“ The BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art is an arts centre located on the South Bank of the River Tyne close to the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, in Gateshead in the north-east of England. Dominic Williams of Ellis Williams Architects won an architectural competition in the mid 1990s to convert the redundant 1950s flour mill into an arts centre at a cost of £46 million. BALTIC, which opened in 2002, is now recognised as a major new centre for international contemporary art. „
~And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark Satanic mills?~
If you love architecture then it's hard to find a city in the UK that doesn't have something to offer. It's easy to be impressed by grand civic or religious buildings, designed and constructed as monuments to the success and importance of local big wigs or as testimony to the faith and love of whichever particular religion their builders (or rather their funders) followed. But architecture is not only about the great buildings, the ones that were always intended to stand the test of time and be considered great beauties. What about those buildings whose aim was nothing more than functionality? When you can see the beauty in warehouses, canals and - in this case - old factories, then your eyes are truly opened to just how much there is out there in the UK to impress you.
Personally I love industrial architecture and I knew, even before I stepped inside the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art - or as most refer to it, 'The Baltic'- that it didn't matter what was inside, I was going to love this fabulous building, a giant Leviathan rising up on the banks of the Tyne. I'm sure it hasn't always been admired and must at times have been considered by many to be a bit of an eyesore - it probably still is - but the conversion ten years ago into an art centre meant that the old Baltic Mill got second wind and a chance to be viewed for what it is, an whopping great big red brick beauty.
When most people think 'mill' they think of weaving but not me. After a decade in jobs in and around the baking industry, a mill to me is where you make flour - pure and simple. And that's the type of mill that this building was built to be by the great Joseph Rank, the R of RHM (Rank Hovis McDougall). It's not a particularly ancient building and its construction only commenced in the late 1930s. By the time the Second World War came along, only the foundations were in place and construction didn't start again until 1948. It's not even a particularly long-used building, only open for 32 years between 1950 and 1982. What it most definitely is though, is a very big lump of a building.
In height it stands 42 m tall (138 feet in 'old money') and it's 52m long (170 feet) and 24 m wide (just under 80 feet). I wish I could tell you how many football pitches would fit into its footprint but I can't - but if you care, please feel free to work it out and let me know. For those 32 years the mill made and blended flour and for part of the time it also produced animal feed - a combination which is not unusual in the milling trade. It's my assumption that its location would have been chosen to take advantage of sea transportation of wheat coming into Newcastle and Gateshead from all over the world.
Conversion of the old mill into the art centre started in 1998 and I can only imagine that the old building must have been pretty much gutted throughout, creating an entirely new interior within its brick shell. There's nothing about the place today that would remind you of a mill - even presuming you know what to look for that might suggest its past. A lower-rise more modern building was also constructed beside the mill to house the café, the shop and the entrance to the centre.
~A place for everything - and everything in its place~
The builders of Rank's Baltic Mill surely couldn't have imagined that it would one day be at the heart of one of the trendiest and most arty areas of the city. It sits on the southern (Gateshead) bank of the Tyne, next to the silver worm-like Sage Centre with the wonderful Millennium Bridge squeezed between the two. The famous Tyne Bridge is just the other side of the Sage so if you've got your camera, you can easily snap up a bunch of the most iconic views in the area within a short walk of each other. The Baltic is the big, blocky mostly red-brick building with yellow brick features on its corners and along the top. On the Tyne facing side the words 'Baltic Flour Mill' are picked out in black tiles against a band of yellow brick. On the other side the words 'Joseph Rank Limited' face away from the river. On the Sage end of the building, most of the central panel of the building is glass, allowing amazing views over the Sage and the Tyne and Millennium bridges
I chose a hotel for our trip to Newcastle which was right next door to the Baltic. I got a fantastic deal for 2 nights at the Jury's Inn Gateshead for just £100 for the two of us and we could see the Baltic from our hotel. In order to get such a great price on the room, not surprisingly we had to forgo the joys of a hotel breakfast. The Baltic thus became both a major artistic attraction and the place where we had breakfast both days.
Boy this place is big. You can see photographs before you go but it's quite a shocker to get up close and personal with such a big blocky lump of a building. We approached from the 'unfashionable end', walking along the riverside from the Jury's Inn and having to pass along the riverside façade of the building. You can give yourself neck-ache trying to see the top. There used to be a walkway that passed right next to the building but it won't take you long to work out why they've closed it - just follow your nose. Not only is the Baltic a fabulous building and a marvellously bizarre art gallery, it's also a fantastic place for seagulls to nest. And when seagulls nest, well you can guess what else they do - and that many seagulls all in one place means a major pong as you pass.
