Alan Smith on his pride at freedom of Gateshead honour

I HAVE lost count of the number of times I’ve read about or listened to the story of how culture inspired the rebirth of the Gateshead Quayside – the 10th anniversary of the opening of Baltic, providing the latest opportunity to reflect on this remarkable example of urban regeneration.

Alan Smith, chairman of Baltic Trustees
Alan Smith, chairman of Baltic Trustees

I HAVE lost count of the number of times I’ve read about or listened to the story of how culture inspired the rebirth of the Gateshead Quayside – the 10th anniversary of the opening of Baltic, providing the latest opportunity to reflect on this remarkable example of urban regeneration.

Yet when Alan Smith recounts the story, flanked in the uber-cool boardroom of the Newcastle headquarters of his architects practice, Red Box Design Group, by huge paintings by Newcastle artist Tom Moore, I am hooked on every word. His face lights up with an almost child-like enthusiasm as he recalls in his soft County Durham tones, the moment, back in 1990, when he first became involved in what was to be the Gateshead revolution; an affinity which will see him today become one of only 20 people to be granted the freedom of the borough since it was established in 1835.

The scene was the Gateshead International Garden Festival, one of five such events held around the UK in the late 1980s and early ’90s designed to showcase what could be achieved on large pieces of derelict land, something Gateshead had in abundance.

“If I’d stood on the Garden Festival site with you in 1990 and said, ‘Andrew, see that derelict grain mill site along the road there? In 12 years’ time, we’ll be sitting on the top of that having a fantastic meal and we’ll be able to walk through the building and it will be filled with the most amazing art from all over the world’, you’d have thought I was crackers,” he says.

“Yet if you look at the span of time from Metrocentre to Design Centre in Gateshead, within 25 years there has been £1bn invested within about 100 yards on the riverfront. Would any council in England have thought they could achieve that? What Gateshead has pulled off has been phenomenal.”

Alan was inspirational in making the Garden Festival happen. He met with then Gateshead Council leader Dave Clelland to discuss the strategic plan for regeneration, then brokered a joint venture deal with McAlpine to first reclaim then regenerate the whole site following the festival. Critically, he also conceived the overall theme for the festival – modern art.

“I was very conscious of the impact of the festival in 1990 and protecting the image of Gateshead in the build-up to the festival – a negative image of a derelict Gateshead could have backfired and been detrimental,” Alan recalls. “The Metrocentre had recently opened and international eyes were on the region with the opening of the Nissan plant.”

The festival – which was a resounding success – is widely credited with stimulating the remarkable developments of the decade that followed.

Modern art was at the heart of this regeneration, firstly and most famously with Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, plus lower profile pieces such as James Turrell’s Skyspace at Kielder, the Juan Munoz Conversation Piece in South Shields and the Oldenburg Bottle of Notes in Middlesbrough.

But it was to be the arrival of Baltic and The Sage Gateshead that would really put the town on the map culturally. Following five years on the board of Northern Arts, Alan was asked by Government Office North East to chair the board of the project to bring the concept of the new commissioning gallery to life.

He appointed a diverse and talented board, led discussions with the Arts Council over its £7.5m investment in the scheme (which also received £33.4m from the National Lottery), then developed the programme for the opening period and two years beyond.

“In the years leading up to the opening, the commitment to the project was enormous,” he recalls. “My key achievement was to do the heavy lifting and hard work to get it open. It was very demanding and felt like I worked full-time at Red Box and another three days a week at Baltic!”

Alan is uniquely placed to tell this story. Not only has he been intimately involved through his role in the Garden Festival and as the original chairman of Baltic, his professional career revolves around developing regeneration projects whilst his love of the arts and culture dates back to his formative years.

Alan was aged just 14 when he was first inspired by modern art. His father, a County Durham pitman, was friends with Norman Cornish, a miner who was beginning to find fame for his incredible abilities with a paintbrush and had just secured his biggest commission to paint the Miners’ Gala at County Hall in Durham.

Alan, who enjoyed art classes at school, was a regular visitor to Cornish’s terraced home in Spennymoor, where he would marvel at the artist’s creations. It was to prove inspirational in his choice of career.

“I used to watch him paint, I’d sit there thumbing through those enormous sketchbooks of his just drooling over these amazing paintings,” Alan recalls. “Norman said to me one night: ‘Bonny lad, if you like art and you’re good at art, you’ll never make any money from art, so why don’t you consider being an architect?”

Having taken his advice and ultimately set up Red Box Design in 2000, Alan knows only too well the important role that local authorities have to play in enabling key developments to take place. He has been responsible for the design and construction in all of more than £4bn of projects over his career, including his latest flagship scheme, the FA’s National Football Centre in Burton.

He says the “can-do attitude” of the leadership of Gateshead has been the single most important factor in the area’s regeneration.

