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Region rides great wave of creativity

THE last few years have seen an extraordinary number of new cultural buildings opened across the North-East and an equal number of impressive refurbishments.

As 2007 takes its leave, Arts Editor David Whetstone reflects on the North-East cultural renaissance and other arts writers reflect on memorable aspects of their year.

THE last few years have seen an extraordinary number of new cultural buildings opened across the North-East and an equal number of impressive refurbishments.

It has been hugely exciting and the trend continued in 2007, with mima (Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art) welcoming its first curious visitors back in January.

Mima sees out the year with its Bauhaus exhibition which has attracted widespread attention. This early 20th Century German art movement was ripe for a show of this kind and nobody seems to have batted an eyelid that it should have taken place in Middlesbrough.

Just as heartening as the cultural renaissance in the region is the gradual acknowledgement of it from outside. The juxtaposition of culture and the North-East works less well these days as a source of cheap laughs. It is becoming like fish and chips.

Down in London, Lee Hall’s Billy Elliot has continued to pack them in and the show – a microcosm of North-East values and humour – is going global in 2008. Look out Broadway, here it comes.

In 2007 Live Theatre reopened with Lee’s latest, The Pitmen Painters – also destined for London and the National Theatre.

The refurbished Live is smart and comfortable (for the first time, it actually seems finished) but still recognisable to those who have always cherished its rather rough and ready nature.

Not too far away, in the Ouseburn Valley, The Round now offers theatre-in-the-round and an intimate atmosphere to small audiences.

The new theatre opened with an amazingly packed introductory programme – much of it aimed at the young. So many different shows! So much choice!

Buildings are nothing, of course, without the people and the products inside them. Increasingly we are seeing partnerships and collaborations in the North-East which are capturing the imagination of people from far afield.

Belsay Hall, the one-time home of the Middletons, is now an established summer art venue and its 2007 exhibition, Picture House, was one of the best yet. The English Heritage property was the inspiration for a varied group of artists, film-makers and fashion designers brought together by curator Judith King.

The results were extraordinary, turning a rather spartan stately home into a place of excitement and adventure. Where, outside of our dreams, could we ever see a full-grown tree bursting through a double bed or a solid silver wedding dress as the centrepiece of a pillared hall?

Outside the purpose-built theatres and galleries, there were many more signs of the creative spark for which we are becoming known.

The wonderful restoration of Saltwell Park in Gateshead and Leazes Park in Newcastle was highlighted by the Enchanted Parks performances. So many public parks in Britain are still little more than litter-strewn dog toilets. Enchanted Parks showed how they should be.

Many more of the region’s architectural landmarks were illuminated as part of the winter festival activities topping and tailing the year. Often it’s a case of making the most of what we already have.

Sometimes it is artists and performers from outside the region who make an impact. So many of them have performed this year at The Sage Gateshead that it would be impossible to list them all. As it enters its fourth year, the Sage’s reputation as a first-rate venue is well established.

The theatre director Robert Lepage was on Tyneside in February with the first version of a new theatre work called Lipsynch.

It took place over five hours at Northern Stage and – in its final, polished state – will return for a world premiere in London.

But this was a premiere, too. I hauled myself from my sickbed to see the first Newcastle performance and won’t regret it. Lepage’s multi-layered, continent-crossing, epic tale of an adopted child showed why he is revered for his theatricality. The play did indeed require the polish, but as an aeroplane became an Underground train and an international cast conjured a multitude of characters, there was no time to feel tired, and certainly not bored or even ill, over the five hours it took to reach its conclusion.

Another foreigner who will stick in my mind is the Austrian music director of the Northern Sinfonia, Thomas Zehetmair.

The conductor and violinist has had a home in north Northumberland for a few years and in that time has taken the North-East chamber orchestra to new heights.

In September I went for a swim with him in the North Sea and learned something of the humour and dedication of a man who was born to perform music. It was his second swim of the morning, which I felt said something about his cool determination and self discipline. He didn’t even shiver!

Lots of people ask if this cultural renaissance (and it is probably an unnecessarily flowery description of what is actually happening) has anything to do with most of the people living in the region.

In very many ways I reckon it does. The restoration of parks and public places surely helps to revive a sense of civic pride – as does the increasing variety of entertainment options in the region. In 2008 we will get Jose Carreras and Kylie – and both will perform to packed houses. Who would be surprised by that nowadays?

But there is anecdotal evidence that more people are being encouraged to take part in cultural activities.

Baltic opened a new education suite in 2007 while most of The Sage Gateshead’s work goes on out of the public eye and away from that landmark building in Gateshead. Increasingly it is becoming a national leader for music education projects.

Many are the actors, artists, writers and musicians who, when asked about their career choice, cite a particular teacher or out-of-school project for providing the spur or opening the door to a life of creativity. The more of these inspirational teachers and projects there are – and the more people exposed to them – the richer all our lives will be.

And here’s a thought for all those who fancy a spot of entrepreneurship in 2008: opening artists’ studios looks like a good bet.

Nick James opened The Brickworks in 2007, to add to The Mushroom Works he already runs, and Biscuit Factory owner Ramy Zack is planning more studios nearby for the coming year. All will be snapped up.

More creative students are keen to settle here after graduating and more artists are relocating here than in the past.

If 2007 was good, the future looks more than rosy.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer