Great Exhibition of the North: an event to transform and delight
The Baltic art gallery in Gateshead. Photograph: Kevin Gibson
It has been billed as the biggest event in England next year: a cultural and technological blizzard of all things northern where visitors could see art by Hepworth, Lowry and Hockney, Stephenson’s Rocket, Helen Sharman’s space suit and a spectacular 80-metre river sculpture.
Details are beginning to emerge of what will be included in the Great Exhibition of the North, a government-sponsored 80-day programme of events taking place in Newcastle and Gateshead in the summer of 2018.
The title clearly prompts thoughts of the Great Exhibition of 1851, held at the spectacular Crystal Palace, or the 1929 North East Coast Exhibition, staged at Newcastle’s Exhibition Park. Best not to mention the Millennium Exhibition.
While organisers expect the 2018 exhibition to be as dramatically transformative as previous events, it will be different, they say, and will not follow any template.
“The timescale and funding meant there was no way another Crystal Palace could be built or an exhibition park,” said Carol Bell, the exhibition’s executive director. “We are using the city as our canvas.”
Abigail Pogson, managing director of the Sage concert hall, which along with the Baltic art gallery and the Great North museum will be a hub for the exhibition, thinks it is better that they are starting with a blank sheet of paper.
“It is extraordinary to be offered the opportunity to do something which doesn’t have a blueprint, that is an amazing opportunity,” she said. “We are not trying to be representative of everything that exists in the north or is going on, it is a curated snapshot that requires people to take the ideas that are in it, to think about what the north is. What is going on? What is our future? It is about what that inspires in people rather than it being an encyclopaedic explanation.”
The creative team behind the 2018 Great Exhibition of the North (l-r): Maria Bota, Abigail Pogson, Carol Bell, Ian Watson and Sarah Munro. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
The Great Exhibition of the North concept was announced by the former chancellor George Osborne in his budget of November 2015. In July 2016, four towns and cities were shortlisted – Blackpool, Bradford, Sheffield and Newcastle-Gateshead – while Halifax, Harrogate, Scunthorpe, St Helens and Whitehaven were told they had been unsuccessful.
In October last year, Newcastle and Gateshead were named the winners. It all happened quickly, with about six months between opportunity, pitch and the final result. “There was energy and excitement but also an element of ‘whoa, now we have to do it’,” said Sarah Munro, director of the Baltic.
There will be a mass of things for people to see and do at the three venues, and three trails innovation, arts and design through Newcastle and Gateshead with even more, much of it yet to be announced.
The most conventional exhibition space will be at the Great North museum, formerly known as the Hancock. Its director, Caroline McDonald, a Londoner who previously worked at the Museum of London, arrived in 2016. “I made my decision to move my life up north and very quickly somebody said ‘you’re doing the Great Exhibition of the North, Caroline.’ I thought ‘I’m from the south!’” she said.
“I’ve found that very quickly you shift your mental geography … and I want other people to shift their mental geography too.”
The idea behind its Which Way North show is for it to “feel like a new museum is breaking through in places”, with loans exploring art, design and innovation from across the north which is basically defined as everything above Sheffield and below Scotland.
McDonald said it was not about providing the north’s greatest hits and would, she hoped, challenge preconceptions of the region.
Visitors who remember the museum of old, when it was jam-packed with stuffed animals, will be pleased to hear that a dramatic taxidermy work, John Hancock’s Struggle with the Quarry, a falcon attacking a heron which has caught an eel, will be on show, just as it was in the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Among the Baltic’s commissions will be a new solo show by Newcastle-born Michael Dean, who was shortlisted for the Turner prize in 2016, and this year’s winner, Lubaina Himid, who lives in Preston, creating work for the ground floor. Off site will be work by artists including Chester-born Ryan Gander, and Jane and Louise Wilson, from Kenton.
The space suit of British astronaut Helen Sharman. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images
Highlights at the Sage will include Sunderland’s Lauren Laverne curating a Great North Soundtrack series of gigs.
The government is giving the project £5m and Cook believes it deserves credit for sticking with the project during the turbulence of Brexit and the election. “There were probably many occasions when they could of gone, ‘actually, it’s not the right time’.”
The total cost is estimated at £14m. So far, with a mix of public, European and private money, £11.5m has been raised. “So we’ve got six months,” said Cook.
There will be many “wow” moments, said the exhibition’s creative producer, Maria Bota, not least the 80-metre water sculpture being created for the Tyne, which will exist only for the 80 days of the exhibition. More content will be announced in the new year.
Organisers hope and expect the exhibition to be as transformative as Hull’s year as UK city of culture.
“There isn’t a single story,” said Munro. “There are lots of stories and lots of things which build that sense of what is the north. It is a hard thing to define but you know it when you’re in it. That is exciting.”
Bell called it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” and one that would generate pride and aspiration.
Around 1,200 volunteers will be recruited for the exhibition and nobody expects that to be a problem. “The spirit here is ‘what can I do?’” said Pogson. Bell agreed: “People want this to fly, to be big and bold.”
• Great Exhibition of the North, 22 June-9 September 2018.
Article by Mark Brown, The Guardian, UK.
Posted in: News on January 1, 2018 by...