Once we'd got round to the entrance side of the building, it was time to go inside. Art's wonderful but our first priorities were to get ourselves some breakfast so we headed into the restaurant on the ground floor. I won't dwell too much on the restaurant other than to say that both my cheese scone on day one and my veggie cooked breakfast on day two were great quality and - by museum standards - pretty good value.
~Never mind the art, look at the view~
Next step was to head up to the top of the building and look at the views. The converted Baltic building has 7 floors - six plus the ground floor - and the top floor houses a restaurant which wasn't open at the time. The fifth floor was where we headed, following signs to the 'viewing box'. The box offers jaw-dropping views of the Tyne and the city beyond and it's well worth a visit even if you're one of those people who doesn't 'get' contemporary art at all. You can skip the 'weird stuff' and just enjoy the view if that's what works better for you, this isn't the kind of place that's going to force culture down your reluctant throat.
With photos taken and both of us suitably impressed by the views we headed down to the fourth floor to work our way down through the galleries. It's perhaps important to set a bit of background on just how obsessed my husband is with art because his response to the Baltic totally surprised me. In the almost 15 years that we've been together, we have never missed an opportunity to get to an art gallery. After we got married our first few years together were characterised by flying off all over the place to look at great galleries. When I'm working and he has time off, he trots off in my car to whatever gallery he can find, clocking up three in just two days the week before last. He's an art 'sponge' - chuck him in the direction of something and he'll soak it up. I expected him to love the Baltic after seeing him happily sit for hours watching bizarre videos of artists on trampolines in the Guggenheim in Bilbao or taking the train down to Tate Modern just to see a specific exhibition. I thought that the Baltic would be right up his street. Against all odds, he just didn't 'get' it at all. Even more against all odds, I loved it. We are one of those boring couples who usually like exactly the same things, who stroll round a shop and pick up the same items, and who pretty much know what the other will love. The Baltic was a shock.
~Pebbles and bricks~
On the fourth floor was a room filled with 'work' by Mark Wallinger. I'll admit I hadn't heard of him although he won the Turner Prize in 2007 (I guess I wasn't paying attention that year) and he was one of the Fourth Plinth artists in Trafalgar Square. I hang my head in shame for not knowing who he was. The room was enormous and could be viewed either from within the room or from the 5th floor viewing balcony above. Sadly, photography of the art is absolutely banned within the Baltic. The main piece was laid out in the middle of the room and I'm not really sure what to call it. 1024 black and white grids, each with 64 squares in black and white like chess or draughts boards, were laid out in a giant square. On each of the squares was a pebble - in total 65,536 pebbles laid out in neat rows. My husband expressed an overwhelming urge to run up and give them a good kick. I started looking for patterns, wondering if like an old 'Magic eye' pattern a pebble pattern of a bunny rabbit would jump out if I looked long enough.
We got into a long chat with one of the 'Baltic Crew' (as they call the staff who work in the galleries). She told us a lot about the piece and how it had been done; that Wallinger himself had not put all the pebbles in place but had used dozens of volunteers for that tedious task. I hoped that perhaps the pebbles had come from the beach which was shown in a video installation on the far wall of the room. A group of work men were assembling scaffolding on a beach and then taking it down again - over and over again. No such luck. She told us he'd bought the pebbles on eBay - how banal and how 'now'. But apparently he had stood and looked at the pebbles laid out and moved a few around to make it perfect. Tony hated it - I got more fascinated the more I looked at it.
The other installation she pointed out was a wall of red bricks each with a different number chalked on them. There's no instruction on how you should interpret this piece any more than there is for the pebbles. I wondered if it was linked to the tattooed numbers of the Nazis' concentration camp victims but I don't know - and actually I'm quite happy to not know as I can continue to wonder much longer than if there was an 'answer' to the questions of 'what is it and why?' The final piece was a television screen showing photos taken all over London. In each photo the name 'Mark' in chalk was placed right in the middle of the photo. Most were walls, a few were doors, but the joke was clear. Wallinger was 'making his mark' on the city. I groaned but I thought it was a pretty funny pun. Whilst I was watching, a man standing by told us he knew Wallinger and asked what we thought. The combination of talking to him and to the crew member added up to us spending more time in one room looking at just four bits of art than I can remember ever spending in a single gallery.
The fourth floor has an outdoor viewing platform which is worth a visit. It looks out across the river and it's good to clear your head after to much worthy artiness and it's also a good spot for looking at the seagulls.
