Baltic Centre: Gateshead to what?

The North-East's new Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts is a first-rate community centre, with very little art.

Austin Williams

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Eight years after the architectural competition to convert Gateshead’s defunct 1950s flour mill into an arts venue – won by Dominic Williams of Ellis Williams Architects – the £46million project opened to the press on the same day that Rubens’ ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ sold for roughly the same price.

Most newspaper reviews have compared the new Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts in Gateshead to Tate Modern in London. It is true that both are located on the banks of a river, both are accessible by bridge, and both have been converted from postwar industrial uses. But more importantly, both are seen as examples of how the arts are central to regenerating forgotten areas of a city.

Over 200 arts correspondents were ferried by chartered trains to see the opening of the Baltic Centre. They cooed with excitement as the fleet of chauffeur-driven Audis (Audi sponsored the opening) dropped us off at Newcastle’s Quayside. From here we caught glimpses of the new venue through what Guardian correspondent Jonathan Glancey referred to as ‘low-level, pomo trash facing it across the Tyne’ (1).

The gasps continued as we walked over the Millennium Bridge to the south bank. Was this really an area that JB Priestley claimed was invented ‘by an enemy of the human race’? This looked like real regeneration happening before our very eyes. Usually dour Geordies were actually smiling. The sun was shining. Hurrah.

While Tate Modern has been criticised by some for being a venue that tries to create a ‘sense of place’ instead of concentrating on its core function, the Baltic has taken the task of city regenerator to heart in a qualitively new way.

It is true that exhibitions at Tate Modern sometimes have to compete with the impressive spaces of the building itself. But the Tate Modern does strive to present artistic excellence in its galleries – as captured in Tim Marlowe’s excellent Channel 5 series on Tate Modern’s art collection.

By contrast, the Baltic, referred to as an Art Factory, prides itself on not having a collection and boasts that it won’t show any exhibitions that have come from London. This is not meant to be philistine or regionalist, of course – but working closely ‘with the resident population’ is high on the agenda.

In essence, the Baltic is not an art gallery – it is a tourist attraction. Most visitors use it as a lift shaft to get views of the city. This is the London Eye with pictures. Visitors must have been disappointed to discover that the rooftop restaurant doesn’t rotate. The biggest queues on opening day were to get into the high-level pod, which looks out over the new public square, the river and the city beyond.

‘The Baltic and the (Millennium) bridge are more or less an entity’, says Sune Nordgren, the Baltic’s director, suggesting that the Baltic is as much about the view and the experience of getting to it, as the content of the building. And since most visitors managed to complete their tour of the building in about 40 minutes, it’s just as well.

An art gallery that looks outwards rather than inwards is surely a sign of misplaced loyalties. As a result, the artwork, the commissions and even the architecture itself are being compromised. As Nordgren says, they are commissioning work that ‘best shows off the building’ – not the other way around.

So at the public opening on Saturday, hundreds of people gathered to be presented with loaves of fresh bread (flour mill, fresh bread, geddit?), by artist Anne Bjerge Hansen – ‘as a metaphor to raise questions about the production and value of works of art, between everyday labour and art production’.

Performance artist Tatsumi Orimoto, along with some conscripted local students, promenaded around town wearing loaves of bread tied to their heads. If that wasn’t enough, Nordgren will be ‘reintroducing the smell of fresh bread to the Baltic building, where, in its former incarnation as a flour mill, test baking was carried out each morning’. Using the building’s history as a marketing asset: flour mill as gallery as flour mill.

The Baltic is being branded to such an extent that the three-metre high ceramic letters that have been affixed to the facade for 50 years have now been made a protected typeface ‘BALTIC Affisch’. Its font now adorns everything, from the B.Open banners to the B.Crew t-shirts worn by the designated helpers. It’s all part of the crusade for City of Culture 2008, with Newcastle and Gateshead trying to develop a cultured identity.

