GATESHEAD COULD have been forgiven for a touch of Geordie scepticism eight years ago when somebody suggested that a 65ft statue of an angel might deliver the town from the days of post- industrial decline.
The unemployment rate was in double figures and the town was sinking its energies into the Metro Centre, a vast expanse of glass- covered shops, perched on the ash dump of an old power station, which was drawing half a million people a week in the 1990s.
The angel's detractors included the local Liberal Democrats, who waged a vociferous Stop the Statue campaign in 1995, and the Gateshead Post, which said the sculpture resembled the work of the Nazi architect Albert Speer. But the town's civic leaders overruled the lot of them and the commercial history of a once scruffy, depressed town was rewritten.
Precisely why Antony Gormley's Angel of the North became a symbol of bravura and new-found self-belief for the macho North-east has never been entirely explained. But by 1998, when a colossal jersey bearing the name of the Newcastle United striker Alan Shearer was draped over her 160ft wings as the team set off for the FA Cup final, public art was springing up from Sunderland to Northumberland, bringing lottery grants and corporate sponsorship with it and making culture the North-east's new tool of urban regeneration.
Today, the doors will open on arguably Gateshead's biggest cultural development yet: a pounds 46m contemporary art gallery, near the Tyne Bridge, beside the Gateshead Music Centre, a pounds 70m concert hall and music school, designed by Norman Foster, which will open next year. Both will be linked to the Newcastle side of the river by the "blinking" Gateshead Millennium Bridge, which has won the building of the year award given by the Royal Fine Art Commission Trust.
Architecturally, Baltic is arguably the most eye-catching of the lot, taking its form from the brick shell of a grain silo, designed in the 1930s, built in the 1950s, redundant by the 1980s and not so much refurbished as eviscerated in the 21st century.
Comparisons with Tate Modern are almost irresistible: Baltic was hewn from an industrial relic, has a Scandinavian (Sune Nordgren) as its first director and is built on the "poor" side of the river. But metropolitan comparisons are unwelcome in Gateshead. Baltic represents something unique in this country, according to Mr Nordgren. It is an "art factory", displaying something new every four weeks, rather than a permanent collection, and he will refuse to ship in any exhibitions that have shown in London. Instead, Mr Nordgren demands that Londoners and visitors to Britain board a train, ferry or plane from Europe and come to Gateshead instead.
That's some pretension for a place which, as the 35th most deprived area of Britain, was so recently a symbol of northern urban squalor. But Mr Nordgren thinks he can afford it as he surveys what is now known as the Gateshead Quays, the area on the south of the Tyne where Baltic and the Music Centre are being settled.
Collectively, the two venues have already raked in pounds 500m of private- sector money. Demand for retail and catering outlets on Gateshead Quays is so fierce that property agents are picking and choosing their clients. Last week the music centre attracted what is believed to be the largest one-off arts-based sponsorship outside London, a pounds 6m investment.
A pounds 10m endowment fund for the music centre, which will house the Northern Sinfonia, has already exceeded its target, pulling in pounds 11.25m as the private sector chases a part of the "new" Gateshead.
Gateshead is reaping the rewards of an eight-year commitment to the arts that began amid the success of the Angel, according to Paul Collard, chairman of Northern Arts and a leading light in the Newcastle Gateshead Initiative, which is co-ordinating the area's 2008 Capital of Culture bid. …