As we escaped from the fourth floor with my husband shaking his head and moaning about 'the waste' of all that space, we headed down the stairs to the third floor and a Janet Cardiff 'installation' comprising 40 speakers on stands playing the 'Forty Part Motet' - a choral piece of music. The idea appeared to be that listeners should stand inside the ring of speakers and get a 'wow' effect from being surrounded by the voices. Clever but quite honestly my main feeling was on of "So what?" - we moved on quickly.
The second floor is a sort of learning resources area with some walls given over to temporary local exhibitions such as displays from the local art colleges. It's a bit of a mish mash and I enjoyed a video of an old man who used to work at the Baltic Mill, talking about how he still makes bread in the little Hobart mixer he took home with him when the place closed. I aspire to having a Hobart in my shed one day but I realise that makes me almost as odd as the old man. There was also a screen showing an interview with Mark Wallinger which I quite enjoyed. At the time of our visit the river-facing side of the building has a massive canvas hanging on it, like a giant sail. The canvas has a letter printed on it - a giant letter I. Wallinger explained that it was a Times New Roman 'I' because that's the most standard, default font. He called it the world's biggest 'self portrait' - I the letter and I as in me. Genius. I love that kind of weird stuff - all the more so considering that the canvas was coated in rather a lot of seagull poop. You cannot possibly as an artist take yourself too seriously if you allow your art to be crapped on by sea birds.
Floor one again had just one piece of 'art' - an intriguing, large wooden shed. It reminded me of an Alpine bunk house but once the door was opened, there was a slope of compacted soil inside. Intriguingly, the whole shed was at a strange angle - not straight, not 45 degrees, just a random 'not straight' angle. It was very odd. We chatted to the 'crew member' who was in the room and she encouraged us to go inside and have a look, one at a time. She said that nobody knew how the artist - Richard Rigg - had done the sloped floor or why the building was at the odd angle. Apparently the gallery had been completely closed off and none of the staff were allowed to know what was going on behind the closed doors. She was convinced that the sloped floor was probably solid and not just chip board with dirt on top - oddly telling us that they'd had things like that in the past and "you can tell when it's not solid". Fascinating.
Entrance to the Baltic is free of charge although they'd of course love you to make a donation and if you've enjoyed it, I think you should. If you hate or just plain don't understand or like such controversial art, then nobody will mind if you just want to admire the building and look at the views. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the exhibits but even more surprised by how much my husband didn't. I think his biggest gripe was that there are thousands of good artists looking for exhibition space and to give so much space to so few works really annoyed him. Whether you love it or hate it, I'm confident that the Baltic will make you think and will make an impact on you. I'm very glad we went and I'd definitely go again. How much you enjoy it may well depend on the luck you have with the particular exhibits. Looking at the Baltic website, there have clearly been some exhibits much better and much worse than those we saw.
As you might expect, the accessibility throughout the building is excellent. There are lifts for those who don't fancy the stairs, there are no narrow doorways to catch your buggy or wheel chair on and of course there are plenty of disabled toilets and baby changing facilities. If you have a blue badge, there's even free parking. There are toilets on every floor except the fifth. If you check the website you can find the times of the daily free tours which may be a good way to better understand what you're seeing.
If any of the specific exhibits I've mentioned has made you feel like rushing up to Newcastle-Gateshead to have a look, the Wallinger and Cardiff shows are open until mid October and Rigg's hut will be there until the 9th of September. I'm already wondering what's coming next.
I have lived in the North East for almost 5 years, and have been meaning to go to the Baltic since I moved here. Finally, at the end of October 2009 I visited, along with my 8 year old niece. I had been asked to babysit her, and had searched online for things that were happening locally. I saw that the Baltic were doing free pumpkin carving so decided that we would give it a go. We travelled via the Metro, and got off at Central Station. I had been told that it's about the same distance beween that stop and Gateshead, but thought that the walk alongside the river Tyne would be more interesting. Although I printed off directions and a map we did get a little lost on our walk, and went down the wrong street. The signposts, I felt, were a little vague. Still, it didn't take more than 15 - 20 minutes to find it (as soon as you get down to the riverside you can't really miss it!). Once inside we were given a sticker with the time on that we could carve a pumpkin, which was in about an hour and a half's time. While we were waiting we went to look at the other exhibitions. At the time that we visited the pharmacy by Damian Hirst was one of the exhibitions, and we looked at that. I explained to my niece a bit about who he was and a bit about modern art, saying that somepeopl thought it was very clever, and other people thought it a bit rubbish, and it was good to go and look at art to make up your own mind. When we had seen the exhibition she told me that she was in the camp of 'It's a bit rubbish!' We looked at the other exhibitions, and I quite enjoyed one of photographs. She wasn't so keen, but I pointed out various ones and she did look and commented on them. There was also a display of artefacts such as toys, from important time sin history, which I talked to her a bit about. The exhibition that she got the most from was one in which we sat in a darkened room , with 6 large screens on the walls - 3 on one wall and 3 on another. Each screen showed a woman with her back to the camera, standing very still, while people moved all around her. They were all in different locations, but taken in a 'shopping' environment. They were interesting, and my niece enjoyed guessing where each film might have been shot, although she didn't really understand what the point of them was!
