What's For Tea?
Want to see some art? Then hop on the bus. David Whetstone previews the Travelling Gallery which is venturing south of the border as part of BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art’s 20th birthday celebrations.
If you can’t travel to see the art at BALTIC in its 20th anniversary year, there’s a good chance some of the art will come to a stop near you… courtesy of a special bus.
Originally published February 2022
Travelling Gallery has been a colourful feature of Scottish life since it first took to the road with its challenging cargo of contemporary art in 1978.
It has taken exhibitions by ferry to the Shetlands and to pockets of inner-city deprivation.
Now, to the delight of BALTIC director Sarah Munro, who is a Scot and a fan of the bus, it has been lured to the North East for its first English tour.
It’s a big deal for the big bus, as Travelling Gallery learning and participation officer Jo Arksey explains.
“The bus has been running for 42 years and the only time it has crossed the border was when we went down to the V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum) in London.
“We had been touring Scotland telling people about the new V&A in Dundee and then parked outside the original V&A.”
“Sarah was a supporter of the bus when she worked in Scotland and coming to the North East seemed a good idea.”
Jo says the first Travelling Gallery, a converted passenger bus, was commissioned by the old Scottish Arts Council and driven by an intrepid woman who was also curator.
Now Jo is part of a small team and the current vehicle, the third, is a custom-built mobile gallery like its predecessor, which trundled the art beat for 25 years until “bits started falling off”.
The present model, on a double decker chassis, was lottery-funded and hit the road in 2006 with better disabled access and technology.
Inevitably there have been adventures along the way.
Jo says: “The old bus broke down a few times and this one is quite low at the front, so if the entrance to a place is steep it can get grounded.
“We had to hold up a ferry once because it couldn’t drive on. We had to wait for the tide to come in.”
Driver Andy Menzies, who also gives talks about art to visitors, has thoroughly checked the North East route for possible hazards.
The fun part, Jo says, is meeting gallery visitors. Often exhibitions can be “love it or hate it” but she recalls “wonderful conversations about conceptual art in unlikely places”.
Children have their knowledge of art stretched a bit. “You’ll hear them talk about Leonardo DiCaprio, as they often say, or that fella who chopped his ear off. It’s exciting to take them something different.”
First stop for the Travelling Gallery is this Saturday in Bensham where ‘passengers’ are promised the BALTIC experience in microcosm – talks, artist-led workshops, conversation, hospitality and fun.
But the main attraction will be an exhibition whose title echoes a question asked daily across the region for generations: What’s for Tea?
It was inspired by BALTIC’s history as a flour mill, opened in 1950 by Rank Hovis, and the idea was it should explore food production, consumption and sustainability.
The mobile exhibition will feature work by Isabella Carreras, Kara Chin, Asunción Molinos Gordo, Julia Heslop, David Lisser, Sarah Qaed, the duo Cooking Sections, who were 2021 Turner Prize nominees, and the Future Farmers collective.
Julia Heslop, who has a studio in Newcastle, was invited to investigate and respond to BALTIC’s past life.
Before she talks about that, though, her answer to the obvious question: “No,” she laughs. “I have never exhibited on a bus before.”
Julia, who grew up in Northumberland, doesn’t remember BALTIC as a derelict building but does remember when its conversion began.
As a teenager studying for GCSEs she would sometimes travel into Newcastle with her mother and spend time wandering about taking photos, often being drawn to the quayside.
Now a professional artist, Julia is known for work reflecting her interest in architecture, history and communities, all of which came into play during her BALTIC research.
“Unfortunately,” she reports, “there isn’t loads of documentation about the building but there is a nice film that was made about the people who used to work there. I also managed to find an old plan of the place.
“I hadn’t realised the size of it. I’d always thought BALTIC was the mill but it was just the silo. There were other buildings on either side, so what was left after demolition was just a third of the site.”
Inside the sealed silo, running floor to ceiling, were 180 reinforced concrete bins where grain was stored before being processed.
She marvels that it “must have cost a fortune” to remove all the concrete inside that huge honeycomb.
In its heyday, the grain it housed came from all over the world... Canada, the United States, Chile, Germany and other countries.
Wanting to draw on that “very international history of the mill and the fact food production has been global for a long time”, Julia designed a mini version of the silo containing 10 bins, each holding a different grain.
GrainCo Ltd, an importer based in South Shields, donated some, as did Hovis Ltd. Locally produced grains were bought from Gilchesters Organics in Northumberland.
At each Travelling Gallery stop, the mini silo will be unloaded from the bus and visitors invited to select their grain and mill it using granite hand mills.
The resulting flour they’ll be able to take home, along with a recipe for turning it into bread or pancakes.
“I hope it won’t be too difficult to do,” she laughs. “They wanted an activity that would be suitable for families.”
Julia says that what she likes about the Travelling Gallery is that it enables art to be taken to different communities.
“Hopefully people who might not go to a normal gallery will see there are different ways you can make and present art.”
First stop for the Travelling Gallery is on Saturday (12 noon to 4pm) at The Comfrey Project at Windmill Hills Centre, Chester Place, Bensham, Gateshead.
On following Saturdays it will be at the following locations:
- Pennywell Community Centre, Sunderland (March 5);
- Sunderland Training Education Farm, Keelman’s Lane, South Hylton (March 12);
- The Forage Community CoffeeHouse, Westerhope Road, Washington (March 19);
- Scotswood Garden, Yewcroft Avenue, Newcastle (March 26);
- NewBridge Project, Shieldfield Centre, Stoddart Street, Newcastle (April 2);
- Alnwick Community Centre, Howling Lane (April 30);
- Real Deal Plus at Ashington Life Centre, Station Road (May 7);
- Briardale House, Blyth, Northumberland (May 14);
- Citizens House, Station Road, Consett, (May 21);
- Winlaton Centre, North Street, Winlaton (May 28);
- Birtley Community Centre, Ravensworth Road (June 4);
- Chopwell Park Pavillion, Gateshead (June 11).
The final stop will be outside BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art for the venue’s anniversary weekend, July 16-17. Find full details on the BALTIC website at baltic.art/baltic-travelling-gallery-whats-for-tea