Pictures at an Exhibition

The Great Exhibition of the North is underway. But will it fulfil the hopes of its creators? Patrick Kelly has a look.

Newcastle likes a party, as anyone who attended the launch of the £13.2 million Great Exhibition of the North could see. The quaysides on both banks of the River Tyne were packed with people enjoying the balmy summer weather and the spectacular opening ceremony for the event, which featured hundreds of drones fitted with LED lights in an aerial display swooping between the Sage music centre and the Baltic art gallery, followed by the launch of an 80m water sculpture, poetry by Lemn Sissay, a fireworks display and a set by local band Maximo Park.

Images show drones creating the Great North Exhibition logo, and the poet Lemn Sissay at the opening night of #GetNorth

Over 80 days, until September 9, organisers expect at least three million people to visit the festival, which celebrates the scientific and artistic achievements of the north of England.

GEN describes itself as “a free, summer-long celebration of the North of England’s pioneering spirit”, incorporating “a programme of amazing exhibits, live performances, displays of innovation, new artworks and unforgettable experiences”. And they have got an enticing line up. At the Great North Museum, for example, more than 200 items are on loan from the UK’s leading museums, galleries and private collections. They include a spacesuit worn by the Sheffield-born astronaut Helen Sharman; a rare miniature book created by Charlotte Brontë; the original models of Postman Pat and the last piano played by John Lennon. Stephenson’s Rocket, an early steam engine, made in Newcastle in 1829 will be on display at the Discovery Museum, alongside a modern Azuma train, made in County Durham. BALTIC will present a series of exhibitions and stunning offsite commissions from renowned artists, all of whom have strong connections to the North. They include such luminaries as Michael Dean and Lubiana Himid and Phil Collin’s whose restored Soviet-era statue of Friedrich Engels is already a highlight. The Sage Gateshead will curate a summer of music concerts, festivals and family activity. These three hub venues are at the heart of the event and from each of them walking trails extend across the twin cities, organised around the themes of art, design and innovation, linking various visitor attractions and events.

Each night, the water sculpture in the Tyne will be illuminated. Water will shoot up to the height of the Tyne Bridge, dancing to a soundtrack of specially commissioned collaborations by Maximo Park and Kate Rusby with Royal Northern Sinfonia. (Though an accident with a boat has put an end to this spectacle, at least for the moment).

Newcastle and Gateshead, which won the bid to host the event against competition from other Northern bastions like Bradford and Blackpool, hopes to generate about £184m in total spending from the extravaganza.

Its modelled on the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, which attracted six million people, and the North East Coast Exhibition which attracted more than four million visitors in 1929.

The hope is that GETNorth, as its now being called locally, will boost a tourism trade that already nets Newcastle and Gateshead £950m a year.

But this latest manifestion of Northern pride began in what also now seems a distant past, when George Osborne was Chancellor and in the prime of his “Northern Powerhouse” pomp. He pledged £5m for the festival itself and £15m for culture around the region as part of his strategy of promoting the North.
The Government has indeed contributed funding of £6.87 million (including cash from DCMS, DCLG, Equalities Commission, Innovate UK, tourism campaign GREAT and VisitEngland) but the rest has come from a variety of sources. Here’s the breakdown:

£1.82m: grant funding, including £1.7m from National Lottery (inc Heritage Lottery Fund, Big Lottery Fund and Arts Council England) plus James Knott Foundation, Barbour Foundation and Reece Foundation.

£850k European Funding, including £589k ERDF and £260k ESF (via Gateshead College)

£1.35m corporate sponsors and wider partners

£2.34m: support from local delivery partners (including BALTIC, Sage Gateshead, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, Newcastle City Council and Gateshead Council).

But not everyone is happy with this munificence. A group of local artists and community activists have set up an "alternative" event, The Other Exhibition of the North, aimed at being "broader and more diverse". Their manifesto describes GETNorth as “a politically motivated attempt by a Tory government to Artwash its policies of austerity and privatisation.” Their alternative event promises to include individuals and communities who won’t get a look into the main programme.

Artist Frank Styles is one of those who did get a comission. He has produced a huge mural for the official Exhibition, incorporating 50 northern icons voted for by members of the public, including a Greggs steak bake, the Angel of the North and a Yorkshire pudding. But he is also wary of ‘artwashing’. “The money the government has given the Great Exhibition is a drop in the ocean compared with the cuts local councils here have had to make as a result of Tory austerity,” he says. “Where I live, in Sunderland, all the satellite libraries have closed and the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art has been downgraded and forced to share premises with the National Glass Centre.”

There was also a controversy when artists threatened to pull out when they discovered it was sponsored by arms manufacturer BAE Systems (BAE ended up pulling out instead). The row was not helped by comments from Jake Berry, the Northern Powerhouse minister, condemning the critics as “snowflakes” and “subsidy-addicted artists”.

Other critics include noted urbanist and academic John Tomaney, who points out that the government cash would not buy Newcastle United FC a run-of-the-mill attacking midfielder.”

He compares the government subvention to the Treasury’s £78m investment in The Factory theatre and arts venue to be built on the site of the former Granada Studios in Manchester. “GEN is the latest in a line of projects that are nationally conceived and overseen, hindered by limited resources, burdened by overblown claims about likely impacts and with questionable objectives,” he says.

Will GetNorth realise the dreams of its supporters? Newcastle/Gateshead has been a pioneer of culture related investment for decades, and they can be relied upon to rustle up something impressive even on a tight budget. It’s very likely that the visitors will come and they will spend their money. Whether it will produce a sea-change in the North’s economic prospects is another matter entirely. New jobs, new infrastructure, improved transport links will all be needed to restore the region’s economic health.

But as Martin Gannon, the leader of Gateshead Council, has said, even while lamenting the loss of £143m stripped from his council’s budget since 2010, “Ultimately, we’ve got to make more money and build our economy. This is one way we can get on with it.”




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