Baltic Blunders: The Baltic Gallery Was Supposed to Be the North-East's Answer to Tate Modern. at a Cost of [Pounds Sterling]33.4m of Lottery Money, This Flagship for Contemporary Art Was Opened in 2002 in an Old Gateshead Flour Mill, with Much Fanfare. since Then, as William Varley Comments, It's Been Downhill All the Way

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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 [pounds sterling]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 privilege. The other subject of dark mutterings was Sune Nordgren, newly arrived from Sweden, and who, at his introductory lecture, "amused" the audience by confiding 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 [pounds sterling]120,000--but some say the figure was nearer [pounds sterling]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 [pounds sterling]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 [pounds sterling]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. …