The Baltic gallery was supposed to be the north-east's answer to Tate Modern. At a cost of £33.4m of
It all began when the Baltic's first director, Sune Nordgren, emanating languid self-assurance, promised us that this would be no mere museum, importing exhibitions from London, but a constantly dynamic "art factory". Since then, the Baltic has seemed to be beyond criticism.
First, because the gallery is a focus of regional regeneration, any misgivings voiced are regarded as treachery. However, as someone born and bred in Gateshead, and having followed the Baltic phenomenon since its inception, I feel entitled to my say. Second, the local councillors and other movers and shakers promoting it are simply scared of appearing ignorant or reactionary by questioning its programme. Third, the feature writers and TV journalists who tamely, uncritically recycle hype about it are in effect telling their audience that everything that happens there is A Good Thing and they really should be grateful for it.
The reality is rather different. The Baltic has become the safely provincial test bed of the wannabe cutting-edgers. You know the kind of thing: formulaic novelty and predictable, in-your-face transgression, not to mention those darkened rooms containing videos that render visitors comatose. Fair enough, Bill Viola is a master, but how about the others? David Lee, editor of the Jackdaw, an arts periodical, calls this kind of thing "state art". If that reminds you of Stalinism you would be right. Arts Council England describes the way in which it selects suitable artists as "the endorsement process", and in a recent booklet about funding it endorsed "challenging contemporary art" 84 times in 55 pages. To a cynic, "challenging" means: "You're not going to like this but we're going to give it to you anyway." As Lee points out, challenging can mean whatever you want it to mean but, fundamentally, it is "more to do with what a small coterie who read the same magazines, network the same exhibition openings at the same few galleries, and attend the same clubby international jamborees happen to decide it is at any particular moment".
If the Baltic's programme of institutional avant-gardism has been underwhelming, its managerial record has been abysmal. Long before it opened in 2002 sceptics feared the gallery would operate like a giant vacuum cleaner, sucking up funding that would otherwise have gone elsewhere. By regional standards its provision had been generous. It received £46m from the Lottery and private sources, which was intended to pay for its construction as well cover revenue funding during the gallery's first five years. It was the first arts centre in the country to be granted such a privi- lege. The other subject of dark mutterings was Sune Nordgren, newly arrived from Sweden, and who, at his introductory lecture, "amused" the audience by con-fiding that his daughter had likened Tyneside to Beirut.
Insensitivities such as this prompted worries that the new director would produce eye-catching initiatives and move on, leaving behind debts and an administrative mess. The early signs were not encouraging. In 1999, before the Baltic opened, when it was just an empty shell, Anish Kapoor's vast scarlet membrane Taratantara was installed. For this, the building's structure had to be reinforced. The Kapoor sculpture remained in place for six weeks, attracted 10,000 visitors and officially cost £120,000 - but some say the figure was nearer £400,000. The cost per visitor? As the Americans say, "Go figure." Other embarrassments included the cancellation of Richard Wilson's installation The Joint's Jumping, for which £300,000 of Lottery cash had been set aside. Arguably, it was a condition of the Baltic's Lottery grant that this commission be completed. It never was. Wilson was eventually offered a modest settlement of £15,000. Then, in the run-up to the opening show, one of Chris Burden's model sculptures, of the Hell Gate Bridge, a sculpture owned by the former tennis player John McEnroe, was damaged by being stored in the upper storey of the Baltic before the roof was secure. Burden was paid $40,000 to repair it. It was no surprise that, by this time, the Baltic's major public funders were demanding a financial monitoring role.
It is open to question how effective this has been. When Antony Gormley's Domain Field was installed in 2003, it involved the body-casting of hundreds of volunteers prior to steel-rod figures being constructed from these casts. Their form was, allegedly, determined by the figures' inner space. The stick figures were made by Gormley's assistants and the project must have been hugely expensive: some estimates of the cost were not far off £800,000. Given the wide variety of human types who participated in this extravaganza, it was odd that the figures all looked so much alike, and possessed identikit coconut heads. Still, there were a great many of them.
A while ago, I posed the question: Who is the Baltic for? Is it merely a useful venue for a favoured coterie, or is it for the people of the north-east and beyond? I believe that the answer must be the former. According to the warped elitism of the gallery's programmers, whose sense of their own integrity would prompt them to feel ethically compromised if they offered anything other than experimental art, the public must be force-fed the inchoate, the provisional and the provocative. Granted, large numbers of people would love to see, in their own region, the modern classics - the Matisses, Picassos, Hoppers et al - which they travel to London and pay to see. However, this, I suspect, is regarded as seriously uncool.
In the first few weeks after the Baltic's launch, huge crowds flocked to see the new visitor attraction, banging gongs inside the building or whiling away a few minutes staring at videos. Since then, the numbers have dwindled. Today, I watch as visitors wander around with bemused expressions. They have been told they should respond, but seem to be getting little aesthetic or spiritual reward from their experience.
The rest of the Baltic's history? Nordgren left - naturally - and became supremo of Norway's National Museum of Art. The cries of anguish as he initiates his reforms there have been washing across the North Sea ever since. He was replaced by Stephen Snoddy, whose tenure ended after 11 months, following a few "little local difficulties" (as Harold Macmillan would have said). The most recent incumbent, Peter Doroshenko, is an American of Ukrainian descent; he comes direct from the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst in Ghent, having been at the Institute of Visual Arts in Milwaukee. Officially, his salary is £75,000 but rumour has it that the figure was increased to persuade him to take up the Baltic challenge. While at Ghent, Doroshenko exhibited work by the Venezuelan artist Jose Antonio Hernandez-Diez, who "uses trainers, skateboards and other objects to attempt to raise philosophical questions". So, no change there, then.
One can easily imagine the intervening Baltic story: dissension, disorganisation, incompetent conservation, and resignations from its management team and advisory board while financial problems hang like the sword of Damocles. Still, the Baltic will survive. As long as there are politicians who believe that throwing money at the arts in the cause of regional regeneration is incontrovertibly good (an instrumentalist view that I would willingly debate), and as long as the project is controversial - thus garnering publicity - it will remain. And it will remain immune to questions either about the usefulness of the Arts Council's "arm's-length principle" of funding or, indeed, artistic quality.
William Varley is a writer and former critic for the Guardian. This is an edited version of an article which first appeared in State of Art newspaper
"British Art Show 6" opens at the Baltic, Gateshead NE8 (tel: 0191 478 1810) on 24 September
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