The Baltic is the new brand for Newcastle/Gateshead. BBC arts correspondent Rosie Millard commented that the exhibition was ‘a marvellous celebration of crafts…it’s a credit (and) will improve perceptions down south’. The artistic chattering classes are desperate for the rebranding to succeed – if only the plebs will let it. But when I was there four weeks ago, a fire next to the building had closed off the bridge and most of the Gateshead quayside. As someone from the Baltic office told me ‘if it’s Friday night, it must be arson’. If only the arsonists had brought their concerns to the Baltic and felt that they could experiment with the artistic tensions of heat and light….

While Nordgren tries to brand the Baltic as a genuine gallery, he is more concerned with its ability to draw people to the region. Locals also see this as a building with peculiarly regionalist qualities, a building that might successfully prise out some of the tourist dollars that normally bypasses the North-East on their way to Edinburgh.

In an attempt to move away from an ‘elite art ghetto’ (2), all of the exhibits are able to be fitted on to a double A4 leaflet. After seeing the huge gutted building fabric in 1999, installed with Anish Kapoor’s marvellous ‘Taratantara’, it is strange now to see how small the internal dimensions are. But it is still a long way to the top and there are no escalators. On opening day, with the B.Crew carefully managing visitor entrance quotas, a queue of just 25 people took over three minutes to get into a lift. Most people preferred to walk up the stairs. All part of the participation in art, I suppose.

The first piece you encounter is ‘Neon Circle’ by resident artist Carsten Hoeller, comprising a circle of 186 cold-cathode tubes flashing off and on. As we queued, the B.Crew helpfully recommended that those prone to epilepsy might wish to bypass this floor.

Above, resident artist Alec Finlay displays photographs of the choreography of the ‘Labanotation’, the dance representation of an Archie Gemmill 1978 World Cup goal (a performance more deserving of a Baddiel and Skinner pisstake than an Arts Council grant).

Julian Opie’s work on Level 2 – gigantic nude outlines adorn the floor and walls – suffers from being in an insufficient space. One more floor up, Chris Burden’s Meccano models of bridges include a special Baltic commission of the Tyne bridge. This is a particularly unremarkable display, which benefits only from visitors being able to see past the model and out to the real thing beyond. This was yet another example of the building promoting its externality, rather than concentrating on the stuff inside.

Nordgren is keen to promote the gallery as a working environment, and there are plenty of hi-tech facilities for the North-East’s garret artists to come and play with for free. This is probably a good thing, but it confuses the role and function of the building; it comes across as a first-rate community centre.

Level 2 is the reception area; ‘bringing the administration function into the heart of the building’, further inconveniencing Opie’s work. This is where the library and archives are stored. The Baltic office that runs the facility wants the gallery to be known as a working environment, since ‘it is about creation rather than display’. So this is where the public will first encounter staff and be able to see them at work, as if performing in some giant workplace ‘happening’.

Jaume Plensa’s exhibit, in the only meaningful gallery space on Level 3, comprises an array of gongs which ‘evoke the fundamental oppositions and conjunctions of the physical world’. With dim lighting, the sound of gongs resonating around the room is soothing. Unfortunately, the B.Crew turned the lights up high so they could see whether people were hitting the gongs too hard or ‘touching them with their hands’.

For the past 12 months, since the completion of Wilkinson Eyre’s Millennium bridge, Sunday promenaders have destroyed the credibility of one of Newcastle’s trendiest bars: the Pitcher and Piano, which is situated directly across from the Baltic site. T-shirted, cocktail-shaking bartenders have had to serve coffees and teas to thousands of pensioners who, after walking across the bridge, realised that there was nothing there and walked back for a quick drink before going home for a nap. Now, the Baltic’s ground floor cafeteria looks set to mop up the trade.

Baltic’s guaranteed £1.5million per year budget means it cannot fail financially. Whether it can make its mark as a gallery, rather than as a stopping-off point for coffee-starved pensioners, is something we’ll have to wait and see.

Austin Williams is director of the Transport Research Group, technical editor of the Architects’ Journal, and motoring correspondent at the Daily Telegraph. He is a contributor to Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and Carchitecture: When the Car and the City Collide, August/Birkhauser, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: Museums and galleries

(1) Guardian, 24 June 2002

(2) Guardian, 12 July 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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