GATESHEAD, UK — I’ve visited 35 states in the USA since I moved to Chicago ten years ago, and I’ve been struck many times by the presence of high-quality art museums in out-of-the-way places, like the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, which moved into an impressive new building on the Mississippi in 2003. Or the Tucson Museum of Art, which has been in its current downtown location for 30 years and shows a lot more than paintings of cowboys. It’s something one might expect from the USA, with its established tradition of public and private partnership and financially well-endowed collectors. It’s more surprising to see a comparable art space in England. But the Baltic Mill Art Museum, in the northeast of England, is just such a place, and it’s currently celebrating its tenth anniversary.
The Baltic Flour Mill is a mighty five-story structure beside the River Tyne, in the northeast of England. This just happens to be the part of the world in which I spent most of my childhood, and when I was growing up I remember this giant brick building as one of many monuments to the industrial past of Tyneside, as this region is known. When the tide of capitalism drew back from this area in the 1980s and flowed somewhere else, the Baltic Flour Mill became just another deserted structure, too big either to re-use or to tear down.
Then, just over ten years ago, the building was converted into a contemporary art museum, as part of the regeneration of the riverfronts of UK cities that began in the 1990s. In 2002, the museum opened, with a shiny new all-caps name: BALTIC. Now celebrating its first decade as an art gallery, BALTIC has made a vital contribution to bringing world art to the UK, including the first ever showing of paintings and drawings by John Cage, the first large-scale exhibition of sculptures by Martin Puryear and a joint show by Ed and Nancy Kienholz that was the first time their work had been exhibited in the UK since 1971. As part of the anniversary programming, BALTIC is re-showing older work that was part of the museum’s christening, and newer work that cements its reputation as a premier British showcase for contemporary art.
The older piece is Janet Cardiff’s “The Forty Part Motet” (2001), which was commissioned for the opening of the BALTIC and which has since been seen/heard around the world. It’s a simple concept: take a piece of vocal music by the English Renaissance compose Thomas Tallis and play it over forty speakers, arranged in a circle of eight groups of five. I won’t describe the piece in too much detail, as it’s been thoroughly documented in many other places (for instance, it was shown at PS1 in New York City in 2011). There is, however, a connection to one of the newer pieces, which also involves sound, “~Flow” (2012), by Owl Project and artist Ed Carter.
“~Flow” consists of two parts: a paddle mill constructed on a small pontoon that sits in the water on the opposite side of the River Tyne from BALTIC. Microphones in the water pick up various sounds and transmit them to an aerial situated on the fourth floor viewing platform of the museum. The aerial is attached to a wooden horn, which emits a variety of slurps, bloops and buzzes, that change according to such factors as the rate of the water’s passage over the paddle mill, the alkalinity of the water and so on. The piece combines crude technology with elegant design, and serves to unite different spaces and places — water and air, noise and silence, river and buildings, above and below — in a thought-provoking and imaginative away.
The main exhibition space is given over to a large exhibition by Mark Wallinger, who won the Turner Prize in 2007. The BALTIC actually organized and hosted the 2011 Turner Prize (which maybe should now be renamed TURNER!), the first time that the prize has been held outside London or Liverpool in its 25 year history. After a shaky period five years ago, when it had three directors in less than two years, the museum has remained popular with the public, and despite the recession its visitor numbers have stayed at an impressively constant 400,000 a year — not bad in an area of only 250,00 residents.
Here’s wishing the BALTIC museum a happy birthday!
BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead Quays, Gateshead: anniversary exhibitions continue through October 14, 2012.