“You never got a no from Gateshead,” he says. “You can’t help but single out the people who were in Gateshead at that time. They had a fantastic leader in David Clelland, then George Gill, who was a genius, and then Les Elton who was equally good. The relationship between the leader and the chief executive was critical. That’s what made Gateshead. They were audacious – they’d just ask for anything.

“They were nice people who you could trust and have respect for and who were totally can-do. There was also a bit of an edge between them and Newcastle, of course... good healthy competition.”

These days, the North East is nationally and internationally renowned as something of a hotbed of the arts. But it, of course, hasn’t always been the case. Alan chuckles as he recalls how Great North Run founder Brendan Foster baulked when he was asked to join the founding board of Baltic, telling the chairman: “I know nowt about art.”

“Who would have thought that I would have sat with him at the Tyneside Cinema two weeks ago for two hours watching a grand piano burning on Hadrian’s Wall – a piece which Great North Run culture has commissioned,” says Alan. “He sat there for two hours gripped.”

Alan doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence that so much of the regeneration of the region has had a cultural edge to it.

“People look at this region and they think of coal mining, ship building, steel works and all of that,” he says. “But really the DNA of this region is founded out of the ABC of Christianity – Aidan, Bede and Cuthbert – who are all from this region and Northumbria used to be the capital of England. So it’s hardly surprising that people from this region have turned on to culture. It doesn’t surprise me at all.

“My journey from Durham to Newcastle this morning took me past three castles and two cathedrals – so every day we are absorbing this. You don’t necessarily consciously think about it but they are part of what you are. It is there even if we are not recognising it every minute of every day.”

Not that huge capital projects such as the Baltic and Sage were inevitable success stories. Others developed at the time such as the pop music centre in Sheffield and the Cambridge Arts Centre closed. “They were buildings that just didn’t work; they were investments that weren’t proven,” says Alan.

“I was confident it would work because for me Baltic is a beacon in the Golden Square mile of culture – starting with the International Stadium in Gateshead, taking in the Biscuit Factory, Laing Gallery and Shipley Gallery.

“It’s hardly surprising that culture was quite high on people’s agenda.”

His contribution to the changing landscape of Gateshead doesn’t begin and end with Baltic, of course. Red Box was responsible for the Gateshead Hilton, the new Gateshead College campus, the Open University complex and most recently the Northern 1 Design Centre. The practice also conceived the master plan for the Baltic Business Park, which has been developed without any grant aid.

He admits to being “slightly embarrassed” by the honour that will be bestowed on him today, saying the credit really belongs to his team of designers “who have put their heart and soul into every building they create and to my fellow board members at Baltic so helped to get the project off the ground 10 years ago and helped to get a million visitors through the door in the first year”.

“When I got my honour from the Queen (an OBE in 2006) my wife opened the envelope and we both cried,” he says. “It was an amazing personal thing. But when Mick Henry rang me and offered me the freedom of Gateshead, I was so delighted but I felt a bit of a fraud.

“He read out to me why he was proposing that I should be admitted to that incredible order and, as I’m sure Antony would agree, there’s no one person that makes something like the Angel or Baltic. You might be the person that conceives the idea... but the work I do in architecture is not just me. There’s a fantastic team of people who lavish time and care and affection on every building they create. And buildings have to be loved. Baltic had a fantastic team both in management terms and on the ground but also had a fantastic board.”

These days Alan spends much of his time in China, where Red Box is developing many schemes for vast inland cities often on postindustrial landscapes. And naturally the Gateshead story repeatedly crops up as an example of what can be achieved. “Gateshead is heralded by us as a watchword for success – how to do it – albeit on a much smaller scale,” he says.

“Although a Durham boy, I truly feel I am a citizen of Gateshead and proud to enjoy the benefits of being part of the UK run by one of the most innovative and caring councils.”

Alan admits he has some regrets about his association with Baltic, in particular not carrying through with his idea of establishing a foundation, establishing a group of advocates for the work of the gallery.

He also laments the fact there are still relatively few private art galleries around the region, whilst a show by North East artists that he arranged for wealthy London-based businesspeople was cancelled as it fell on the day of the 2005 bombings.

However, his overriding aspiration for Baltic is that it continues to inspire a new generation of arts enthusiasts in the region.

Recalling that moment in Norman Cornish’s front room, he adds: “Everyone gets turned on to the arts somehow in some way in their lives, whether it is a book, a painting or a piece of visual art.”

He laughs about how he has sometimes had to remind Baltic board members of the gallery’s remit when it has taken on some of its more “challenging” exhibits.

“I tell them – it’s not for us,” he says. “It’s for the next generation. It’s for kids who are going to come along and they’ve got no baggage about animals in formaldehyde or dirty beds with condoms on.

“They come along with fresh eyes and they say they either like it or they don’t like it. That’s what Baltic’s about.”

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