Like many regional cities, there has been a huge shift in the visual art ecology in the Newcastle and Gateshead over the last 15 years. Since the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art opened in 2002, cultural activity across the region has expanded. From commercial galleries such as Workplace, commissioning agencies like AV Festival and Tyneside Cinema, to artist-led spaces like The Northern Charter, Drop City, The NewBridge Project, and CIRCA Projects, there is much on offer in terms of critically engaged visual arts programming. I think much of this can be attributed to the city’s scale, location and economy — it is small, well connected by trains and planes, and cheap. In Northumbria and Newcastle University, it also boasts two strong art departments. In contrast to London’s prohibitive financial conditions, you can rent a decently sized studio in the centre of Newcastle for as little as £100 a month.
The recent announcement of Sarah Munro’s appointment as the new director at BALTIC comes at an interesting juncture for the region. Replacing the outgoing Godfrey Worsdale, who leaves to run the Henry Moore Foundation, Munro joins from her role as artistic director at Tramway and head of arts for Glasgow Life. BALTIC belongs to a group of new millennial projects, including the New Art Gallery Walsall, Firstsite, Hepworth Wakefield, mima, and Turner Contemporary that were built in an era of publicly funded expansion and now have to operate in the context of diminished public resources. Although BALTIC is the most generously funded visual arts organisation outside of London, like many others it will be under increasing pressure to source private revenue. Despite the best efforts of the Arts Council England and the Contemporary Art Society, the commercial art market in the North East is negligible and the cultural sector is nearly wholly reliant on public funding (and increasingly the universities). The pressures will be accelerated over the coming years and the effect on programming, I think, has already been profound.
The urgent question facing public institutions is how to maintain intellectual and inquisitive programming under the conditions of austerity. I don’t want to sound hopelessly antiquated, but the notion of – here is an old fashioned term – civicness should be central the activity of public institutions. For the size of the place, Newcastle and Gateshead has a tremendous amount of activity but there are very real threats to this with organisations caught in a pincer movement between local and national funding cuts. Most of the activity in Newcastle centre is likely to be moved to the periphery when the inevitable bulldozers move in, turning the art studios into luxury hotels and bars. Sarah Munro, BALTIC’s first female director, promises to bring new energies and ideas to the region and it will be fascinating to see how things develop over the next few years.