Northern exposure

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; 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, then 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 first 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 it was only through brave and imaginative cultural projects that a future for the North East could 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 for the crown of European Capital of Culture (2008) with Newcastle, its traditional sparring partner across the water? It was the Angel that did it. Over the past few years it has come to be internationally renowned and a much-loved symbol of hope for locals and travellers heading North.

Maybe it takes a headteacher (formerly at Highfields primary, Rowlands Gill) to realise that it is only through cultural and educational pioneering that the resurrection of a depressed community can come about. "The future has to be about creativity and lifelong learning," Sid said this week. "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 teaming 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.

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: , website: . The "B.Creative" Big Book is available from Baltic at pound;12.

To read this review in full see this week's TES. Friday Magazine is taking a break over the summer.nbsp;nbsp;nbsp;

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