Like most overnight transformations, this one began many years ago. In the early 1980's, Gateshead decided to invest in public art because it lacked a civic gallery. Commissions proved so popular that the town council began a public art program in 1986, followed by a garden festival in 1990. Around the same time, Northern Arts, a government-funded development agency, concluded that the north of England as a whole had a weak cultural infrastructure. There wasn't a single concert hall between Leeds and Edinburgh, for instance, meaning the highly respected Northern Sinfonia chamber orchestra had no building to call home when it returned from international tours. Northern Arts identified two key goals for Tyneside: a performance hall and a contemporary visual arts center. The $390 million plan was launched in 1995 by a local MP named Tony Blair.
Funds generated by the national lottery, established in 1994 to raise money for good causes, enabled the developers to be even more ambitious. Scrapping plans for a simple concert hall in Newcastle's city center, they held an international design competition—won by Foster & Partners—for a music center that would occupy four acres of derelict riverside property in Gateshead. The Sage Gateshead, named for a local software company that is a major sponsor, will provide a base for both the Sinfonia and Folkworks, a regional folk music organization, and will contain three concert halls, 25 classrooms, and recording and rehearsal spaces.
Residents will be encouraged to become involved as both students and audience members. "This is one of the most difficult places in the country to get people to pick up a musical instrument," says Lucy Bird, the Sage's marketing director. "What we actually needed wasn't just a concert hall but a whole change in musical education. The Sage is a big, shiny building in one of the poorest parts of Britain, so we have to make sure its contents are relevant to the local people."
The Baltic is also concerned with education and outreach. Seen as a kind of Tate-on-the-Tyne, it is not just Europe's largest temporary exhibition space but an "art factory," with studios and multimedia labs for working artists. It's also developing a reputation as a sight to be seen. Unlike the new Tate Modern in London, which retains some elements of its industrial past, the interior of this massive former grain silo is finished with untreated pine floors, white plastered walls, and enough Scandinavian furniture to make a Wallpaper reader swoon. The Rooftop Restaurant is one of the swankiest in town, serving international cuisine with a British accent.
Tyneside's revival has hit a few bumps in the road, however. A $2.5 million art installation called Blue Carpet—essentially a large glass-and-resin floor covering 17,220 square feet of Newcastle's city center—has been widely ridiculed, mainly because it's not blue and it's not a carpet. (Gray Tile might have been a more accurate title for the work, which seems popular only with the city's skateboarding youths.) The Baltic—which contended with faulty fire alarms and a leaking roof during its first days—has also been criticized for its esoteric offerings. At the opening, performance artist Tatsumi Orimoto wore loaves of bread on his head, a riff on the building's past as a grain depot. One exhibit consisted of nine pairs of gongs inscribed with words such as WAR, PEACE, CHAOS, HAIR, and SALIVA.
"It's remarkable that people go there, especially since it's showing artists nobody has heard of," says Austin Williams, technical editor of The Architects' Journal, a British magazine. "People look at the view, eat in the café, and then go away. Average visits are in the region of forty minutes. I don't mean to put down Newcastle residents, but I don't believe they've suddenly warmed to Norwegian and Swedish postmodernism."