After we had seen all of the exhibitions we still had some time to kill, so went to look at the gift shop. The gift shop is lovely. I was expecting there to be quite a lot of really expensive things to buy, plus maybe a rubber and a pencil for kids. But, I was pleasantly surprised. They had a massive range, with some very expensive things but also some reasonably cheap items that would make nice gifts. My niece had some money with her, and she wanted to spend all of it, but I knew my sister had given her it in case I had needed any money to buy her lunch, or for Metro fare or things (which I wasn't going to use) so I didn't think her mum would be very pleased if she went home with just a lot of novelty items. So I said she could spend £3, and even with that fairly small amount she had a really large choice of things. So large, that we had to leave the shop in order to go and make the pumpkin - though I promised we could go back again afterwards.
The staff at the pumpkin making were very organised, and had cleared away from the previous group before we went in, and everything we would need had been laid out on tables. The room was also well decorated for Halloween, so it felt like a special event, even though we were just cutting up a pumpkin. The staff offered help if it was needed, and once the pumpkin was finished gave my niece a glo-stick to light it with and a strong carrier bag to carry it home in, all for free. We were given 40 minutes to make the pumpkin, so didn't feel rushed to get out so that they could get the next group in.
Once we had finished we headed back to the shop, where, finally, my niece decided on a couple of little items, and I bought a couple of inexpensive Christmas gifts.
Overall, I didn't feel that the gallery offered that much in terms of art. There are, if I remember correctly, 6 floors, with the (very expensive) restaurant taking up the top floor, one of the floors being the space where we made the pumpkin, and another one being somewhere where we could look down at the exhibition below from above. On the floors with exhibitions, I didn't feel there was that much on each floor. I used to live near London and have visited the Tate modern a number of times. I was expecting the Baltic to be similar in terms of amount of art, but there was hardly anything in comparison. When I was a nursery nurse in London I took a group of 3 and 4 year olds around the Tate Modern, and we were there all day, but at the Baltic, with my niece, we had seen all the art in about an hour.
Having said that, the Baltic offers a lot of activities for families and children. There had been other activities happening earlier in the half term week, and I think they do other events during other school holidays. Also, when I was looking it up on the Internet I think I read that there is a toddler art class for 2-4 year olds on a Tuesday each week, and an art club for older children on Saturday mornings, so if/when I have kids I will definitely be looking into those things.
Also, the gift shop was suberb, and I will be visiting the Baltic again, purely to visit the shop!
The Baltic is an old flour mill which was converted a few years back into a contemporary art gallery. When this happened it was quite a big thing, which meant that the gallery received a large amount of funding which has allowed them to offer free entry since it opened. Their exhibitions are all temporary and generally last around about three months. Depending on how often you want to visit this can either be good or bad. If you are an arty person who enjoys galleries then this could be annoying since you will see the same things if you go often. On the other hand, you will never miss an exhibition if you don't want to.
The exhibition spaces are very large with very high ceilings which makes walking around the gallery a very pleasant experience. It does however mean that they don't get that much art in the gallery for such a massive building.
Exhibitions are very varied and typically there will always be something that will entertain younger people if you bring them with you. For instance, one exhibition had a vast number of gongs that you could play whilst another had a drum kit that you could play set up on a wall- you sat on a chair fixed onto the wall and played the drums looking up at the ceiling.
Put this ear the top of your list if you are visiting Newcastle.
*****The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art*****
On Saturday last week, my boyfriend and I went down to the Baltic Art Gallery on the south banks of the river Tyne for a bit of a cultural visit. I had been before, as I live locally, but it was a first for my vaguely sceptical bloke.
For anyone who doesnt know already, Baltic is a relatively new Art Gallery, known fondly by locals as Tate on Tyne, and housed in a former flour mill that has stood empty for years and years, home only to seagulls and pigeons before renovation completely transformed it into the beautiful art space it is now.
