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The Changing Face of the North East of England.

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From Beamish to Baltic.

I went down to have a look at a new exhibition at the Baltic the other day, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead.
It was the exhibition of the COBRA group of artists who worked in northern Europe just after the Second World War - a tremendous exhibition, I thought, about which the London art critic, Brian Sewell was quoted in the local paper as saying: "It's absurd to arrange a major exhibition of fundamental importance to the understanding of what happened to art in the second half of the 20th century and deprive London of an immediate view".

As if that wasn't enough, he was also quoted in The Journal as saying: "Gateshead is a self-inflicted wound. Bomb it, then you will change it. It is an awful place. Most of the North is awful".

I mention this for three - no four reasons, really. Firstly, it's good to see ourselves as other people see us - as curious remote people who live a long way from the centre. Secondly, it always does you good to have someone you can really hate.
But then to stand at the door of the Baltic is to be confronted by two other truths - that the North East is changing at such a fantastic rate and that some, at least, of those changes are of the highest possible quality.

The view is wonderful and getting better.
Why do I mention that here? Well, we're part of that change on the one hand, part of the new tourist and heritage and service sector-led economy that is doing the changing.

Who'd have thought that people would flock to Gateshead to enjoy high culture; but then who would have thought that they'd flock to Stanley, County Durham, either. Beamish is a key part of that ring of cultural experiences that is transforming the North East.

But I mention the rapidly changing Gateshead Quayside for another, and I think more important reason, because Beamish, as well as being part of the changing North East, is also the guardian of that vanishing North East.

If the Quayside is where we are, or maybe a version of where we're going, Beamish is a reminder of what we were and where we've come from and if we lose that memory where would we ever be?

John Grundy

First published in the Friends' Newsletter Spring 2003.


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