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October 17, 2011 6:52 pm
From urban underdog to host for the UK’s most publicised and controversial art award – the launch on Thursday of the Turner Prize 2011 exhibition at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art is a coup for Gateshead.
The Turner Prize, arguably the world’s most recognised and prestigious award for contemporary art, is notorious for rows over whether some exhibits, such as cows in formaldehyde and an unmade bed, constitute art or, as a former culture minister suggested, “conceptual bullshit”.
But, as Godfrey Worsdale, director of the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art puts it: “The Turner Prize is the best catalyst to get the press and the public talking about art.”
Becoming the first non-Tate venue to host the prize in its 28-year history will enable the Baltic to raise its own profile and engage a wider public. Mr Worsdale says it is wonderful for the Baltic to host such an award. But, he adds; “It’s really good for the Turner Prize.”
Only once before has the Turner Prize been held outside London, at the Tate in Liverpool in 2007. Switching this year from London to Gateshead offers it access to a new, potentially very different audience.
In the present tough financial climate it also gives Baltic, which is committed to free access, the chance to boost its income from its shop and restaurants through an influx of new visitors. The exhibition opens to the public on Friday; the £25,000 winner will be announced live on Channel 4 on December 5.
The UK’s largest display space for contemporary art outside London, Baltic was created from a derelict 1940s grain warehouse on the south bank of the River Tyne as part of a drive, spearheaded by Gateshead council in the 1990s, for transformation through culture , with the Angel of the North, the Sage Gateshead Music Centre and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge being products of that vision.
Baltic’s role was to be an “art factory” of international stature, with a constantly changing schedule of exhibitions and no permanent collection. Opened in July 2002, it has received 4m visitors and now has 400,000 annually.
The £46m project, one of the arts lottery’s biggest, received a £33.9m grant, including £1.5m a year for five years for revenue costs. This ended shortly before Mr Worsdale became director in 2008.
Baltic’s annual £5m turnover comprises grants of £3m from Arts Council England and £500,000 from Gateshead council, plus £1.5m from earned income and donations. But the monolithic building costs £1m a year just to maintain and heat. As well as growing its shop sales and earning a percentage from its leased-out catering, corporate events and wedding activities, Baltic is developing a cadre of philanthropic patrons.
Mr Worsdale has also clinched an innovative partnership with Northumbria University, which is creating a new institute of contemporary Art, directed by a Baltic professor, for PhD students. As part of this new agreement – the professor is about to be appointed – the university is giving Baltic £500,000 over five years. It has gained naming rights for a gallery, the Northumbria Gallery, where the Turner Prize exhibition will be displayed.
The public, says Mr Worsdale, have developed quite sophisticated tastes around contemporary art. “People expect to see new ideas. The commercial imperatives don’t have to compromise the art programme.”
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