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The locals may rate the public toilets more highly than the gallery, but the Tate has probably stopped St Ives from turning into a Blackpool

"I expect that, in Rome, they don't go to the Colosseum, except to say it's blocking the road. It's the vagaries of human nature." And the man carried on washing his harbour-side windows. He hadn't been to the Tate Gallery, St Ives, now almost four years old, and wasn't going to.

Later I sit in the care at the top of the gallery, looking out at St Ives, with the painter Patrick Heron. We speak of how little these views have changed since Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood came on a day trip, one famous day in 1928, and launched "the St Ives School" of painting. They looked in at a little beachside window, now only a few yards from the gallery, and saw the dream-like paintings of the retired seaman Alfred Wallis, who painted to soothe his loneliness after the death of his wife.

"Yes," Heron says, "they haven't changed the boniness of St Ives."

He means the angular grey roofs, the claws of rock around the bay. But he could be talking about the people. There have always been tensions between the artists and the "real" locals. For Nicholson, Wallis became a patron icon, but he still allowed him to die in the workhouse. The only sign I see at St Ives that points to the new gallery, puts TOILETS first, and TATE GALLERY second.

Heron has lived here for 40 years, in a spectacular house set among a blaze of camellias, as bright and beautiful as his paintings. It looks down on the cottage D H Lawrence and Frieda rented so disastrously during the first world war. Lawrence told his side of that story: driven out by ignorant xenophobes who thought the couple were spies.

The other side is told by the granite Celtic cross next to the church, remembering men who "gave their all and in giving raised Men's ideals of what Man may become". Bony Cornish surnames - Baragwanath, Kernick - and six members of the Pearce family. The Lawrences were hard to like as soldiers fell and sailors drowned.

The Tate has prospered: 700,000 visitors so far. Today they step through with a firm, art-lover's tread (waxed jackets, walking shoes); numerous Germans and Japanese. In summer the social pattern shifts. It is, after all, one place to go when it rains. "But it stopped St Ives sliding into a Blackpool No 5," Heron says, with his teddy-bear smile. It is a better test-case than the Burrell at Glasgow or the Tate at Liverpool for the idea that an art institution can regenerate a town.

The totemic carvings in the window of Dylan Hudson's "African Connection" shop pay oblique tribute to early modern art. …