Northern exposure

First came the Angel; now the north-east has an 'art factory' to rival Tate Modern, writes Elaine Williams.

Baltic, Gateshead

Sid Henderson could have been forgiven for basking in glory as thousands spilled out of pubs and clubs; nurses, doctors and taxi drivers left their night shifts; and arts punters and local residents left their homes to make their way over a piece of filigree engineering, the "winking eye" of the Millennium footbridge, and queue along the banks of the Tyne for the midnight opening of Baltic last weekend.

The former Gateshead flour mill, built in 1950 to make bread for Joseph Rank Ltd, is now a contemporary "art factory" launched with pound;46 million of lottery funding to enormous national media interest. Sid Henderson, former primary headteacher and local Gateshead councillor, is a Baltic trustee. If he hadn't stuck his neck out as chairman of the Gateshead Arts and Libraries Committee and taken the decision 15 years ago to begin to fund large-scale public works of art; if he hadn't had the courage to back the assembly of a large ferro-oxide angel as a landmark sculpture amid the dereliction of the redundant Teams Colliery site, the mill would probably be a demolition site and the refashioning of Gateshead as a national and international cultural centre a madman's dream.

It was Sid who had to defend sculptor Anthony Gormley's "Angel of the North" when it was hoisted into position against vociferous scepticism. The Angel, it was said, would interfere with telly reception; it would be a hazard to aircraft; it would end up as scrap metal; it would turn Gateshead into a laughing stock. Sid remained stubborn in his belief that only through brave and imaginative cultural projects could a future for the north-east be secured.

Who would have imagined in their wildest fancy that Gateshead, a hard-bitten macho wilderness, failing to come to terms with the decline of its mining, shipbuilding and engineering industries, would one day contend with Newcastle, its traditional sparring partner across the water, for the crown of European Capital of Culture (2008)? It was the Angel that did it. Over the past few years it become internationally renowned and a much-loved symbol of hope for locals and travellers heading north.

Maybe it takes a headteacher (Rowlands Gill, formerly at Highfields primary) to realise that only through cultural and educational pioneering can the resurrection of a depressed community can come about. "The future has to be about creativity and lifelong learning," Sid says. "It has to be about enabling that to happen in every way we can. I think the interest in the Baltic will be overwhelming."

So the Angel's champion can now take heart from a riverside teeming with life and redevelopment. The Baltic, a triumph of architectural design, is an impressively solid brick battleship of a structure with the northern and southern facades of the mill retained. Between them, Ellis Williams Architects has inserted glass elevators, six floors and three mezzanines, making this by far the largest art space in the north of England, second only to London's Tate Modern in scale.

In its huge display spaces, its vast workshops and studios awash with light, visitors can interact with artists of international standing and take their pick of viewpoints - from rooftop restaurant or level 4 viewing platform, from the lifts or the level 6 ladies toilets - to gaze at the theatrical panorama of Newcastle, with its concertina of Tyne bridges, the Byker Wall, the distant hills of Northumberland, and Gateshead, raw with building sites, as more cultural projects forge ahead.

Next door, Foster and Partners' Gateshead Music Centre is taking shape. A curvaceous building of concrete, steel and aluminium, it, too, will be unmissable, and its huge windows will provide views across the river to Newcastle's city centre, while inside, airy foyers and walkways will lead to a 1,650-seat auditorium, a secondary concert hall, a music school and rehearsal rooms. It will be home not only to the Northern Sinfonia but also to Folkworks, a charity promoting traditional music.

Linking Newcastle's fashionable Quayside to these cultural giants is the footbridge, opened by the Queen in May. The light, graceful structure spans 127 metres, rising to 50 metres in a curve across the river, designed to look like an eye that opens to lets ships pass through. The package - quayside, bridge, Baltic, and music centre - will undoubtedly create a cultural and recreational heart to enliven the entire north-east.

Baltic hopes for 300,000 visitors a year, but many believe this is a conservative target. It must make up half its annual pound;3 million revenue in commercial enterprises. Uniquely, it has secured pound;1.5 million a year from the lottery for the next five years, to underwrite its ambitious intentions as a place of art production rather than another gallery space. Education - links with schools, colleges and community groups - lies at the heart of its intentions.

For example, an opening night performance based on "Football haiku" and "Labanotation" - a choreographed and photographed dance of Archie Gemmill's famous goal for Scotland against Holland in 1978 - was the result of a partnership between artist-in-residence Alec Finlay and the John Spence secondary school, North Shields. Anthony Gormley, along with five other artists, is to hold a series of masterclasses with A-level students in the autumn, and the Baltic has already published a big book for primary schools to use as part of the literacy strategy, B.Creative, about the building of the centre and the nature of contemporary art. Baltic artists will work with the region's schools and be closely involved in fashioning the education programme; special previews for heads and governors will raise the profile of art in schools, and teachers can take advantage of training opportunities and a bank of contemporary art resources.

Sid Henderson has faith that the Baltic will be as beloved as the Angel. The transformation of the riverside, he says, is little short of miraculous. His belief in the transforming power of the arts is complete.

Free introductory talks and guided tours for groups must be booked two weeks in advance. For details of other opportunities for visits and Inset sessions, contact Emma Thomas, education manager, 0191 478 1810, email: info@balticmill.com, website:www.balticmill.com.The 'B.Creative' Big Book is available from Baltic (pound;12)

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