INTER_CHANGE 23/24 Field Trip: Newcastle

INTER_CHANGE artist Ian Hinley takes us through an exciting day out visiting art spaces in Newcastle on 23 May 2024.

A grey May morning sees us, that being me and the other four INTER_CHANGE artists, arriving in Newcastle’s Ouseburn. An old industrial quarter now overtaken by students and independent businesses. Among them is The Biscuit Factory, our first waypoint. The Biscuit Factory is a beautiful, welcoming building run as a commercial gallery. It’s absolutely rammed with art of every stripe and colour, and you leave with nothing in mind except the sheer depth of artmaking in this country. Scores upon scores of unbelievable craftspeople bringing beauty into a world in desperate need. Despite its crowding, it is a buoyant place.  

Soon after, we head down the road to Northern Print, another carefully repurposed building. This place too is bursting with work and equipment in the best possible way. An obvious hive of energy and activity. And speaking of obvious energy, long-time co-ordinator Rebecca Taylor took us through the current exhibition in the gallery, an eclectic look at the cost to the natural world of human ambition – and dare I say it, greed – and on a short tour of the print rooms downstairs. She talked excitedly about the 150 or so studio members and the work they’re able to make here, with access to the print room, open calls, residencies and other initiatives. It’s very clear that Northern Print’s goal is to make printing possible for as many artists as they can, and with so few open-access print studios in the North that’s certainly a noble goal to have. Something Rebecca said stuck in my mind. She explained that in her 23 years of working in the arts, now is the hardest it’s ever been. For all her energy, all her passion, her sadness at the state of things couldn’t help but show.  

After an early lunch, we dipped into The Newbridge Project, located in the Shieldfield Centre. Its ground floor bookshop is a delight, with fetchingly green wooden walls, doors and shelves and a thoughtful selection of small-press and independently published books. Beyond the bookshop is a warren of studios for Newcastle’s artists to rent and use. We loved it in here. A bustling multi-use space like this seems like a perfect hub for anybody’s workdays, and we long for something like it in Hull. Maybe one day?  

Naturally the day’s main event is the BALTIC, a multi-use space par excellence – five huge levels of art, community and events spaces with a shop, restaurant and cafe. Free to enter and welcoming, too. You could sit in the BALTIC all day and spend nothing but your time. It’s a true third space, one of the very few we have left. Arriving in the early afternoon, we are welcomed by Assistant Producer David Maguire who, in the spirit of the building, gives his time and knowledge generously. We learn about the myriad ways in which the BALTIC steps in to enable communities who need it most access to art and creativity, information, and perhaps most importantly friendship and belonging. It’s a tremendously uplifting programme, but even here the spectre of austerity looms large and the difficulties of money are never far from the conversation.  

The art itself is a feast. The top floor, a cathedral-like space of light and columns, has been transformed into a garden by Michael Rakowitz for his exhibition The Waiting Gardens of the North. Food stories and cultural exchange form the heart of the exhibition, which also deals heavily with displacement and history. I’d never seen anything remotely like it and I struggle for ways to accurately describe the power of being in a space so surprising, so transformed. Downstairs is a retrospective of the work of photographer Franki Raffles. From the light and garden freshness of the upper gallery to this dark, night-feeling gallery space there was a shocking shift, adding to the unease of a show which particularly highlights Raffles’ lifelong feminist activism. This unease arises chiefly from how grimly relevant the work still proves itself to be.  

Down the stairs again, this time to see work by Joanne Coates, once a studio holder at Hull’s own Juice Studios and the winner of this year’s Vasseur Award. Coates’ photography recontextualises the quaint British countryside, the whole exhibition tricks you into feeling the saccharine sweetness of a rural holiday with its peach walls and jolly little shed. Beneath the surface, though, is a deeper story of home, belonging, love and a profound sense of rural isolation.  

Lastly, two group shows can be found further down still. One half of the Northumbria University BA Fine Art Degree Show and this year’s Baltic Open – to attempt to summarise such diverse and multitudinous offerings here would be a fool’s labour, but needless to say we left suitably impressed.  

Our final appointment was with artist Harley Kuyck-Cohen, who we met for coffee and a gripe about the industry. Harley has lived and worked in Newcastle for five years and spoke warmly about the city’s lively and welcoming arts scene. He’s clearly in love with his practice, talking dreamily about the joy of material exploration and the historicity intrinsic to material culture. He’s profoundly generous with his time and experience and I admire him, but he too speaks of difficulty. Not in making work but in making it work, as he mentions the 2023 inquiry Structurally F*cked towards the end of our conversation.  

Newcastle is an amazing city. Like all amazing cities it brims and bubbles with creative energy and creative people. But everyone we met had the same weary look at the back of their eyes; just fleetingly, just for a second, but it was there.  

So, the thought of the day seems to be this: Art brings joy, and depth, and value wherever you find it. We all know it. We all feel it. Yet we live in a country where to be an artist is a fight. Where arts organisations spin 100 plates to stay afloat. Does that reflect what we value? I know it doesn’t for me.  

Words by Ian Hinley (@ianhinleyart)


Links for further Reading: 

Structurally F*cked, an inquiry into artists’ pay and conditions in the public sector in response to the Artist Leaks data / Instagram / Instagram / Instagram / Instagram / Instagram / Instagram