The idea for the Baltic began back in 1991 when Northern Arts announced very publicly that it wanted to change the face of Tyneside, breathing new life into an idea that Newcastle was a vibrant city, full of artist possibilities and as contemporary and modern as any southern city.
Work began in 1998 to transform the old 1950s flour mill I was in college then, and missed much of the re-design work on the empty shell of the building, but remember news clips when I was home for holidays, and it always made me feel proud to belong to a city which could do such new and innovative stuff with a dodgy old industrial building.
The Baltic has six main floors, and three mezzanines, a shop, a library and archive for studying contemporary art, artists studios, a cinema/lecture space, a café/bar, and a Rooftop Restaurant.
It was opened on Saturday 13th July 2002, and if I remember it was very late at night the inaugural exhibition was entitled B.OPEN, included work by major artists, including Jane and Louise Wilson, and brought in over 35,000 people in the first week alone.
There is no permanent collection at The Baltic, but in my opinion, this adds something to the space, because every time you go there, you are seeing something else merging with the space, and it also gives you a reason to keep going back. To see more.
It is almost a reflection of life, every moving, ever shifting, ever changing. One thing evolving into the next. And there is a beauty to that ideology which certainly doesnt escape me.
The Baltic is the biggest gallery of its kind in the world, and from the outside you wouldnt think it. It looks like a square box, perched on the banks of the river, and waiting for something. You walk through the glass fronted entrance and its almost Tardis-like. Suddenly light envelopes you, the air is cool, the sense of space huge.
Everything in the design of the building, from the architecture to the specifications for glass lifts, open plan spaces, viewing platforms it has all been designed very carefully to increase the sense of space, and to involve the spectator with not only the view inside, but the one outside too.
Metaphorical perhaps, or simply just good architecture, I dont know, but its a place that makes you think, and not just about art!
On this visit, we went primarily to see Sam Taylor-Woods Still Lives exhibition, which was showing at The Baltic until 3rd September. Taylor-Wood is a leading artist in the world of photography, and is most famous for filming David Beckham sleeping. This was one of the exhibits, and I must say, it was the one exhibit which I didnt care much for. The wall of crying men (photographs of famous men, crying) was far more moving, and could be applauded for its technical brilliance. The exhibition was all about fragility, the strength and weakness of the human body, and a reflection almost on life and death and life passing by. I really enjoyed it, and my boyfriend, who had been rather dubious at the whole notion of modern art enjoyed much of it too, though there were some exhibits which he thought contrived and ridiculous. In all I loved this exhibition, and if it was still there I would go again I can thoroughly recommend it as an introduction to the artists work.
There are lots of facilities including a cloakroom, lockers for luggage, toilets on all floors, including those for people who find access difficult, or who use a wheelchair. There are baby-changing facilities and seating areas for anyone who needs a quiet sit between exhibits.
There is a viewing platform on the top floor which gives amazing views up the Tyne, taking in all of the bridges, and enabling you to see all the way up to St James Park, The Monument, and as far as Wylam on a clear day. A great place for taking photographs!
There is a restraint on the top floor, reservations should be made first. A café bar on the ground floor serves light snack and beverages and is not overly expensive for tea, coffee and the like. £5.00 will get you a couple of drinks, but snack are a little more expensive.
The shop is a brilliant collection of funky art world junk and Baltic pencils and pens, all the stuff you would expect from a gallery shop. There are prints to buy, books to peruse and youll probably spent as much time here as you do in the gallery space.
Getting there is easy as pie. If you are coming into Newcastle on a train or Metro, get off at Central Station and follow the signs for the Quay-side. It will talk about 15 minutes at a slow wandering pace to get to the banks of the river Tyne. Once youre on the waterfront however, you really cant miss it cross the Blinking Eye Millennium bridge and the Baltic is right in front of you. If you dont want to walk then Newcastle has some fancy new Electric Buses which are there to help reduce pollution. You can pick one up from Grey Street, or Central Station, and it will cost around £1.50 to get down to the waterside. Well worth it, especially if its raining!
Baltic is open every day of the week. Last entrance is 15 minutes before the building is due to close.
Monday to Sunday 10:00 till 18:00
Wednesday 10:00 till 20:00
There is no charge to gain entrance to The Baltic, however there is a donation system, where visitors are asked to give a donation (minimum suggested is £2.00), which can be put in a swirly-whirly pod in the entrance foyer.
