Where would we be without BALTIC?
Without BALTIC, where would Laura Harrington and Peter Evans be? Probably not in the North-East and almost certainly not together, as David Whetstone discovered.
Originally published June 2022.
BALTIC will have been the source of countless indelible memories but for some people it will always be a particularly special place.
It changed the lives of artists Laura Harrington and Peter Evans and it’s not too fanciful to say that without it their children, Idris, nine, and five-year-old Ada, would not be here.
“The seeds for a lot of friendships were planted in this building,” says Peter.
Laura calls it “the mother ship”, from which many careers and relationships have spun off and drawn sustenance over the years.
Laura, from mid-Wales, was coming to the end of her fine art studies at Northumbria University in 2002 when BALTIC, which she’d seen taking shape, was about to open.
“It was a really exciting time to be in the North-East. In that last year I saw the Millennium Bridge being delivered and Emma Thomas, from the BALTIC education team, came to talk to us students.
“I remember thinking, ‘If I’m going to stay in the North-East, I want to work at that place’. It was the art factory idea that sold it to me, the idea that it wasn’t just an art gallery but a lot of people in a shared endeavour.
“I applied to be a member of the Crew (the team of gallery assistants) and as I was hanging my degree show I knew I had a job here.”
Laura recalls the excitement of the opening, the installation of the inaugural B.Open exhibition, the last minute ‘snagging’ (checking for overlooked minor faults) and the influx of people when the doors first opened.
“It was amazing to go from art school to this place with its amazing technicians and curators. Things were quite fluid and loose back then, but we were all having a great time.
“Chris Burden (the renowned American artist who died in 2015) was the first artist to talk to us as Crew. Someone asked him what it was like to get shot (as he did, under controlled conditions, in a performance work called Shoot in 1971).
“The whole experience was amazing personally but also for what it did to me as an artist.
“I went from an idea that an artist sits in a studio to suddenly thinking of art as a huge collaborative thing. BALTIC was definitely the start of a journey for me.”
Peter, who had gone to Glasgow after working at what is now Modern Art Oxford in his home city, got a call to ask if he would be available for a couple of weeks’ work as a technician at a new place opening in Gateshead.
There was no BALTIC team of in-house technicians at that time so freelancers were needed to help with the installation of B.Open.
He remembers a moment of concern as Chris Burden’s massive Meccano version of the Tyne Bridge wouldn’t fit into the art lift. With a little intricate jiggery pokery, the job was done.
“We met in passing,” recalls Laura. “Then you left to go to Glasgow.”
“We thought it would be this ‘one off’ and we’d never see each other again,” says Peter with a smile.
“Then the next show came up and I got a call saying could I come down for three weeks. Next time it was four and then it was 13.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m seeing a woman from Newcastle and I’m being offered 13 weeks’ work in Gateshead. There’s no point being in Glasgow’. That was when I moved down here.”
Peter, Laura and their children now live in Newcastle, at Arthurs Hill. Many of the people they met when working at BALTIC are still close friends and the shared memories make for a tight bond.
Laura remembers working as a welder on Antony Gormley’s Domain Field exhibition and the sore and itchy hands which resulted from working on the plaster casts shaped by naked volunteers.
After two years as a Crew member and then six months as PA to BALTIC’s second director, Stephen Snoddy, Laura moved on to other projects in the region.
She returned to BALTIC to help with the big Yoko Ono exhibition but then didn’t go back after having her first child, deciding instead to focus on her career as an artist.
Securing a residency at Durham University funded by the Leverhulme Trust, she was able to develop her interest in the environmentally important blanket bogs of the Moor House Natural Nature Reserve in Upper Teesdale.
A film she made there, Fieldworking, recording the work done by a group of fellow artists she invited to the site, is to be part of Hinterlands, a group exhibition opening at BALTIC in October.
It will be Laura’s BALTIC debut as an exhibiting artist.
Having recently been to Venice and spoken at an international gathering of artists and officials concerned with peatland conservation (The Venice Agreement), she hopes her film will help to spread the word about the importance of such places.
Peter had a work of art exhibited in an earlier BALTIC group show and an exhibition at BALTIC 39, its one-time Newcastle satellite.
Both are advocates of acknowledging the contribution of technicians and others in creating art. Peter, who has worked for artists and in turn employed them to work for him, says: “There hasn’t ever been an artist who didn’t have to rely on other people.”
The couple love the fact that BALTIC brought them together and enabled them to stay in the region.
“We’re in a city that has a history of collective working,” says Peter. “There’s a ‘can do’ approach.”