Archive & Residency
In BALTIC’s archive, presided over by Sarah Bouttell, you’ll find evidence of what the exhibiting artists have done over the years. But now, for the first time, artists have been given the run of the archive
The list of notable exhibitions at BALTIC lengthens by the year but there’s no burgeoning art collection.
That might surprise some people but the original plan for an ‘art factory’ beside the Tyne prioritised making and displaying over keeping and accumulating.
“BALTIC was never meant to be a collector institution,” says Sarah Bouttell. “But we collect traces, I guess.”
Sarah’s job title, producer (documentation, library & archive), tells us BALTIC’s activity over the years hasn’t been entirely ephemeral.
Those tantalising ‘traces’ are to be found in the archive with its rack of roller shelves; and if you don’t believe it’s a treasure trove, talk to Rosie Morris, Harriet Sutcliffe and Gayle Meikle.
As the collective Undutiful Spirit, they landed the first BALTIC Archive Artist’s Residency which brought with it Sarah’s permission to open boxes and sift.
You’d imagine they must have felt a little like those proverbial kids in a sweet shop.
“Yes, definitely,” says Harriet. “Especially with Sarah being so generous towards us.
“Being able to have a rummage, while obviously being respectful, and having the freedom to explore while she’s been there to answer questions, has been amazing.
“Like the other day going in there and saying, ‘Oh, Sarah, is that box marked originals an interesting one to explore?’ And then the Cornelia Parker coin came out.”
One of Britain’s most influential artists exhibited at BALTIC in 2010 and was asked, as others have been occasionally, if she fancied making something to sell in the shop.
These limited-edition items are a chance for visitors to take away something artistically significant.
“But there are unrealised editions as well,” says Sarah. “The double-sided coin is an unrealised edition by Cornelia Parker. On one side it says: ‘We know who you are’; on the other: ‘We know what you’ve done’.
“It was decided, for whatever reason, not to proceed with the edition so this was like a prototype.
“So while we say we have no collection, there are exceptions to the rule; and this is so cool. It’s one of my favourite things in here.”
Among other saved items is an example of the ‘Joseph’, the little cast iron replica of BALTIC that in the early days was presented to every exhibiting artist.
The memento was named after Joseph Rank Ltd which commissioned the old Baltic Flour Mills and kept it operational from 1950 to 1984. Whether Josephs are now treasured items or useful doorstops, who can tell?
Sarah also produces one of the bespoke tartan outfits made for BALTIC staff to wear in 2009 as part of a project called B.Square! by Italian artist Antonio Riello.
Now they evoke mixed feelings among those obliged to wear them.
“We all got measured,” remembers Sarah. “Men got trousers and women got skirts. I think now we’d be challenging that a bit more.”
Sarah, with a degree in photography from Northumbria University, joined BALTIC as a member of its Crew in 2002, just before the building opened.
She became a Crew manager (now called a visitor experience manager) in 2005 while also working as a freelance filmmaker for the archive which had been set up in 2003 under Gary Malkin.
In 2008 she was appointed assistant archivist and when Gary left in 2019, she took up the reins.
That longevity makes her as important as the material she looks after. She can contextualise every item Undutiful Spirit might find and when someone has a query, the answer is usually in her head.
For instance, when a bored Tyneside convalescent rang in about the amazing exhibition he’d seen as a lad of 15, Sarah was able to tell him it was the Edward Kienholz retrospective of 2005.
The artists-in-residence have been using her knowledge to assist them in their inquiries as they make the archive the subject of their artistic practice.
Gayle says Undutiful Spirit came out of discussions between Rosie and Harriet, artists with a special interest in site and location and the role and representation of women in art.
She, with a curatorial practice but similar preoccupations, had been invited aboard.
After a successful launch project with mima (Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art), they applied for the six-month BALTIC residency as their follow-up.
In their studio at BALTIC, with kittiwakes screeching outside, they have been working through a wealth of material and colourfully charting progress on large sheets of paper stuck on a wall.
They have much in common, all being based in the North East and with past experience of working with BALTIC and with archives. All teach at Newcastle University.
Gayle explains that while the others are primarily concerned with making art, she focuses on ways of displaying it.
Harriet says: “We had expectations and hopes about what might be in the archive but from the start I was really interested in what wasn’t there – the hidden stories, I guess, or the gaps.
“What’s interesting is to see how much the building dominated during the first eight years and how the emphasis has shifted.”
Rosie was taken by the “really strong emphasis” in the early days on the BALTIC brand.
“Everything seems to have been really weighted towards this. BALTIC was a big regeneration project and needed to have a spectacular impact.”
Gayle says the archive reflects the approach of the directors, four men followed by current incumbent Sarah Munro who was appointed in 2016.
In the early days, with a budget far outstripping that of today, the emphasis was on getting the building open and making an international splash.
Recently more emphasis has been placed on projects involving local communities and on themes such as inclusivity and the climate crisis.
The earliest items in the archive recall the years before the conversion of the building began.
Sarah pulls out some early newsletters recall the awarding of the design contract in 1994 to competition-winning young architect Dominic Williams and details of the pre-opening arts programme.
A photo of Anish Kapoor’s massive Taratantara, which filled the void of the gutted Baltic Flour Mills before the floors went in, hangs near Undutiful Spirit’s frenetic wall charts.
What the artists-in-residence find and how it is interpreted and displayed will become apparent. They are working towards BALTIC 20th anniversary celebrations in July and have a four-day space booked on Level 1.
One development they won’t bemoan is the number of women now in leading roles at BALTIC. If women’s voices are in a minority in the archival material of the late 1990s, that certainly won’t be the case 20 years from now.
Another notable feature, which has had a bearing on the archivists’ work, is the way technology has changed.
“The process of documenting has travelled across so many media,” says Sarah.
“It’s slowed down a bit now but there used to be new formats every year to keep up with.
“Photography was all transparencies in the early days and we used to get big stacks of paper that we had to scan and file.”
VHS videos lurk on the shelves with other victims of the fast-moving digital revolution, all now as curious as the material they contain.
All are part of BALTIC’s history, meticulously preserved in this fascinating treasure trove of traces.
Material from the BALTIC archive, including gallery tours and podcasts, can be accessed online at www.balticplus.uk along with books in its contemporary art library which can be visited during opening hours.