Culture: Making Light Task of Winter Festival; the Nights Have Lengthened, but There Will Be Light. David Whetstone Talks to the Woman Whose Job Is to Provide It

The Journal (Newcastle, England), October 31, 2007 | Go to article overview

Culture: Making Light Task of Winter Festival; the Nights Have Lengthened, but There Will Be Light. David Whetstone Talks to the Woman Whose Job Is to Provide It


Byline: David Whetstone

NEARLY 20 years have elapsed since Isabel Vasseur first worked in the North-East and, in many respects, it is a different world.

She came in 1988, fresh from the job of visual arts co-ordinator for the Glasgow Garden Festival, to perform a similar task in Gateshead.

Now she is back, commissioned to put together Glow 07, one of the three main strands of NewcastleGateshead's forthcoming Winter Festival.

But first a bit of a recap.

Look back to 1988 and this was Gateshead pre-Angel and pre-Baltic, when the allotted garden festival site was still a poisonous plot of uninhabitable riverside land.

Garden festivals were a Tory scheme to regenerate derelict and toxic bits of Britain in the wake of serious urban unrest.

The idea was that the land would be reclaimed, turned into a tourist attraction for one summer only, and then released for longterm housing or recreation. Controversial in political terms (some saw them as a sticking plaster solution to a deep-seated problem), garden festivals proved popular with the public.

The attitude of artists back then is hinted at in an interview Isabel Vasseur gave at the time. "They think it's vulgar," she said of some of those she had asked to exhibit on a garden festival site.

For overcoming this negativity, Isabel is frequently described as a pioneer of public art. For the Gateshead Garden Festival she commissioned more than 60 works to be displayed throughout the summer of 1990, raising a budget of pounds 1.5m - a huge sum back then.

There were goats made from junk, half buried plastic cars and - perhaps most memorably - an army of little red metal men, arranged in ranks.

Made by the same chap who constructed the much derided "lego-men" barrier at Newcastle's Haymarket, the piece was later bought by Lord Palumbo, then chairman of the Arts Council, although Isabel reveals she does own one of the little figures - a red army deserter, perhaps.

"I'd done Glasgow before I did Gateshead and it was difficult," she recalls. "People did complain about things from time to time, but in Gateshead they were very forward-looking.

They made it relatively easy."

She recalls a piece by the Scottish artist David Mach, which caused eyebrows to rise, and the auction which saw all the artworks disposed of when the festival was over.

Artists like Mach were used to exhibiting outside galleries but it was an alien concept to others.

Nowadays, of course, public art is everywhere in the North-East. The success of the art programme at the Gateshead Garden Festival paved the way to the Year of Visual Arts in 1996, the Angel of the North in 1997 and Baltic in 2002.

Isabel, who stayed on to work alongside several regeneration projects, had a hand in much of this. …

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