Sune Nordgren turned the clock back to the 1960s with his vision for the Baltic in Gateshead - he wanted to create a space in which artists could work both with other artists and with the architecture of the building itself by andrea wulf
Baltic director Sune Nordgren is an ambitious man. His was the vision to create a vibrant arts centre in Gateshead that would attract people to the North and away from dominant London.
His passion and drive was borne out of an experience he had as a child. 'I want to share the experiences I had when I visited the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark as a child.' He says: 'The museum combines art, architecture and nature, ' creating a feeling of security and confidence with contemporary art. This comfort with works of art within architectural spaces he felt as a 10-year-old boy is what he wants to recreate with the Baltic. And to combine it with something else: 'good food'.
The Swede seems the perfect man for the job. His career is multi-faceted, he builds on an international network in the arts world and he is charming. As a seven year old he wanted to be an artist, but he came to realise his vocation lay more in the mediation of art. Nordgren has worked as an art critic for Swedish newspapers and magazines, and has published, produced and illustrated books on art, poetry and politics. The editor and producer of arts programmes for Swedish television, he was also the director of Malmö Konstall. And, surprisingly, Nordgren claims that 'my life in Gateshead and Newcastle is not too different to Malmö, since both are on 55º latitude and the weather is the same'.
He has a passion for converted industrial buildings. 'My favourite building is the Museum of Modern Art in Prague, which was originally designed for trade exhibitions in 1928, ' he says. 'One of the reasons I like it is because it's one of the rare examples of Bauhaus architecture that was designed by students rather than by the teachers.' This is very much in line with his support for and attitude towards young and less-well-known artists, whose work he wants to exhibit in the Baltic.
The Baltic acts as 'a container' for the art, and Nordgren emphasises that its defining principle was about 'bringing it down to something simple and flexible. The major idea about the Baltic was always there, but only with Lottery funding and the Arts Council was the project brought up to something more substantial and lots of things were added to the original idea.'
He sees artists interacting with the architecture and says that, in his experience, artists like to 'have some kind of challenge with the architecture when they create their art'. And Nordgren wants to commission artists to engage with the building and the region. 'When I arrived there was a basic idea and design, which was Dominic's [Williams] and then I added the idea of an art factory'. The seminal moment in the making of the Baltic was 'in May 1998 when the Arts Council signed off these redesigns'.
Nordgren uses the concept of the Baltic as a place of 'making art' as bait to attract international artists to the North East. 'We had to come up with something different because we are in Gateshead, not in London.
The idea of the art factory was also based on my experience of running an international artist studio exchange programme in Stockholm, called IASPIS. It vitalised and changed the art scene in Stockholm radically and I want to do something similar here.'
Nordgren happily admits that people will come for the house and architecture 'but I don't mind because as long as they come, it will be a success'. The architecture is key to his vision of the art centre, because it will allow artists to use the Baltic in different ways.
Some critics say the idea of collaborative working between artists in one art space is dated, originating in the 1960s. 'I am a man of the '60s and lots of things that happened in the '60s are coming back. The idea of creating with artists and working across the disciplines is very much an attitude of the '60s and I would like to accommodate this'.
The Baltic is a place were people can work across the disciplines, talk, learn and be open-minded.Nordgren sees the building as a meeting place and wants to keep the 'brick walls as transparent and open as possible'.
When he speaks about buildings like Asplind's Stockholm Library - 'a temple of knowledge' - he does so with awe, and he has a brain like a filing cabinet for building dates, architects and architecture. When I ask him to name his favourite spot in the Baltic he says: 'I still have to find it, but it will probably be in one of the cafes or restaurants'. But then he checks himself, and quickly returns to being 'on message', describing how brilliant the galleries are. He loves the idea of the fluidity of the building, with its the integrated offices in the public sphere. 'Every visitor can see into the offices for four seconds when they are in the lifts - they can see that we actually work here'.
For Nordgren, Jaume Plensa's light beam is a symbol of what has been achieved. It was originally commissioned in 1996 to highlight the Baltic project just before its Lottery bid, and it has just been switched on again. 'I saw the Baltic for the first time in 1996 and Gateshead has changed a lot in those six years, ' says Nordgren. 'It's progressing so rapidly and it's fantastic.' He muses that it's actually not that long ago that he was sitting in the pub on the other side of the Tyne looking at a derelict building.
Derelict no more.