20 years of BALTIC Memories
Present at its opening 20 years ago, David Whetstone reflects on the BALTIC story as it approaches its Birthday Weekend with the official visitor figure standing at 8.8 million
Originally published July 2022.
During the early evening of July 12, 2002, I walked over the recently installed Gateshead Millennium Bridge to check out Baltic Square, newly named and pristine.
Railings had been erected in anticipation of a crowd but there was no sign of it.
Suddenly I wondered if optimism had trumped common sense when founding director Sune Nordgren chose a minute past midnight for the opening of what people were still learning to call BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art.
The Swede, appointed in 1997, was an inspirational figure with a sense of showmanship.
And of course, he was proved right. A very different sight greeted me when I returned to Baltic Square just before midnight and joined a snaking queue.
If you were there, too, you won’t have forgotten the excitement.
Here was a structure, redundant for 20 years, that had been repurposed, its interior silos replaced by floors and staircases, to say nothing of the showpiece glass lifts.
Offering sensational new views of the Tyne bridges, they upstaged the art during the early weeks.
On that opening night, everyone got a small loaf in recognition of the building’s previous life as Baltic Flour Mills, opened in 1950 by Joseph Rank Ltd to process grain shipped from around the world.
Japanese artist Tatsumi Orimoto, known for wandering city streets with bread on his head, had been invited to lead a parade of people similarly festooned. A massive photo of him and his mum adorned the side of the building.
Orimoto said his bread obsession was inspired by the Last Supper.
His eccentric presence may have been fodder to the sceptics but their voices were muted that memorable weekend.
While universal approval isn’t the aim of contemporary art, Sune’s inaugural B.OPEN exhibition had popular appeal.
Jaume Plensa’s bronze gongs, which visitors gleefully struck, featured along with Carsten Höller’s light-based sculptures and Chris Burden’s Meccano model of the Tyne Bridge.
All were new commissions, as were Julian Opie’s giant nudes, elegant in stark outline, which added a frisson of ‘Ooh la la’.
There was a UK debut, meanwhile, for Dreamtime, a mesmeric film by Newcastle twins Jane and Louise Wilson documenting the launch of the 2001 International Space Rocket in Kazakhstan.
Thousands entered the building on that opening weekend 20 years ago.
The BALTIC story, though, began 30 years ago when Gateshead Council commissioned a report on the feasibility of turning the building into an arts centre.
Already funding body Northern Arts had stated its ambition to create a major new art venue on Tyneside and begun the process that would lead to The Angel of the North.
In 1994, 28-year-old architect Dominic Williams won the competition to design what would become BALTIC.
Three years later, the project was awarded a National Lottery capital grant of £33.4m towards its £50m cost and an unprecedented £7.5m annuity to support the institution for five years.
Then came charismatic Sune, chosen from an international shortlist, to put his stamp on the development.
He it was who commissioned sculptor Anish Kapoor, as part of the pre-opening programme, to fill the void of the gutted flour mills.
Taratantara, a massive splash of red within the grey, was in place through the summer of 1999, a double headed trumpet proclaiming the arrival of a new force in contemporary art.
In the book B.HERE, Sune introduced BALTIC as a building, “familiar yet unknown”, where people would be more prepared to meet the “challenge” posed by the art of our time.
“Contemporary artists work with contemporary matters: matters that can be both difficult and disturbing, but which artists can reveal to us anew as spectacular, amazing and beautiful,” he wrote.
“That is why we need places like BALTIC: somewhere to experience art with others in an ongoing process of discussion and interpretation; to see something you did not expect; to raise questions and to look for answers.”
Since then, none of that has been lacking and the memories accumulate.
Made arts editor of The Journal in 1991, I followed BALTIC’s story from the outset.
It has brought the art of the world to our doorsteps, and artists more familiar with Berlin, New York, Amsterdam, Paris and London. It has given many their first UK or European exhibitions.
Sune, before he left, set his ‘art factory’ vision of BALTIC in train by commissioning Antony Gormley to make Domain Field.
A call for volunteers to lend their naked bodies to be rendered as plaster casts resulted in nearly 300 undergoing a process which, I can vouch, was made as painless and dignified as possible.
From each cast emerged a matrix of steel rods in the shape of the volunteer.
Displayed together as a shimmering crowd, they made for a moving spectacle – humanity in its infinite variety. And what fun to meet your metal self!
Even more volunteered in 2005 when American photographer Spencer Tunick pledged to create a sea of flesh tones at locations on the regenerated Newcastle and Gateshead quaysides.
About 1,700 of us jumped into our birthday suits shortly after 3am on a July morning and I remember Tunick cracking down on those with elaborate tans and other such distracting features.
The girl with blue hair was ejected from the final shoot. But I wonder how this would work today with the tattooist’s ink so prevalent. Shown at BALTIC, Tunick’s photos caught a strange moment in time.
That same year, when funding was less of a constraint, BALTIC gave us the art of Ed Kienholz, including his garish reconstruction of an Amsterdam brothel district, The Hoerengracht, made with wife Nancy.
Dead since 1994 but still larger-than-life, Kienholz had been buried in a Packard coupe with a deck of cards, a bottle of wine and the ashes of his dead dog to speed him on his way.
BALTIC were ahead of the game on that one. The National Gallery in London showed the work four years later.
Among those who came to BALTIC in the heady first decade were many who challenged and rewarded this interviewer.
Anthony Gormley, the great communicator, always had time to explain.
Sam Taylor-Wood (Taylor-Johnson as she now is) brought a glittering art world coterie to BALTIC when she exhibited her video portrait of David Beckham asleep and her Crying Men photo series featuring the likes of Tim Roth, Woody Harrelson and Gabriel Byrne.
Music and computer geek Brian Eno rocked up in 2007 with his psychedelic The Constellations (77 Million Paintings); and so, in 2009, not long before his death, did Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols and maker of a film called Shallow, who spoke compellingly and without pause.
Another I caught near the end of his life was gentle Robert Breer who was old and in poor health when he travelled from America.
Revered as a pioneer film-maker, he was thrilled with the way his work had been displayed in Gateshead.
Among headline-grabbing moments were BALTIC’s hosting of British Art Show 6 in 2005, with all the artists represented under one roof for the first time, and of the Turner Prize in 2011.
Martin Boyce was declared the winner but with 140,000 people attending, it was acknowledged that the competition, hosted outside London for only the second time, owed much to BALTIC for reviving interest in it.
BALTIC reaches its 20th anniversary in what seem like different times, with the Covid-19 pandemic and global warming having forced a re-think and lavish budgets a thing of the past.
Current director Sarah Munro speaks of having taken steps to ‘poverty-proof’ BALTIC and make it a better neighbour.
On her watch it has become the country’s first Gallery of Sanctuary and free tea and coffee are served as a gesture of welcome to visitors.
Post lockdown, people are flocking back. Visitor targets have always been exceeded and you’ll find no whiff here of that forbidding, ‘don’t touch’ art gallery approach of old.
Contemporary artists are still dealing with contemporary matters – and they are more crucial than ever. Thank goodness for BALTIC and long may its work continue.
This weekend – July 16 and 17 - has been chosen as BALTIC’s 20th Birthday Weekend with a programme of special events between 10am and 6pm. For details go to baltic.art/20