The La Boca Cafe in Newcastle is buzzing with talk of the Turner Prize. The coffee shop-cum-gallery – where walls display local artists’ efforts – is one of the city’s many bohemian enclaves, and attracts an artsy clientele. “I wanted to go to the show when it first opened, but there was a two-hour queue,” Jackie Pittam, a local painter, tells me.
When it was announced the Turner Prize (the Oscars of contemporary British art) was, for the first time since its inception, being held not only outside of London’s Tate Britain, but in Newcastle, I balked. I mean, the city is known for many things: coalminers, hen dos, ale. But art?
The Turner Prize exhibit, showcasing the work of the four shortlisted candidates until January, is at what was once an old flour mill, but is today BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. The space, too avant garde for a permanent collection, has regular exhibits of the nation’s leading contemporary artists. Everyone from Yoko Ono to Damien Hirst has shown here. Bringing the Turner Prize to BALTIC confirms what many Geordies have known all along: that Newcastle is the UK’s unrecognised capital of contemporary art.
Under the radar
“Newcastle never gets its due,” laments David Hughes, a third of the team that runs Unit 44 in Walker Road, a renovated warehouse-turned gallery that specialises in street art. “The region, artistically, is extremely exciting of late. People make the journey from London for our projects.”
Even the clubbing scene is more arty than you might think. Of course, there are still women in mini-skirts braving the cold on the Diamond Strip – the club-lined street that has made Newcastle’s nightlife famous – but I find that some venues have a decidedly more bohemian vibe. The Cut is the best example. This self-styled ‘arthausenachtklub’ models itself after Seventies Manhattan loft parties and Eighties East Berlin squat parties. The space is distressed (read: crumbling), yet it can’t help seem formidably cool.
The Quayside may be definitive proof of Newcastle’s art and design heritage. Across the River Tyne, there are seven bridges, each in a different architectural style, that link Newcastle to Gateshead. (As I walk up to the Tyne Bridge – modelled on Sydney Harbour bridge – I notice a group of people ziplining from one side of the river to the other.)
The futuristic-looking Gateshead Millennium Bridge is the most recent addition, and is framed on either side by an institution of contemporary art: the Outsiders – a second outlet of the London-based gallery dedicated to street art – and the BALTIC. The Outsiders is an impressive space. The bottom floor is a dungeon-like cellar, giving the spray-painted canvases that hang on the walls an even more edgy, underground feel.
Unfortunately, it’s the art at the BALTIC that disappoints. Much of it is too conceptual for my taste. I prefer my art more tangible, so I head to another of the city’s famous gallery offerings. The Laing Art Gallery is dedicated to creatives from the Northeast. During my visit, I learn Newcastle has a longstanding history with the arts. In the 1870s, an artist colony was set up in the nearby fishing village of Cullercoat, and their paintings provide a window into the region’s past.
Free for all
What’s most striking about Newcastle is that all of the museums and galleries are free to enter. Even the artwork for sale seems reasonable. The best spot in town to buy art is The Biscuit Factory on Stoddart Street, the UK’s largest art shop. Works range from the affordable to the exorbitant.
For me, though, I find the Angel of the North to be the area’s crowning jewel. The structure looms over much of the skyline. Because I’ve seen so many photographs, I was worried it would disappoint up close. As it happens, the photos can’t do justice to the sheer breadth of the piece, billed as one of the world’s most-viewed pieces of art.
It’s fitting that Newcastle would have such an industrial-looking angel – artist Anthony Gormley designed the wings, which span 54 metres, to mimic those of an aeroplane.
“My background may be industrial,” the angel seems to say, “but I’m still a work of art.” In that respect, it is the perfect icon for Newcastle.
Travel by train from London King’s Cross to Newcastle starting at £28 each way with East Coast. (eastcoast.co.uk)
Where to eat
Formerly a medieval monastery, Blackfriars – the UK’s oldest dining room – now serves up stellar, locally sourced fare. The bill is reasonable and the vibe unpretentious. (blackfriarsrestaurant.co.uk)
For pub grub in a historic setting, visit The Town Wall, a Georgian-era drinking hole that was once the home of famous Northumberland artist, Thomas Bewick. (thetownwall.com)
Where to drink
The Cut is a ‘deconstructed’ space (they call it an ‘arthausenachtklub’) peddling everything from dubstep and drum n’ bass to Eighties electro. Newcastle’s best-kept secret. (whatisthecut.com)
Trent House Soul Bar offers a relaxed atmosphere and a superb selection of tunes on the jukebox. (trenthouse.com)
Where to sleep
The Newcastle YHA has cheery, social digs at £12.50pppn. It’s closed up for the remainder of the year, but re-opens in January. (yha.org.uk)
The newly opened Sandman Signature Hotel used to be an abandoned office building. Now it offers stylish rooms, friendly service and huge breakfasts at the downstairs Shark Club. (sandmansignature.co.uk)