*****What I Think*****
If you live anywhere near Newcastle and youve not already been, get yourself down there. Its a beautiful space, its a very calming, insightful experience, and youre bound by the laws of nature and art to see at least one thing you genuinely like there. I love going down to the Baltic, drinking in other peoples inspiration, seeing a tiny slice of their lives and gaining a small understanding of what makes them tick.
If you dont live near Newcastle, come visit us. We dont bite, and youll have the time of your life!
*****For More Information*****
BALTIC CENTRE FOR CONTEMPORARY ART
Tel: +44 (0) 191 4781810
Fax: +44 (0) 191 4781922
Textphone: +44 (0) 191 440 4944
Thank you very much for reading, Kate x
Once majestic, the proudly-functional Baltic flour Mill, hammered into the barren Gateshead quays- gave, in its bold singularity, an exclamatory testament to the fatal optimism of an industrial past. The deeply black and eponymously-borne font reinforced this sense of a confidence ebbing slowly away. Yet for all this it had a sense of beauty. The time-softened hues, viewed by eyes swaying in the nostalgic redolence of tab-smoke and beer, seemingly melding into the orange sky of a summer evening.
An iconic and beautiful monolith, then. All the more reason for tears at the grotesque parliament of high-rise executive blocks that now crowd behind it. Gone the sky backdrop that made its great bulk so impressive. Now in its place, a rear guard of architectural mediocrity that threatens to drag the entire quayscape down to the level of a university campus. Feeding on the Baltics beauty, their parasitic presence drains an essential essence of the Baltics charm. Aware of their own shortcomings and with ceiling to floor glass facades on their top-level duplex apartments, they stare owl-like contemplating the gulf in intent and execution in the architects attempt to match them to it. (To who? They say.)
This then is the all-new Gateshead, a chitter-chattering crowd of gawpers.
Its difficult now to see the Baltic as anything other than a confused old dear. Abandoned and derelict, its interior had become little more than an oversized kittiwake coop. Ageing shambolically it had settled into its fate. Watching, through a fogging monocle, the sinister development of the millennium bridges hump-back form, Whats this? it thought, Neanderthals from the north!? And then they came shooing out the residents and tonguing licks of paint hither and thither creating an art factory. Gone the days of productivity, sweat and bird shite. Now troops of gawpers staring at ludicrous abstractions before gorging themselves in either of the two ubiquitous modern British restaurants -one of which is tolerable the other of which is a carbuncle of corporate entertainment.
For a building of such dignity it is all a bit of a shock.
Inside, the Baltic consists essentially of several floors, each, with the exception of the top floor eatery, vast un-segmented spaces in which to house displays. And indeed they are huge spaces -on first viewing they were so individually vast they seemed to have sets of individually applicable theorems relative. The envy of many a public space they cry out for action, something, anything to fill their void. Great you might think, the bigger the better. Yet in this size there is a problem.
It is clear that the art, which the factory produces, is lead excessively by the space. With the area available it is almost inherently human that you either wish to fill it with the gargantuan or tend towards minutiae to emphasise the space. No better example of this than Lionel Opies opening day display. Consisting of huge stick men and women painted onto the walls of the building, bold in intention but witty in their simplicity, they combined minimalism and maximalism. The intention I suppose was to define the space as both open yet constrained, to make the viewers the viewed, to turn the experience of a gallery on its head. Fine intentions indeed but little more than a two second pun. More cynically they had the feel of a logo; mass-produced on diary covers they form an ideal mid-price gift for your art friendly pals.
Plasterboard divides can of course resolve this issue of too much space. Yet in this there is still a problem. Firstly there is still a sense of too much, secondly and in tandem the orientation of the buildings thoroughfares positioned at one end of the building only- has a sense of the Ikea about it. If you cant find the short cuts you must see everything. This depersonalises the space, preventing free movement and giving the impression of being spoon-fed. Of course Im just being parky.
In truth the less monumental displays are more enduringly engaging providing the balance is right. When overbalanced there is a tendency to overkill. Hannah Hochs montages a fine example of this. Individually absorbing, the sheer number on display diminished the relative potency of each. It put me in mind of the Guernica room at Madrids Reina-Sofia, in which the preamble of preliminary sketches leaves you Yeah, yeah, yeah ing at the end result. Had the same display been honed and set alongside other dada artists or works by earlier or later female artists it would have been far more effective. In contrast the wealth of available wall space was ideal to demonstrate the variation of styles used during the career of Carol Rama. No other gallery in Newcastle could have housed this and still only used one floor.
Similarly no other space could house at any one time the range of mediums employed at Baltic. At any one visit you are likely to see vast film installations, an abstract gargantuan mish-mash, encased volumes of art books and hordes of visitors adding generically vapid declarations against Messrs Bush and McDonald to a socio-political experiment.
