Behind the scenes
You walk into a BALTIC exhibition with its high production values and perhaps don’t think about how it happened. But here two vital members of the BALTIC team offer a peek behind the scenes
by Dave Whetstone
(Originally published May 2022)
Just think for a moment about all the exhibitions, 20 years’ worth, that have come and gone at BALTIC, always meticulously displayed and often extraordinarily intricate.
Who makes that possible?
Well, the artists, obviously. And the curators who commission them. But when it comes to turning ideas into reality, they can’t do it all on their own.
“It’s different from in the film industry,” says Tom Newell, BALTIC technical manager. “At the end of a film everyone’s listed. In the visual arts there’s quite a lot of hidden labour.”
Tom and colleague Adrianne Murray-Neil, BALTIC registrar and production manager, are taking a brief break from the business of preparing for the big Carolina Caycedo exhibition to be installed on Level 4.
To them falls the task of providing a little insight into what goes on behind the scenes at Gateshead’s huge centre for contemporary art.
Adrianne joined BALTIC 10 years ago from Yorkshire Sculpture Park as exhibitions coordinator. She explains why she now has two related roles.
“A registrar in art will produce all the loan agreements, arrange transport and insurance, and ensure an artwork gets the right care.
“BALTIC has no collection, so we don’t really need a full-time registrar to just administer loans and that kind of thing.
“That is still a big part of my job but because we produce so much it was thought best to make my job part registrar and part production manager.
“I manage Tom’s role but in fact we work in tandem on the technical production side.
“There is a lot of hidden work, dealing with Customs and that kind of thing. It’s quite a logistical job, I guess.”
Tom chips in to underline how complicated Adrianne’s job is.
“She’s working on a thing right now from South America that is incredibly difficult. There are so many people involved.”
Adrianne agrees. “These things can take months and months and often we don’t have that luxury because we’re working quickly and sometimes on eight to 10 projects at once.
“It’s all fragile stuff, all high value. The most difficult time for us is when we’ve got a high production show with lots of loans.
“That’s basically the function of the job, to manage the artwork whether it’s a commission or a loan.”
Tom’s job demands a technical Jack-of-all-trades. Every artist is different, every exhibition likewise. Some shows are heavy on audio visuals and require carpeting and darkened rooms; others mean walls or ceilings having to be altered or even removed.
It was just over eight and a half years ago that he arrived as exhibitions technician, having worked previously for the International Centre for Life and with a background in live events and festivals.
He had studied audio-visual technology at college and while he had no direct experience of the visual arts he was interested.
His technical skills, recalls Adrianne, were just what BALTIC needed at the time.
“It has been a total ride here, an unbelievable journey,” he says.
There have been many extraordinary challenges, such as the time in 2015 when they were tasked with realising the ambitions of Netherlands-based artist Fiona Tan.
Her exhibition, Depot, taking over two floors of BALTIC, involved a new commission reimagining Jonah, the Great Whale, a preserved 65 ft. beast that became a fairground attraction after the Second World War.
The idea was not to reconstruct Jonah but to display a truck big enough to have transported the whale from place to place.
“I had to buy a truck,” says Tom.
“I found one, fully taxed and with MoT, found a company that could pick it up because none of us could drive it and then got it sprayed.
“It was tatty white when I bought it but it was sprayed a really nice green. I remember going to see it and thinking it looked amazing.”
Then it had to be driven carefully into BALTIC’s enormous art lift and taken up to Level 4.
Adrianne remembers having to check with the insurers and the lift manufacturers to make sure it could handle a truck.
Then there was the anxious moment when it was driven out into the gallery. It was a tight squeeze, with Tom and a colleague leaning to one side of the cab so the driver could manoeuvre it through without a scratch.
Laughing, Tom recalls: “Then it was, ‘What’s going to happen to the floor when we drive this thing onto it?’ Because we didn’t really know. There were so many heart-in-mouth moments.”
The lorry’s trailer had been cut in two, with each part sprayed and transported up to the gallery before being welded together again. There an additional section, made at BALTIC, was added to make the truck the required length.
All this came on the heels of another complex exhibition by the late American artist Jason Rhoades which involved hundreds of items.
Rhoades had died suddenly in 2006 so wasn’t around to supervise the installation. Instead, a team of American technicians was flown in to put it together exactly as he would have done.
“We had such a great time installing but then we had to de-install it while trying to figure out how to get this truck into the gallery,” remembers Adrianne.
“It ended up that me and Tom just had to do this massive thing. Rhoades, for me as a registrar, was one of the biggest shows I’ve ever worked on – and probably will be the biggest show. It was huge.”
Still, both exhibitions were successful and the BALTIC pair won their spurs, proving they could handle the big stuff.
This stood them in good stead when 2018 came round bringing a multitude of exhibitions, both at BALTIC and other Tyneside locations, coinciding with the Great Exhibition of the North.
For Michael Dean’s exhibition they had to source 5,000 pennies - “difficult to get hold of from the bank,” remembers Adrianne – and before hoisting Turner Prize winner Lubaina Himid’s huge flag above BALTIC they had to arrange for a road to be closed.
There have been times when, for practical or safety reasons, an idea has had to be rejected as unworkable. But mostly, Tom and Adrianne insist, they will strive to accommodate even the most outlandish request.
“We’re yes people,” says Tom. “It’s challenging because when you do have to say no, it’s, like, wow! But the job is to say yes and then find a way of doing it.”
And he stresses that whatever the scale of a BALTIC exhibition, everything gets the same care and attention.
The lesson to be learned from these revelations is that BALTIC is swan-like, its attractions elegant to the naked eye but reliant on much unseen expenditure of energy.
Tom and Adrianne, reliant on just one staff technician but with a pool of freelancers to call on when the need arises, have been vital members of the team expending that energy in the name of artistic elegance.
And now both are off in search of new challenges, Tom to Savills, managers of the Metrocentre, and Adrianne back to Yorkshire Sculpture Park where she spent five years as a curator after studying ceramics and then curating at university.
Both say they’ve had a blast and urge others of a creative inclination to consider doing what they have done.
“Thinking about it now, it sometimes seems insane that we did some of that stuff,” says Adrianne. “But it’s changed my life working here – in a good way.”