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How we got an oasis of culture.

Byline: By David Whetstone

The North-East is increasingly becoming a major international player in the arts. David Whetstone, Arts & Entertainment Editor of The Journal, explains why the region is culturally so rich.

Some people used to refer to Tyneside as a cultural desert. Mind you, everything's relative.

I had been working in Rotherham when I first stepped off the train at Newcastle Central Station in 1982.

In the South Yorkshire town ( probably now much improved ( my lunchtime sandwich had been the cultural high spot of the day.

But I swear it wasn't just by comparison that Newcastle ( and Gateshead and beyond ( seemed exciting.

The North-East I encountered early on felt energised, alive. Even back then, the Tyneside Cinema, the Laing Art Gallery, the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle, the fledgling North of England Open Air Museum at Beamish and the drama of Holy Island and Hadrian's Wall were good reasons to want to stick around.

The "cultural desert" tag was never fair or true. Bloodaxe Books and the Amber Film & Photography Collective were already making names for themselves in the North-East and the first stirrings of Gateshead's love affair with the visual arts were evident.

One of the town's first outdoor artworks was painstakingly created on a scrubby bit of land at Bottle Bank. The same plot now has a Hilton hotel on it.

Consolation for the artist is that the arts are one of the prime reasons why a major international hotel chain would be interested in a place like Gateshead ( so often in the past the butt of cruel jokes and put-downs.

No longer, of course. Gateshead has attained an elevated status in the arts through initiatives like Baltic, The Sage Gateshead and the Angel of the North ( assets to boast about alongside the International Stadium and the MetroCentre.

In Gateshead yesterday to take a tour round The Sage Gateshead was the chairman of the Arts Council, Sir Christopher Frayling, who is Rector of the Royal College of Art in London and its professor of cultural history.

It was his first visit to the North-East since he became chairman in February, but he knew a lot about it.

"I think the North-East, where the arts are concerned, is the model for all sorts of things," he said.

"Of how to do partnerships with business, local authorities and other public sector bodies, for example. The way the arts broker partnerships here is very special. Northern Arts was good at it and Arts Council England, North East is good at it.

"One of the results of that is that whenever I'm asked about the impact of the Lottery on the arts ecology, I always cite Gateshead and Newcastle ( and particularly this little part where we now are (in the Gateshead Visitor Centre, a stone's throw from The Sage Gateshead). "Looking at the bridge, the Baltic, the Sage about to open and this public art that's dotted around, it's just a wonderful visible sign of how transforming the Lottery can be. I've always used this as an example because it's so palpable."

Sir Christopher, an Arts Council member from 1987 to 2000, said he was in the room when the decision was taken to grant millions of Lottery pounds to fund the Angel of the North, The Sage Gateshead, and the Baltic.

In the case of the Baltic, there had been what he termed "agnostics".

"It's a very, very large space. Contemporary art, on the whole, happens in small scale galleries while this is a vast operation, People were asking, `Can they pull it off?' A business plan projecting attendance figures of half a million people a year has to be taken with a pinch of salt, but that is what has happened."

Sir Christopher said he was astonished at the way so many people had taken the Angel of the North to their hearts and predicted more people would be won over to the contemporary art displayed inside the Baltic.

"Everyone compares it with Tate Modern but Tate Modern had a parent, Tate Britain, which had been there for 100 years and had established a reputation and found its voice. When it spawned Tate Modern, they had a head start.

"Baltic has to build it from the ground up and it'll take a long time. It's very early days but it's contemporary art and it is controversial sometimes."

Sir Christopher had noted something else about the North-East, which maybe explains why it's a great place to live and work.

"Tenacity," he said simply. "You don't go away, you lot. A lot of people, when they apply for things and don't get the response they want, go away and sulk. But you go away and reconsider and maybe change one or two things and then come back for another go.

"When the Lottery started 10 years ago, a lot of places suddenly thought they had better make a few applications for things but you already had a plan in place."

Since 1977, Newcastle has been the only city outside London to boast an extended annual visit by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Now that it has the Metro Radio Arena, none of the top pop and rock performers gives the region a miss.

If Gateshead's new wave of cultural institutions is all but complete, Newcastle's development programme is still under way. A new centre for international theatre, Northern Stage, a new Dance City, an upgraded Waygood Gallery & Studios and the unique Centre for the Children's Book are all on the way.

Extensions to both the Theatre Royal and Live Theatre are also planned, and The Journal Tyne Theatre (recently renamed) has attained a new lease of life. If you look towards Teesside, the new Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) looks a highly exciting development. The idea anyone should feel culturally deprived in the North-East is beginning to seem ridiculous.

Increasingly we will have access to the best that's out there, nationally and internationally.

But what no one can ever take away is the rich and fascinating indigenous culture of the North-East, the legacy of the Romans, the early Christians, the great industrialists, the writers and artists who came out of the pits ( like Sid Chaplin and Norman Cornish ( and the champions of traditional music, once the preserve of shepherds and now kept alive in the country's only university degree in folk and traditional music.

In so many respects, it is great to live up North. It's hard to see how that could cease to be the case when the future seems so rosy.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Sep 23, 2004
Words:1092
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