Perhaps this is the key to the Baltics success; the variety the space allows and the public enthusiasm it generates. Misplaced occasionally a recent mass nudist photo shoot an example- but well meaning, it works for and deserves its success.
On balance where I feel the Baltic is most successful is in the background to the displays. In many cases the background processes -often filmed and shown alongside the works- are more intriguing than the end product. As an example, the process of producing Anthony Gormleys domain fields was far more interesting than the piece itself. Similarly a recent Phyllida Barlow piece Peninsula, in which the film of the construction process stimulated much more than the pile of wood and gaffer tape that comprised her installations end result.
Aware of, and playing on this Baltic has the feel of a family concern. The whole family is welcome and the whole family can be involved. Be it a trip just for the enviable views or a chance to lecture the kids on the principles of abstract assemblage. The Baltic is the place. And whats more, Gateshead poll tax aside, its free with a capital £.
Gateshead lies on the south bank of the Tyne and until recently was probably considered the poor relation of Newcastle. However, the town has suddenly been thrust on the map by projects such as the stunning Gateshead Millennium Bridge - fondly referred to as 'the blinking eye'- a pedestrian and cyclist bridge that links Gateshead Quays with Newcastle Quayside, closely followed by the opening of the Baltic art gallery. The Baltic Centre, which is housed in a 1950's grain warehouse (part of the Baltic Flour Mills) opened in July 2002 and it is a major international centre for the production, presentation and experience of contemporary art; it has been described as an 'art factory' rather than an 'art gallery'. Three thousand square metres of arts space is housed in the original industrial brick building, there are five galleries, artist's studios, cinema and lecture space, media lab as well as a library and archive for the study of contemporary art. The interior has been designed with sharp clean lines and floor to ceiling windows offering magnificent platforms to view the river and its bridges; the staircases are all constructed from matt finish stainless steel so there is no reflective glare through the huge windows and there are three glass sided lifts offering panoramic views across the surrounding area. Baltic offers a constantly changing programme of events and exhibitions with no permanent collection; it places great emphasis on commissions, invitations to artists and the work of artists-in-residence. I visited the Baltic a couple of weeks ago and at the moment there are exhibits from Antony Gormley (who is well known in this area for his Angel of the North) on floors two, three and four, Sirkka-Liisa Knottinen on the ground floor, and in the cinema on the first floor a film was being shown explaining the making of one of the exhibits - the Domain Field by Antony Gormley. Also i
n the Baltic Centre there are three different food and drink outlets including the Rooftop Restaurant with stunning views of Tyneside and a small (rather expensive) shop selling books, art materials and Baltic merchandised goods such as Frisbees, stationery and shopping bags. The main entrance is on Baltic square where you gain access to the six main floors by the main staircase in the southwest tower of the building or by using the glass lifts that travel continually up and down the west façade.I'd recommend taking one of the three lifts up to the fifth floor (the sixth floor houses the Rooftop Restaurant), then walking back down the stairs from Gallery to Gallery, leaving your visit to the bookshop until last. Outside the lift on the fifth floor is a large viewing box, on one side you have panoramic views over the Tyne and you can easily see the bridges, the new curved Sage Music Centre designed by Sir Norman Foster and St. James Park Football Stadium among other landmarks. On the opposite side of the viewing box you find yourself overlooking the art space on the fourth floor, offering a very different perspective on the exhibits below. At the time of my visit I found myself looking down on Antony Gormley's Domain Field; basically two hundred and eighty six local volunteers were covered in plaster to make moulds, metal rods were then inserted into the mould and stuck together to form the shape of the person. Many artists were involved in this work and some used more rods than others creating different looks. After looking at the Domain Field from the viewing box you can go down to the fourth floor and walk around the gallery, looking at the exhibits you can easily distinguish different postures, some of the models have obviously tried to alter their stance to make themselves stand out by holding an arm in the air or standing slightly bent over for example. Also on the fourth floor there is another external viewing ter
