In the first week of the 2011 Turner Prize exhibition at Baltic, in Newcastle, a queue snaked out of the gallery and along the riverside path. Record numbers of visitors came to see the art. Of the four artists on show, only Hilary Lloyd works in London – although she was educated in Newcastle. Karla Black and Martin Boyce are based in Glasgow, George Shaw in Devon.
When the winner is announced, on 5 December, it will be a glittering evening. The Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant, a Baltic patron, will join the cream of the British art world. A significant number of the guests will be local.
Over the past few years, there has been a surge of interest in contemporary art in the north of England. Grand new museums have been built, such as The Hepworth Wakefield. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Baltic have offered ambitious programmes of work by international artists. Gallery spaces have been dedicated to experimental work.
Last month, Jarvis Cocker attended the opening of the New Contemporaries exhibition in Sheffield and a large crowd went on to a dinner in the huge atrium of a local studio. The evening showed the vibrancy of the art scene in Sheffield.
London is the centre of Britain's art world. Outside the capital, only Glasgow has a significant number of commercial galleries. But artistic activity is heading north. Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester, Wakefield, Leeds and Sheffield offer cheap studio spaces and opportunities to show work in public galleries. For an artist to move north is no longer the end. For some, it is the beginning.
Haroon Mirza left London five years ago. He moved in order to be with his girlfriend, but in his time in Sheffield his career has gone global. He won the Northern Art prize last year and an award at the Venice Biennale. His work is on show in New York and London. He is represented by the Lisson Gallery in London and bets are on that he will be nominated for the Turner Prize next year.
The 33-year-old works at S1 Artspace, a large industrial building not far from the city centre. Rent is a fraction of what it would be in London. Mirza makes complex art, machines that vapourise water inside a cube or objects held together by sound. His great advantage over London artists is that he finds it far easier and cheaper to find fabricators and materials. He can get it all done in Sheffield.
"I was terrified about leaving London," he says, "and concerned that it would affect my development as an artist. I worried about being cut off from influence and stimulation. But then artistic endeavour is about originality and you don't want too much influence or your work loses originality.
"Being in Sheffield meant that I had time to focus and concentrate, which I suppose is more important. Of course it's different socially, compared to London. There is a community of people involved in art up here but it's on a small scale. In Sheffield, I knew everyone and what they did within a year. In London there's an energy and productivity to the social side of being an artist. But London is more competitive, more challenging and more expensive. I don't think it is essential to be in London."
Mirza has a gripe about some London attitudes towards the north.
"Curators will fly to Milan, New York or Berlin to visit an artist's studio," he says. "But ask them to visit Sheffield and it's like, 'No thanks.' I think that's really lazy."
Dan Holdsworth is from Yorkshire. He lived in London for 12 years but he now lives in Newcastle, where he makes striking landscape images. His work shows in London and all over Europe.
"Moving north was fine for me because I had already established my career in London," he says. "So it gave me a certain freedom. I ended up in Newcastle because we met so many other artists who lived there. It is a centre for the arts, in terms of the community and both universities, which attracts a lot of artists who teach there. I travel a lot but I often work with people in Newcastle as well. Newcastle is very well set up for studios. It's like Glasgow was 15 years ago."
Greville Worthington, an art collector who is based in Catterick, North Yorkshire, says: "We used to get international artists coming through up here but there were very few people to see it. I definitely see more international art up here now. The first UK exhibition of one of the most important post-war Italian artists, Mario Merz, opened in Leeds this year. Artists such as James Lee Byers and Jaume Plensa have shown at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. That would not have happened 15 years ago."
Paul Morrison is an artist with an international profile – his beautiful paintings, sculpture and installations of landscapes and nature are very expensive. He works in a purpose-built studio, close to Sheffield Hallam University.
"I think that as artist working now, you can live anywhere," he says. "It depends what you want. I have more time up here and I didn't come looking for an art scene. Sheffield is very vibrant at the moment, there is definitely more going on."
In and around Leeds lie a group of museums that have been called the "sculpture triangle". The Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the Hepworth Wakefield and the Henry Moore Institute are within 20 miles or so of each other. Some claim that this proximity makes them the largest centre for sculpture in Europe.
"I think the bar has been raised over the past few years," says Clare Lilley, the head curator at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. "Expectations of regional spaces is much higher. You can't not do a programme of international artists now."
The Park's most ambitious recent project saw the American artist James Turrell build a Skyspace, a chapel-like room in an old deer shelter with a large open square in the ceiling, through which viewers can look up into the sky. Baltic is currently staging A Voyage of Growth and Discovery, by two American artists, Mike Kelley and Michael Smith.
"There's a thirst for contemporary art here," says Laurence Sillars, chief curator at Baltic. "I think in London there's pressure to do blockbusting shows but here we can take more risks with our programming. There is an art scene here. There's so much going on that it is hard for me to get to everything. A group of artists has taken over a local tower block, there are young curators doing all sorts of interesting stuff. Good artists have come out of Newcastle."
There is no art market in the north. A handful of commercial galleries, such as Workplace in Newcastle and The International 3 in Manchester, provide opportunities but have to travel to London, Miami and Basel to find buyers.
However, publicly funded spaces such as S1 Artspace and Site in Sheffield are integral, supporting young artists to international success. If creativity blossoms when the financial pressure is off, the future might be far from grim up north.