New Museum in Newcastle

New Museum in Newcastle

Graeme Peacock
Graeme Peacock
What does a town best known for coal mines, pubs, and unemployment do to change its fortunes?Build a museum, of course. Newcastle, England, wants to be the next Bilbao.

The people of Northern England believe in angels—or at least in the Angel of the North, which appeared on a hillside near Newcastle in 1998. Standing 65 feet high, with a wingspan wider than that of a Boeing 757, it is the largest sculpture in Britain and already one of the most famous. Locals were initially skeptical, complaining that the work, by British sculptor Antony Gormley, was big and ugly, and worrying that it would interfere with TV reception. But the Angel quickly won over the public to become a symbol of the region—and its ambition to be a capital of the arts.

Though it's one of the poorest parts of the United Kingdom, the Newcastle area is attempting to redefine itself by replacing the largely vanished coal-mining and shipbuilding industries with an economy based on culture and tourism. This summer, the Baltic, a $72 million contemporary art gallery, opened in an abandoned flour warehouse in Gateshead, Newcastle's sister city just across the river Tyne. A few hundred yards away, the Sage Gateshead, a music center designed by Lord Norman Foster, is scheduled to debut in 2004. Public art projects, the Angel among them, are transforming the landscape. And since September 2001, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, a pedestrian walkway designed by London architects Wilkinson Eyre, has arched gracefully over the Tyne, pivoting upward to let boats pass underneath. In October it was awarded the Stirling Prize, Britain's top architectural honor.

"Art and architecture can feed people with an optimism and a pride that are definitely needed here," says Sune Nordgren, the Baltic's director, who arrived from Sweden in 1998. "The last thirty years in Europe have shown that art can actually generate business and interest in an area."

Indeed, Newcastle is taking its cue from such architecture capitals as Rotterdam, Berlin, and Bilbao. "The Guggenheim Effect" is how Neil Rami, chief executive of the nonprofit Newcastle-Gateshead Initiative, describes the ongoing revitalization. Like Bilbao before it, Newcastle is a working-class, down-at-the-heels town pinning its fortunes on a curvaceous, metal-clad cultural center designed by a famous architect (Foster in this case, Frank Gehry in Bilbao's). But do nifty buildings and public art constitute a surefire remedy for the post-industrial blues?

I worked in Newcastle in 1994. The city was depressing: the decline of its traditional industries had robbed the region of its identity. Coals really are taken to Newcastle these days, because all the pits have shut down. Tyneside—the collective name used for Newcastle, Gateshead, and the surrounding area—generates the lowest per capita income in the United Kingdom, graduates the highest proportion of high school students who fail the national exams, and has the worst health record. It also has the third-greatest concentration of landmarked buildings in the country, after Bath and London, but when I was there its architectural heritage was falling apart. Trees grew out of the upper floors of Georgian town houses in the city center.

Today, the atmosphere is startlingly different. Ugly 1970's high-rise blocks are being torn down. Those Georgian buildings have been restored, their upper floors converted into luxury apartments. The once-decrepit Newcastle quayside has been gentrified; the waterfront is dotted with sculptures, a slew of bistros and wine bars, and a trendy Malmaison Hotel that's packed on weekends with visitors enjoying the town's famously raucous nightlife. ("Right now Newcastle is very much the party city of the U.K.," says the hotel's general manager, Nick Halliday.)


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."


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."


The Facts

Where to Stay
Malmaison Hotel A business-savvy boutique hotel overlooking the river and the redevelopment. Doubles from $190. Quayside, Newcastle; 44-191/245-5000; www.malmaison.com

Where to Eat & Drink
Rooftop Restaurant Global fusion food on the Baltic's sixth floor. Dinner for two $90. South Shore Rd., Gateshead; 44-191/440-4949

Pitcher & Piano A pub with great views of the Tyne. It can get raucous on weekends. Dinner for two $45. 108 Quayside, Newcastle; 44-191/232-4110

Union Rooms Formerly a derelict Victorian gentlemen's club, now a huge multilevel pub. 48 Westgate Rd., Newcastle; 44-191/261-5718

Revolution A popular vodka bar in a converted bank. 40 Collingwood St., Newcastle; 44-191/261-5774

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