Janet Axten, former Secretary and Coordinator of the St Ives Tate Action Group, a local organisation created to raise funds to build Tate St Ives, discusses the gallery’s impact on the local community following its opening in 1993

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  • Tate St Ives from the beach

    © Ian Kingsnorth

  • The Queen's visit to Tate St Ives in May 2013, where she met some of the orginal members of STAG

    The Queen’s visit to Tate St Ives in May 2013, where she met some of the orginal members of STAG

    © Tate. J. Fernandes

  •  The St Ives Tate Action Group (STAG) leaflet, designed by Colin Orchard

     The St Ives Tate Action Group (STAG) leaflet, designed by Colin Orchard

My second blog ended when the gallery opened, and we wondered what the impact would be on the town. Our local group had worked for three and a half years, not only raising money, but promoting the project within the local community. Our original brief had been to encourage the Cornwall County Councillors that this was something that was needed for St Ives and Cornwall. The Council, however, had never put any money into a cultural project, and there was serious opposition to setting aside £200,000 of public money to purchase the land on Porthmeor from British Gas. They hoped that the site would be made available for housing or a swimming pool.

Queue outside the entrance to Tate St Ives in its opening week in 1993

Queue outside the entrance to Tate St Ives in its opening week in 1993

In fact, no-one ever believed that the gallery would be successful. Calculations of visitor numbers centered around 70,000 a year, a figure based on the number of people going to St Michael’s Mount. Why would anyone want to travel to the tip of Cornwall to see a gallery containing modern art which, it had been estimated, was of interest to only 2% of the population? For this reason the gallery was planned and brilliantly designed by Evans & Shalev on the basis of showing seventy works of art (the number of paintings and sculpture owned by the Tate, and stacked in the stores) for a relatively small audience.

There were many other concerns. The families of artists whose work would hang in the gallery felt it was a retrograde step for their paintings to hang on walls in St Ives when London, being the centre of the art world, was far more prestigious. And locally, most people thought that St Ives was overflowing with galleries already. To have yet another one seemed to be a waste of public money.

Yet, on opening day there was a long queue waiting to go in. National press coverage encouraged locals and visitors alike to find out what all the fuss was about. In the first few weeks, those coming from outside Cornwall who had not been on holiday to the county since they were young, suddenly remembered what a wonderful place it is. After only a few months 100,000 people had passed through the doors. Cultural tourism had come to St Ives with a vengeance.

Tate St Ives The gallery architects David Shalev and Eldred Evans, with Bryan Hardman

The gallery architects David Shalev and Eldred Evans, with Bryan Hardman, Clerk of the Works. Hardman said that Tate Gallery St Ives was the finest job he had ever worked on.

© Roger Harvey

Our hard work and enthusiasm had been vindicated. Twenty-one years later St Ives is truly on the world tourist map with fine restaurants and other amenities for holiday-makers. The Tate has been the catalyst for other local cultural projects – the restored Leach Pottery and the renovated Porthmeor Studios, for instance. The downside is that property prices are now sky-high, and the local community has a different problem on its hands – how to ensure that St Ives is also a place for local people to live and work in.

Writer and Art historian Janet Axten was formerly Secretary and Coordinator of the St Ives Tate Action Group (1989-93) - a local organisation created to raise funds to build Tate St Ives. She works in the Programme Team at Tate St Ives, is a co-founder and now Heritage Manager of the St Ives Archive, and has acted as personal assistant to artists including Patrick Heron and Bryan Pearce.