public funding to not only restore the unique Grade II* listed Scenic Railway but reinstate other historical assets such as the cinema, the menagerie cages and a host of original rides. World-class designer Wayne Hemingway is also leading the charge, promising a truly immersive experience to visitors, where the lights, sights, smells and sounds will deliver what he refers to as a “sense of wonderment at every turn”.

When Dreamland is finally unveiled later this year as a celebration of the quintessential seaside experience, it won’t, however, be the first time that the community has chosen culture-led regeneration as its saviour.

At least 20 years earlier, local resident and former Chairman of the Margate Civic Society, John Crofts conceived the idea himself, through his vision of celebrating the town’s association with artist JMW Turner, in a bid to reverse its fortunes. With funding from Kent County Council, building on the landmark gallery began in 2008 and was finally completed in 2011. Today, perched at the end of Marine Drive, the brutalist structure of Turner Contemporary stands proud, celebrating the sea and the skies that inspired Turner’s long and loving relationship with Margate, whilst boosting the invigoration of the historical Old Town through retro and pop art influences.

To the family visitor, Turner Contemporary delivers everything that we have come to expect from a leading art gallery. Packed with world-class exhibitions, the gallery offers a luxury of space for young visitors to explore, along with a well-thought out education programme to encourage visits from schools and community organisations. All this for free, and without compromising the integrity of any of the artist work displayed. Then there’s the views, and for the views there’s the the ‘skying’ mats, giggling along with family visitors and encouraging them to enjoy the space in their own way.

This story of art-for-all has now continued into the Old Town. As well as a host of bijou galleries and creative cafes, it is home to the unique public art space Artist’s Alley; a pop-up gallery for practising artists and art students, dominating the cobbled streets between the Mayor’s Parlour and the museum, alongside the celebrated Margate Bazaar (Mar-Sept, Sunday, 11am-4pm).

A week ago the Duchess of Cambridge visited Margate. As well as visiting the Turner Contemporary, she explored a range of other arts projects and exhibitions around the town, cementing Margate’s growing reputation as a centre for art and artists, and recognition that the town is well and truly on the up. But if you’re thinking that Royal visitors and swanky new galleries has upgraded Margate to Monaco overnight, then rest assured; this Margate is not just for the second-homers or property developers. This Margate is still firmly rooted in its stoic community, a community that has stood by it through thick and thin.

This is not a community that has had art imposed on it, a community that’s the victim of the middle classes trying to gentrify it beyond recognition. It’s a strong savvy community, alive with personal stories and visionaries who have seized the opportunities that lie in Margate’s past and are committed to bringing them into the future for a new generation of visitors to enjoy.

So when it comes to Margate’s reversal of fortune, don’t be led by my fairground trick of standing on the sidelines. Join me and other families and get well and truly involved.

Dreamland Margate is due to open in late Spring 2015. See website for the latest on the redevelopment, or visit the Dreamland Expo (weekends from 10am until 4pm. Free entry, no booking required).