Dazzling visions of urban life

As British Art Show 6 and the Festival of Visual Arts get underway, Cathy Packe explores the cultural renaissance that has lit up the North-east

If statistics are anything to go by, Geordies must be the greatest art lovers in the country. They apparently buy more art than anyone else. On that basis it is no surprise that "NewcastleGateshead" (as the area has now rebranded itself) should be hosting a Festival of Visual Arts this year, or that it should also be the opening venue for British Art Show 6, which begins this weekend.

Since its opening on a summer night in July 2002 when 5,000 people queued at midnight to be among the first to get inside, Baltic - the city's most prominent exhibition space and the venue for British Art Show 6 - has grabbed most of the artistic attention. Anyone who doesn't know Newcastle or Gateshead could be forgiven for thinking that it was this new Centre for Contemporary Art, with its programme of temporary exhibitions that introduced the visual arts to the North-east. But a short stroll around the city reveals that this is far from being the case. The Laing Art Gallery houses the finest permanent collection of art in the region, and, by the time Baltic opened its doors, it was two years short of its centenary. The Laing was founded by a Scottish wine merchant and has occupied the same building since 1904, although this has recently been extended to provide extra, and better, hanging space for the gallery's large collection, the highlights of which include some fine 18th and 19th century watercolours.

Outside, art comes literally to the gallery's doorstep. The Blue Carpet covers the square outside the Laing with blue tiles, turning an otherwise unappealing space into somewhere that passers-by might stop and sit for a while. The edges of the "carpet" lift up against the building, like a floor-covering that has been carelessly cut. It is a striking example of the city's public art programme, a collection of several hundred sculptures, monuments and other artistic structures that are dotted in unexpected places all over the city. Notable pieces include Charles Jencks's DNA Spiral outside the Life Science Centre in Times Square, or Wor Jackie, a statue of Newcastle's great footballing hero, Jackie Milburn, kicking a ball on a street corner not far from St James's Park.

Once you start looking for art in the streets, it appears all over the place. The Red Wall, just around the corner from the Laing on Pilgrim Street, is a striking sculpture that fills a gap in the street façade. Or head due north and then west into Northumberland Road and you will find Fred Watson's Book Stack, a granite sculpture of books piled up precariously opposite the building that is now Northumbria University.

Until about 10 years ago there were few places in the city for contemporary artists to exhibit their works, which is what led to the proliferation of public art. This trend is demonstrated most prominently by the Angel of the North, Antony Gormley's giant sculpture, which has been dominating a Gateshead hilltop since 1998. But these days more and more galleries are opening up: Globe City at Curtis Mayfield House in Carliol Square; the Cluny Gallery, a room off the Head of Steam Pub in Ouseburn where local artists can exhibit; and the Waygood Gallery, a city centre venue that offers studios to artists alongside a space where they can show their works. This has been so successful that it is now in the throes of an ambitious expansion programme which will turn it into an arts centre and meeting place, with more gallery space, a ground floor café and bar and an area in the basement for live music.

More established artists feature regularly in the exhibitions at the University Gallery. This was set up in 1977 as a space to exhibit works by the artists teaching at what is now Northumbria University, but it also operates as a commercial gallery, with a programme of temporary exhibitions in which all the works are for sale. Many of the artists who exhibit in the gallery are connected with the region. Norman Cornish, a former miner turned painter, produces gritty landscapes and energetic figures which seem to epitomise life in the North-east. The director of the gallery, Mara-Helen Wood, knows all her artists well and has seen many of them develop over the years, particularly the Norwegians Ornulf Opdahl and Frans and Nicolaus Widerberg whose works she has helped to make popular in this country.

Not to be outdone, Newcastle University, a completely separate academic institution, also has its own gallery. Like the Laing, the Hatton Gallery has a permanent collection, with artists representing every century from the 14th to the present day. It displays works by local artists, including Thomas Harrison Hair, who painted a series of watercolour sketches showing the conditions endured by miners in the North-east in the early 19th century. The gallery space is also used to show the works of final year Fine Arts degree students, an annual event which is part of a big programme of temporary exhibitions and installations. This often means that much of the permanent collection has to be put into storage, but one work that is always on show is Kurt Schwitters' Merzbarn. This collage of stones, string and other objects including the rose of a watering can, was created on the wall of a barn in the Lake District. The owner of the barn kept his promise to preserve the work after Schwitters' death, but the structure became increasingly dilapidated. Eventually in 1965 the collage, which is widely regarded as one of the major artworks of the 20th century, was moved to a more protected position in the Hatton Gallery.

