Heading North

The contemporary art scene is moving away from the capital, investigates

The Turner Prize has travelled north. The BALTIC gallery, Gateshead is the first non-Tate venue to host the prestigious contemporary art award; 2011 marks only the second time that the prize has been held outside London since it’s creation in 1984.

Such occasions may become more frequent, as suggestions have been made to host the prize outside London every other year. This move away from the capital is unprecedented and it brings about the question: what has changed in the British art scene to trigger this change of venue?

For some, it is a comment on how the focus on London as the UK’s cultural capital has reduced. Godfrey Worsdale, Director at BALTIC, argues that “the Turner Prize is a national prize” – hence, “there’s every reason why it ought to move around the country”. Similarly, James Beighton of MIMA recognises London as a “very important capital for the art world” but agrees that culture should be more widespread: “there is a greater spread and a greater understanding that it doesn’t have to be focused in London”.

Speaking on the merits of the Turner Prize in the North East, Godfrey Worsdale explains that “the whole region is becoming enlivened” by art. And the merits are not solely cultural. Matthew Cain, Channel 4 Culture Editor, has begun to talk of the region seeing “enormous economic benefits in arts-led regeneration”. That is something often overlooked: the ability of art to attract attention to an area. So far there have been over 30,000 visitors to the exhibition in Gateshead, and for a region in a poor economic state, the extra custom is much welcomed.

According to Matthew Cain, the Turner Prize can also benefit from being hosted by BALTIC. “Tate Britain brings with it a weight of tradition which could be suffocating for several artists… a move up north might re-invigorate the award”. Northern England is relatively unexplored in terms of artistic influence.

Unlike London where it may be argued that due to the intense focus of art there, original influence has been exhausted. And as Cain argues, there is the restrictive barrier of tradition in between London artists and free artistic expression. Whereas, up North the lack of a previous major art scene now plays to its advantage: there are no creative boundaries.

The role of art within in society is a debate which has run alongside artistic creation itself for centuries. Some argue whether its role is merely recreational. Yet, even if it just brings visitors to an area, it is already having a positive economic impact, with the potential for much cultural impact following close behind: for instance, a gallery opening or an exhibition coming to the area. The wider impact has already started to be felt: the North East has seen art schools open, galleries built and artists flooding into the region. If art is drawn to original influences then the move northwards could be explained by the region’s contrast to London. It is not entirely different, but in terms of artistic and cultural influences, there is a lot of untapped material still to be explored.

“The lack of a previous major are scene now plays to its advantage: there are no creative boundaries”

Extreme social and economic conditions are what characterised northeast England in the 80s; the situation is much improved but is still comparably worse to the south. There appears to be an interesting relationship between these conditions and art. In extreme social and economic times, extreme thinking is required; and as a result something innovating, original emerges – a thought, a product, a need to communicate. Artists and musicians often cite their harsh upbringing or deprived hometown as influential on their work. Think of James Joyce’s novels: shocking, controversial and highly innovative, they portray the facets of Dublin better than any other fiction. One of Joyce’s many talents was the ability and conviction to represent desperate social conditions. And since the days of Joyce and Modernism, British art has continued to push boundaries. Art certainly plays a role in questioning and representing the extremities of society: and it is often considered the best art that which does so.

This year’s Turner Prize finalists were all born outside London: only one lives and works there now. This is a potential indication that the locus of art is moving away from London. The Turner Prize was originally created to celebrate new developments in contemporary art and some may view the diversification of the British art scene as an important development. This diversification – brought on by an exhaustion of original influence from the capital, recognition that the North is rich with potential artistic subjects, or both – can only be a good thing.
The Turner Prize is set to bring cultural and economic improvements to the region in the short run, but in time many feel that the North’s art scene will continue to flourish. Abandoning the prestigious Tate institution as host for the prize may seem like a risky endeavour at first, particularly in relation to the memory of its past successes. Yet art needs new avenues of creative nourishment; this is a positive turn which can yield new, not exhausted, forms and subjects. Given the potential benefits to a region with persistent social and economic problems, there seems no more fitting a venue than the BALTIC.

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