How creative energy of the North has reframed the image of UK’s art world

The Hepworth Wakefield.  Director Simon Wallis infront of the building.
The Hepworth Wakefield. Director Simon Wallis infront of the building.
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IT’S not that long ago that arguably Gateshead’s biggest cultural claim to fame was a multi-storey car park featured in the gangster film Get Carter, starring Michael Caine.

This brutalist monument has since been demolished, to the chagrin of some and the delight of others, but while Gateshead has long been overshadowed by its more illustrious neighbour across the River Tyne, the past decade has seen its quayside undergo a radical transformation with the creation of the Sage, a stunning music centre designed by Norman Foster, and the equally impressive Baltic gallery.

The latter was thrust into the limelight last month when it hosted the annual Turner Prize bash. The £25,000 prize was won by Glasgow-based sculptor Martin Boyce, who beat off competition from three rivals, including former Sheffield Hallam University student George Shaw.

It was only the second time the ceremony had been held outside London in its 27-year history and the first outside a Tate venue. But it wasn’t only the movers and shakers of the British art world who headed north up the M1. Over the past decade, attendances at the accompanying Turner Prize exhibition have averaged around 80,000, but this year’s show has attracted 149,700 visitors since October. Although free admission clearly helped boost the figures, the Baltic’s director, Godfrey Worsdale, said he was “overwhelmed” by the level of public interest in the exhibition, which finished on Sunday.

It proves there is an appetite for thought-provoking art beyond the confines of London postcodes. In fact, 2011 was a momentous year for northern art. An exhibition featuring David Hockney’s largest work, Bigger Trees near Warter, broke records at York Art Gallery, attracting 19,000 people through its doors during the first week alone. It was a similar story at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull where the same painting pulled in similarly record-breaking numbers.

There’s little doubt that London remains the de facto art capital of Britain. The Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery has rightly been called the hottest ticket in town and later this month the Royal Academy hosts what will undoubtedly prove to be a hugely popular Hockney exhibition. But by the same token it no longer holds the monopoly on great exhibitions, or venues, in the way it once did.

When The Hepworth Wakefield opened in May last year it hoped to attract 150,000 visitors in its first year. This was revised to 300,000 in August after a phenomenal amount of interest and by the end of December more than 325,000 people had flocked through its doors. The Hepworth’s director, Simon Wallis, says the North has a lot to offer culturally. “There are strong institutions throughout the North and various cities got behind new artistic organisations because they realised the importance visual art can play in transforming a particular area.”

He says The Hepworth adds to that. “There’s something about the artistic legacy here. Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, two of the greatest artists of the 20th century, came from Yorkshire and to get 325,000 people in the first six months shows there is a huge appetite among people to see the work of these artists.”

Thanks to The Hepworth, along with the likes of Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the Henry Moore Institute and Sheffield’s Millennium galleries, it is now possible to see world class collections in the north of England which wasn’t the case a few decades back.

“When it comes to art it’s not just about London. There is a collegiate mentality and mutual support among the art organisations in the region and the quality of spaces is undoubtedly world class,” says Wallis.

“This renaissance is being driven by ordinary people who have a growing desire to see and experience art in their own back yard. What is so pleasing for us is not only the numbers of people coming through our doors, but the amount of time they spend here. There is a real thirst to find meaningful experiences and visual art can provide that.”

Wallis also believes that despite the lure of its high-profile galleries, artists no longer have to feel shackled to the capital.

“Life for artists up here is a lot more do-able than London. It’s easier and more affordable to get bigger studios and if they need something fabricated they can source people locally who will probably be able to do it for a cheaper price. Life in the North is generally cheaper but I would say the quality of life is better. I moved up from London four years ago and there is a stark contrast. There’s room to debate and meet people here whereas London can be claustrophobic.”

Last year’s Northern Art Prize winner Haroon Mirza has a studio in Sheffield as well as London.

“There has been a proliferation in the number of art fairs in the North which has made it possible for artists and commercial galleries to exist outside London,” he says.

“In the past, that wasn’t the case because there wasn’t the market in places like Liverpool, Newcastle or Leeds, but now galleries are thriving because they can go to fairs and sell work.

“There are a lot more artists working up here than there were 20 years ago and there are a lot more art courses and colleges around the country. But for me it’s all about being able to work and Sheffield provides me with good studio space, an easy environment to work in and better access to materials. London is the centre for contemporary art and leaving there was a bit of a gamble but I was actually going somewhere I could work. The beauty of places like Sheffield and Leeds is there are lots of old mills and factories where artists can work, plus it’s cheaper and it’s easier. In London everything costs at least four times the price.”

Mirza’s move to South Yorkshire also made him eligible for the Northern Art Prize. “Competitions like that are important because they can raise awareness about you and your work. It enabled me to produce a new work for the Venice Biennale which was more ambitious than anything I’d ever done before, so it gave me the confidence and the platform to push myself forward.”

Mirza says art complexes like S1 Artspace in Sheffield are springing up in towns and cities across the north of England. “There’s been a growth in independent studio complexes where artists are working alongside each other which creates a really interesting dynamic where people do group shows and there’s a greater debate and discussion about their work.”

Smaller, independent galleries like PSL, Project Space Leeds, and Redhouse Originals in Harrogate, are also thriving. Since opening in August 2010, Redhouse has hosted exhibitions featuring work by the likes of Sir Peter Blake, Banksy and photographer Terry Cryer. Richard McTague, who co-founded the gallery, says artists now have greater freedom about where they live. “The internet has helped because it means artists can set up their own websites and they have become like shop windows in the way studios used to be.”

He feels that art collectors are more prepared to travel in order to seek out new talent. “People are driving up from London to come and see our exhibitions and the level of interest we’ve had has far exceeded our expectations. There’s a real sense of excitement about what is happening in the North right now. We have the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, The Hepworth and the Henry Moore Institute and we’re now one of the most important centres for sculpture in Europe.”