By the end of the decade, the Hatton will be part of a redeveloped Cultural Quarter, to include a new complex that will house a proposed Great North Museum, amalgamating several of the existing museums in this part of the city. And if other redevelopment plans go ahead, it will only be a short walk from here down the "Geordie Ramblas" - a revamped stretch that will take in Northumberland and Pilgrim Streets - to another of Newcastle's exhibition spaces, the Side Gallery. This has its origins in Amber, a film and photography collective that started up in London in 1968 but moved to Newcastle the following year. It has strong roots in the local and regional communities and the work of its members documents everyday life and working class culture in the North-east. The gallery was opened in 1977, taking its name from the Side, the street where it is located, and it houses a series of changing photographic exhibitions. These draw on works from the permanent collection as well as many commissioned by the gallery itself, and are designed to focus on a particular aspect of local life. Linked to the exhibition space is the Side Cinema, a small picture house which shows a wide variety of art house films.

But for now the focus of attention remains along the Tyne, just down the hill from the Side Gallery. This is the area that has the greatest concentration of art in the city. Works in sandstone, steel, bronze and concrete, such as Andrew Burton's Rudder, or Andre Wallace's Siren, are displayed along the Newcastle Quayside. They are part of the city's permanent art collection, a contrast with the permanently changing exhibits across the water at Baltic.

For information on the Festival of Visual Arts, gallery opening times and exhibition details, see www.FestivalofVisualArts.com or www.visitNewcastleGateshead.com

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE FESTIVAL OF VISUAL ARTS

The Unlimited Dream Company (free entry)

Open until 17 October

The Biscuit Factory, Newcastle, (0191 261 1103; www.thebiscuitfactory.com)

This intriguingly entitled exhibition features 19 of the most exciting artists from around the UK, who invite prospective visitors to take an imaginary journey to another time and place. Don't miss this opportunity to buy work by the stars of the future.

They call us lonely when we're really just alone (free entry)

Open until 5 November

Vane, Newcastle (0191 261 8281; www.vane.org.uk)

This exhibition features work by Graham Dolphin (Newcastle), David Mackintosh (Manchester), Andrew McDonald (Manchester), and Morten Schelde (Berlin/Copenhagen). The four artists all have a meticulous, even obsessive, relationship with their subject matter.

The Great North Run Film: Broken Time (free entry)

Open until 12 November

Hatton Gallery, University of Newcastle (0191 222 6059; www.ncl.ac.uk/hatton)

Broken Time, a film by Turner Prize nominees and Newcastle born artists Jane and Louise Wilson was commissioned as part of the Great North Run's Cultural programme, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the event. The film explores the Great North Run's route through Tyneside.

The World is a Safer Place: a Survey of Non-Conformist Art (free entry)

Open until 10 December

Globe City, Newcastle (0191 222 1666; www.globegallery.org)

Curators at the Globe Gallery have carefully chosen 10 artists, including Palestine's Taysir Batniji, Mexico's Santiago Serra and UK's Bruce Nauman (work pictured above) in order to provide a geopolitical response to President Bush's statement that "the world is a safer place".

Revelation: Reflecting British Art in the Arts Council Collection (free entry)

8 October to 8 January

The Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle (0191 232 7734; www.twmuseums.org.uk/laing/)

The exhibition of the Arts Council Collection looks at the developments and trends within the contemporary art world and focuses on the outstanding purchases made over the past 25 years, during the time of the British Art Show. The exhibition features work by prevalent artists who have helped shape the landscape of British contemporary art over the past quarter of a century, including Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Jeremy Deller, contributing to the formation of a 25-year historical document.

Northern Lights Film Festival 2005

17-24 November

Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle and other selected venues ( www.nlff.co.uk)

Northern Lights Film festival brings together the very best in cinematic storytelling from across Northern Europe with new features, a Greta Garbo retrospective and a focus on Hans Christian Anderson. The festival will also launch Northern Stars, a new film academy for young people, as well as hosting an international film summit and production prize.

Three Rivers Crossword: A Bookscape

Throughout December

(0191 265 6699; www.alecfinlay.com & www.creative-partnerships.com)

NewcastleGateshead-based artist, Alec Finlay, has teamed up with famous crossword setter Sandy Balfour to create Three Rivers Crossword, an interactive experience mixing art and wordplay in an innovative way. An adventure in cryptic thinking, the crossword maps can be found on carriage cards in Metro trains.

For full listings see www.FestivalofVisualArts.com

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