race offering stunning views over the Tyne. In keeping with the Baltic's ethos of offering a constantly changing programme of events and exhibitions with no permanent collection, the views from this external viewing terrace will also be constantly changing depending on activities on the banks of the Tyne and the river itself, weather conditions, and of course the time of year. It offers some of the best unrestricted views of the area, in my opinion only bettered by the views from the Castle Keep in Newcastle, and it is a photographer's dream. The third floor offers another extremely large gallery, at the moment housing Allotment by Antony Gormley, three hundred tiny concrete rooms, each one made to fit individually around three hundred volunteers and exhibited in a type of maze that you walk around. I found it very amusing wandering around and listening to visitors comparing the size and shape of each one with themselves and people they knew. On the second floor the gallery is approximately half the size of those on the upper levels but still fairly large, again this gallery was exhibiting work by Antony Gormley; Body Fruit and Earth are large-scale cast iron sculptures resembling ripe fruit. Inside each sculpture there is an imprint of Antony's own body, he used plaster casts of himself in a crouched position, made a frame from the centre point and then covered the frame with the cast iron skin. The chrysalis like forms emanate a strong sense of gravity and two of the sculptures, Body and Fruit, are suspended from the ceiling in the gallery; the third sculpture, Earth is exhibited outside the Baltic's main door. The gallery on the ground floor is around the size of that on the second floor; during my visit there was a stunning exhibit of photographs by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen depicting the North East Coal Coast and showing images of the beaches after the closure of the mines. I found these photographs extremely thought pro
voking, they depict the eerie aftermath of the pit closures, with old structures and pitmen's boots littering the blackened sand. For me Antony Gormley's three exhibits were equally about interacting with your fellow visitors as with art work itself, although they are stationary pieces you are encouraged to walk around them and explore them without actually touching them, this seemed quite impossible for a lot of visitors, who found it very difficult keeping their hands off the Body, Fruit and Earth sculptures in particular. The Baltic project cost nearly forty-six million pounds, a National Lottery grant of nearly thirty-four million million was awarded to Gateshead Council through the Arts Council of England and contributions from Gateshead Council, English Partnership through One North East, European Regional Development Fund and the Regional Arts Board, Northern Arts made up the remaining twelve and a half million pounds. It is estimated that the annual running cost should be in the region of three million pounds per year. However, the Baltic is the first lottery funded project to be awarded revenue funding, which amounts to one and a half million pounds per year and is guaranteed for the first five years. Northern Arts and Gateshead Council have also guaranteed contributions for the first five years; it is hoped that the remainder of the annual funding will be raised through corporate sponsorship, support from individuals and charitable organisations who directly contribute to its programme and education work. A dynamic public community programme works closely with the people living in the North East as well as with national and international audiences. Baltic has just launched an MA in Fine Art and Education, which is being run jointly with Northumbria University, the Master?s course is offered as a flexible part-time programme enabling artist lecturers, comprehensive and primary school teachers, who have their own a
rt practice to do so within a supportive, innovative and balanced environment. Due to the unique collaboration between the Divisions of Fine Art, Pre School and School Learning within Northumbria University and the Baltic extraordinary opportunities are beginning to open up to plan and deliver this distinctive Master of Fine Arts programme. The Baltic is fully accessible with a range of mobility facilities available on request however it is advisable to contact the Centre in advance of you visit to reserve a wheelchair, tri-wheel walker, motorised scooter or if you require information in large print or Braille. If you require any help during your visit there are members of the crew available on every level that are only too happy to assist in any way. There are easily accessible toilets on every floor and baby-changing facilities on the ground floor. The use of photographic equipment and mobile phones is not allowed in the art spaces. Admission to the Baltic is free, open daily 10.00am to 19.00pm (closes 22.00 Thursday and 17.00 Sunday). The easiest way to get to the Baltic is from Newcastle Central Station, which is served by national trains and local metro services. It's about a ten minute walk following the signs for the Millennium bridge. For more comprehensive directions take a look at the web site: www.balticmill.com Baltic The Centre for Contemporary Art, South Shore Road, Gateshead, NE8 3BA Tel: 0191 478 1810, Fax: 0191 478 1922
BALTIC has attracted frequent controversy and criticism for its management since before its opening. The project was awarded £32 million from the Arts Council of England's Lottery programme with a variation to the then rules of the award programme that a portion of this would be used for running costs though at the time the Arts Council was insisting publicly that new lottery funded capital projects such as BALTIC would not require an increased demand from the taxpayer for revenue funding and would pay their own way. In 1996 the Swede Sune Nordgren was appointed as Director even though he had no prior experience of managing a new building project of this scale. Nordgren's first action was to dismiss most of the team that had been responsible for securing the main funding awards to make BALTIC possible. Prior to the opening of the building Nordgren launched a costly pre-programme of publications and events most controversially a launch for BALTIC in Venice reputed to cost £150,000. A Deputy Director was appointed in 2001 to attempt to place better financial controls but left after less than a year. In June 2002 BALTIC opened almost a year later than scheduled but with many parts of the building poorly finished.