What's going on at the Baltic?

By Guy Bird for Blueprint, Dec 2006

Serious exhibitions on contemporary urban art just don’t happen at major British galleries. Three in one year is unheard of. So just what is going on at the Baltic?

Walk across Newcastle’s impressive Millennium Bridge to Gateshead and you’ll be in for a shock. Staring down from the fifth and sixth-floor viewing box of the imposing Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art by the River Tyne is a giant-sized pixelated Space Invader character. Look to its right and there’s a 288ft long by 16ft high red and black mural by Shepherd Fairey featuring black power activist Angela Davis within bold Russian Constructivist propaganda-style graphics. And that’s before you walk through the gallery door. If you’re even slightly into street art it’s an impressive sight and an even more impressive context because such art doesn’t normally get this kind of exposure.

Train tracks, rooftops, or dark alleyways are its usual exhibition spaces and if it ever makes it into a gallery it’s usually a small private one like Elms Lesters (which is itself located down a dark alley)

Train tracks, rooftops, or dark alleyways are its usual exhibition spaces – and if it ever makes it into a gallery – it’s usually a small private one like Elms Lesters in London (which is itself located down a dark alley). Up at the Baltic, right at the heart of Newcastle’s revamped quayside, the centre is on street art show number three in 2006 alone. It kicked off quietly in the summer with a one-man show by Dzine – a Puerto Rican-American with a strong graffiti art background – who now does large-scale rich colour abstractions. This was immediately followed by Spank the Monkey – the first major street art exhibition in this country – featuring 22 cutting edge artists from Banksy to Barry McGee across the two biggest floors of the gallery. Drop down a level and there’s the also a show devoted to ‘street art godfather’ Keith Haring’s early drawings. These are not tokenistic moves.

So why is the Baltic putting its faith (and taking a risk) in so many street art-based exhibitions of late when other major galleries – especially in London – won’t? The key is the attitude of its American director Peter Doroshenko. Graduating from art school in 1984, he was fully aware of the street art scene just starting to cross over into the American art galleries and once painted with Keith Haring on a mural project. He then followed the scene as it developed into a global phenomenon whose rebellious aesthetic can now claim to have influenced almost every type of contemporary visual culture from advertising to graphic design.

The Spank the Monkey show was actually an exhibition Doroshenko had hoped to put on in his former role as director of SMAK in Ghent, Belgium so it was high on his agenda when he was hired as the Baltic’s director in June 2005, as he recounts: “I told the board ‘we’re going to be doing things that would be highly unusual in London, Paris or New York’. We’re in Gateshead so we have to try a lot harder and take more risk. They were 100% behind it. I have a great board. And that’s actually the key to the success of the Baltic.”

The Baltic’s board is a mix of arts people from London and business leaders from the North East and the centre is funded in a similar way to the Tate with funding from the Arts Council and Gateshead regional council, foundations, individual grants and corporate sponsorship, plus the various trading activities like the restaurant, shop and private function hireAccording to Doroshenko, those backers were not unduly concerned about Spank the Monkey’s edgy illegal connotations, even down to the local transport company Nexus that runs the local Metro underground service. Although that system was covered with graffiti in the 80s, in 2006, Nexus has given permission to the show’s artists to paint some of its stations.

“The art world is pretty lazy. It does things that take the least effort and that’s why it works with the same artists over and over again. We want something new and fresh”

Some of those same featured artists couldn’t resist a little ‘extra-mural activity’ while they were up in the North East though – “they all ran around and tagged the hell out of Newcastle and Gateshead,” as Doroshenko puts it. But despite some media and police outcry, only one of them got arrested (Invader), wasn’t charged and only a small portion of the illegal work had to be taken down. Of course a little controversy won’t have hurt the visitor numbers which Doroshenko says are so far 15% up on last year (410,000 people visited the Baltic in 2005), but the more you speak to him it’s clear this is far from the main reason for putting on the show.

Future one-man exhibitions include Barry McGee scheduled for January 2008 and Banksy next May (mainstream art will also get a look in, with a major Warhol retrospective in 2007 too). The key to all these events for Doroshenko – whether classic or contemporary – is that the art is shown and discussed differently, as he explains in reference to the forthcoming Banksy event: “What will be different is that everybody is interested in Banksy ‘the Robin Hood’, we’re going to be talking about Banksy ‘the artist’. Are these paintings interesting? Should they have a critical dialogue about them? The media doesn’t really address what he is making and why he is making it.”

Does Doroshenko have a sense that his art director peers are quietly watching how his risky experiment is panning out? Are they laughing or impressed? “I think probably all of the above. To be honest with you I think a lot of them are highly sceptical – is this just a fad? Is this just something to get people in the door? Is he just attention-seeking? Then why would we do follow-up shows? It doesn’t make any sense. The art world is pretty lazy. It does things that take the least effort and that’s why it works with the same artists over and over again. We want something new and fresh.”

 


Related Articles : Art