New course puts students in the heart of a creative hub in Newcastle city centre

Breeze Creatives explain why they are bringing arts education into the midst of a creative hub in Newcastle city centre

Left to right , Peter McArdle, Dan Gibson, A >> lex Breeze and Zoe Anderson, in The Commercial Union Building on Pilgrim Street in Newcastle
Left to right , Peter McArdle, Dan Gibson, Alex Breeze and Zoe Anderson, in The Commercial Union Building on Pilgrim Street in Newcastle

Imagine you’re fresh out of high school, creative, and contemplating a career in the art world.

Take the traditional academic route, and you’ll soon know your Monet from your Manet.

When it comes to artistic practice and making those all-important connections, however, your progress might not be quite so swift - which is where Breeze Creatives comes in.

The Newcastle-based Community Interest Company, which devises and facilitates opportunities for artists, has teamed up with Northumberland College to offer a first for the North - a Level 3/4 BTEC Foundation Diploma in Art and Design that’s taught in the midst of a true creative hub.

Starting from today, the 35-week course is being run at Commercial Union House on Newcastle’s Pilgrim St, where Breeze Creatives is based and where around 100 artists have their studios.

The building is the home of Vane Gallery and several creative businesses, from which the students can draw inspiration.

Breeze Creatives, though, is going even further, opening opportunities through its vast array of contacts that sprawl the broad landscape of art and academia.

“What we’re doing doesn’t currently exist in the North,” said Zoe Anderson, who runs the business alongside Alex Breeze and Dan Gibson.

“It’s about taking these students outside of the further education environment, where they don’t get that submersion in experience, and taking them into a professional building where they’re instantly engaging with professional partners.

“That gives them the opportunity to look at what they need, to network and to meet with the right people - in other words, they’re actually living the experience, rather than just reading about it.”

Art as a living, breathing phenomenon, in fact, forms a crucial concept within Zoe’s PhD, which she’s currently undertaking at Sunderland University.

Alex’s talents, meanwhile, lie in the intelligent utilisation of space, while Dan, who has an events management background, brings organisational and technological gifts into the equation.

“We saw that we had a range of different skillsets we could bring together,” Alex said.

The seeds for the latest project, then, were sown after visual artist Peter McArdle took up a studio at Commercial Union House around a year ago.

Currently course team leader for the foundation course at Northumberland College, Peter works from Ashington but saw potential in running a parallel course from the city centre.

“We were all having coffee together one morning and got talking about teaching and that led on to the idea of holding the foundation course in Newcastle,” he said.

“Initially, I’d been thinking about the course in Ashington, which draws in a wide demographic and is geographically out on a limb.

“I thought if we had a course in Newcastle as well, there could be joint experience, with the Ashington students being able to take part in the city life and the Newcastle students benefitting from all that’s going on in Ashington in terms of live projects.”

As discussions continued, the group began to consider what Zoe refers to as the “restriction and rigidity” of traditional academia.

The foundation course is designed to for students who wish to progress to university and, to that end, Northumberland College has an exceptional reputation; in 2013/14, 100% of the students achieved this goal, with many going on to highly regarded institutions.

With university fees rising dramatically, however, the route is not for everyone and those taking it can often fail to make the links that make a crucial difference in a career choice where there are no guarantees.

“The foundation course concept was created in the 1950s and takes a very modernist approach,” Peter said. “But we’re now in a post-modernist era or - as some would suggest - we have maybe even moved on from post-modernism.”

Understandably, the senior management at the college were “a bit nervous at first” about the proposed shake-up.

“They had to think about and look carefully at the maths,” Peter said.

“But we’ve had several people over to have a look and we’ve reassured them - they’re now fully behind it and really excited about it.”

Certainly, Breeze Creatives come equipped with some solid credentials, the business’ network of contacts spanning not only the local art scene but going as far afield as the British School of Moscow.

In a short space of time, the company has also demonstrated an extraordinary ability to pull great minds together in support of inclusive education through initiatives such as the Wednesday Night Lecture series, open to all for free.

“We already had the links - we knew lots of lecturers so it was as simple as saying: we’ve got 30 weeks and need 30 people to speak,” Alex said. “Only two said no.

“And this isn’t a matter of dumbed down education - these are leaders in their fields, who’re given two hours to talk about whatever they’re most passionate about.”

In July, for example, Teesside University’s Dr Matthew Feldman was among those discussing the university’s report on Faith Matters’. Tomorrow, Patrick Brill - better known as Bob and Roberta Smith - will be giving his time for the project.

Brill made waves in the art world with Letter to Michael Gove, an oversized painted-word response to the former Education Secretary’s proposed eradication of art from the school syllabus.

He will be attending a screening of his feature film, Art Party, at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, where Breeze Creatives will also be hosting a QA session with him.

For the time being, the company has likewise been given access to the Grade II listed Old Shire Hall in Durham, formerly Durham University’s administrative building and, before that, home to the county council.

There it has staged events ranging from a film night, showcasing the work of North East visual artists, to an art auction aimed at money for new experimental studios at Vane Gallery.

Plans are also under way for the creation of an alternative Old Boys’ Network in the North, emulating work being done in London by an organisation called Arts-Emergency, helping to tackle inequality through the contributions of volunteer mentors.

“We need people to stay in the North East and create a scene here, as many currently feel the only opportunities are in London,” Zoe said.

As far nurturing the region’s talent is concerned, the foundation course will aim to give each individual student as much attention as possible, with three representatives from the college and three from Breeze Creatives overseeing a maximum intake of 15

It will, however, provide a delicate balance between guidance and encouraging individuality, with the first 10 weeks - the Exploratory stage - being dedicated entirely to experimentation.

Then comes the Pathway stage, when the student will decide what he or she wants to focus on.

“This is we come in,” said Zoe. “Once we know their interests, we can help them through the networks we have, allowing them to work with others who can help them develop their skills.

“In addition to what other courses can give them, we can expose them to professionals in their chosen fields - that’s across the board and outside of Newcastle as well. We have lots of networks we can use.”

The course, then, concludes with a final major project, when the student produces a brief, works on their art for 10 weeks then puts on a final show.

This is the only part of the course that is marked and, by this stage, students have often received unconditional offers from universities.

Grades, then, aren’t as important as the opportunities the course opens up, Zoe said.

“Education can separate itself from the rest of the world when it’s based in an institution,” she added. “Art doesn’t function in institutions but in the real world, so, as an education provider you need to be part of something bigger.

“We want to get students to a place where they know they have a future in their chosen field and we’ll not know until this time next year whether we’ve been successful.”

Stuart Cutforth, principal of Northumberland College, said: “This partnership is just one example of our innovative approach to the curriculum here at Northumberland College and it gives our students real experience with the North East creative arts hub.”

For further information on the foundation course, contact evelyn.mclean@northland.ac.uk or call 01670 841 200 ext 387.

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