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Art and soul of the gallery; After nearly four decades in charge of a notable Newcastle art gallery, Mara-Helen Wood is bowing out. DAVID WHETSTONE looks back over some of her many artistic triumphs Even Munch would smile at Mara'sTyneside success story.

THE walls are bare and a sign saying 'Closed' is leaning at a wonky angle against the entrance of the University Gallery on Newcastle's Sandyford Road.

Inside, director Mara-Helen Wood is clearing an office where artworks including a Lucian Freud print and an oil painting by Walter Sickert still hang on the walls (purchased for the permanent collection with consultancy fees paid to the gallery when Mara organised some high-profile exhibitions in Japan).

After a review of its gallery provision by Northumbria University, it feels like the end of an era. While the University Gallery, founded in the days when the university was Newcastle Polytechnic, is to continue under new management, Mara has opted to take early retirement.

She leaves tomorrow having devoted 38 years to a gallery which has had many notable artistic successes.

Having put her own stamp on the place, those who have attended Mara's exhibitions - starry international affairs attended by Norwegian royalty and popular celebrations of the work of North East pitmanturned-artist Norman Cornish - are likely to feel a sense of loss. "But where will we go?" one gallery regular remarked on hearing the news.

The University Gallery, unlike the more student-focused Gallery North next door, has always been outwardlooking and commercially minded, publishing books and catalogues and wooing the North East public with glossy exhibition flyers, special previews and, from time to time, hotly contested open competitions for local artists.

Over the years the gallery has earned a loyal following.

Mara's last high-profile exhibition, dedicated to prints by Matisse and Picasso, closed on Friday. The visi-Turn to Page 22 From Page 21 tors' book shows it was appreciated by art lovers as far-flung as Tynemouth, Hartlepool, Bradford, Rotherham, Stevenage, New York and Shanghai.

Among the last visitors was a school party from Northumberland.

When the gallery first opened in 1977 - a project initiated by art lecturer Bruce Russell when Tom Bromley, a talented painter who is still exhibiting, was dean of the faculty - Mara helped as a volunteer.

"I'd just finished my post-grad year at Newcastle (University) but I'd had a gallery back home in Scotland throughout my first and second years in premises that the council had given me over the summer months. It had turned out to be quite successful.

"I knew some people at the poly at the time who told me about the gallery.

"I didn't have a job so I volunteered my services and then took over the running of the gallery from then on. The rest is history."

Mara's first exhibition was devoted to the work of the abstract painter and sculptor John Edwards who died in 2009. It was a collaboration with London gallery Marlborough Fine Art and Mara produced a catalogue.

The next big project really put the gallery on the map. As part of the Newcastle 900 celebrations in 1980, marking the 900th anniversary of the establishment of the 'new castle' where the Castle Keep now stands, the gallery showed 26 landscapes by Norway's great artist, Edvard Munch.

Mara says King Olav V of Norway had planned to come over for the 900 celebrations and a lecturer, Keith Grant, had connections with the embassy in London.

"The attache, a lovely gentleman, suggested to us that we approach the Munch Museum in Oslo about doing an exhibition. It was the start of a long, long relationship."

As she recalls, you couldn't persuade Norway to part with some of its national treasures without putting in a lot of effort.

"We had to get indemnity cover and raise money for a catalogue because this was one of the biggest collections by a major international artist ever seen in the North East. Everything had to be upgraded and subsequently we were able to bring in other multi-million-pound shows.

"We repeated the 1980 experience with Munch and the Workers in 1984, Munch and Photography in 1989, Alpha & Omega (Munch's version of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve) and ultimately, in 2002, Munch: The Frieze of Life which we mounted at the National Gallery as the ultimate Munch exhibition."

I first interviewed Mara in 1984 when Munch and the Workers was on display. The body of work brought to Newcastle from Norway was insured then for PS10m and 80 works went on show in the city. Local businesses stumped up PS50,000 in sponsorship and the city council added PS15,000.

Mara confidently predicted that the exhibition, to be opened by Princess Astrid of Norway, would be seen by 100,000 people. Not bad for a gallery whose annual visitor figure hovered around the 40,000 mark.

"This must be the largest and most important collection of canvases ever shown in Newcastle," said Mara.

"Munch was the father of a movement and many artists were influenced by him. He is certainly Norway's most important painter and he's internationally respected.

"There are galleries throughout the world who would dearly love to have this collection."

Would Edvard Munch, most famous for his angst-ridden painting The Scream, have smiled at this North East success story? You wouldn't bet on it.

This was a man whose disastrous relationships with women drove him to drink and ultimately, at the end of yet another stormy affair, he shot off the end of one of his fingers.

"Disease, insanity and death were the angels which attended my cradle and since then have followed me throughout my life," he once wrote.

But he is revered in Norway and he has been good to Mara and her gallery. Having made a good impression, Mara continued to work with the Norwegian government and the country's royal family. "This is the only gallery in the country that has the King and Queen of Norway as patrons," she says.

After Munch, Mara championed the work of living Norwegian artists including Ornulf Opdahl, Frans Widerberg and his son Nicolaus (that's his sculpture of a tall, thin figure that you see standing outside the gallery on Sandyford Road).

This strengthened the bond with the country's royals. When Queen Sonja, a keen photographer and lover of art and landscape, brought out a book called Resonance: Wanderings in Prose and Pictures, it was launched by Mara on Tyneside.

As well as international artists, Mara championed North East artists. Most notable among these was Norman Cornish whose regular exhibitions at the gallery attracted an audience which might not have made a similar trip to the more avant garde Baltic.

"Theresa Russell (a Newcastle city councillor for 54 years) introduced us to Norman and our first big retrospective of her work must have been in about 1989," she recalls.

"We borrowed works from all sorts of different places and it was the beginning of a long and happy collaboration, both as his agents and curators of his collection."

What began with John Edwards ended with Matisse and Picasso. Not a bad way to bow out.

Mara says she has a few projects up her sleeve as a new era dawns both for her and for the gallery she steered to great things. She will be missed and many will want to wish her well.

The attache suggested to us that we approach the Munch Museum in Oslo about doing an exhibition. It was the start of a long, long relationshipMara-Helen Wood


Mara-Helen Wood, pictured <Bholding a Norman Cornish painting, is retiring from her post as director of Northumbria University Gallery Claire McKie

University Gallery, Northumbria University, with its Pillar Man sculpture by Nico Widerburg

Flashback to May 1989 as Mara-Helen Wood is pictured in front of '<'Self-portrait Between Clock and Bed' by Edvard Munch, which featured in one of a series of exhibitions of the Norwegian painter's work staged at the University Gallery in Newcastle George Swift
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Sep 16, 2015
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