Set up in 2010 by Will Marshall and William Strong, two fine-art graduates from Newcastle University, as a pop-up initiative supporting early career artists in the city, The NewBridge Project initially occupied a five-storey office block, filling it with studios, exhibition spaces and an artists’ bookshop. Since 2016, when that lease was revoked, each element has moved to new locations across Newcastle and Gateshead. Charlotte Gregory, who had her own studio with NewBridge from the time of its opening, became director in 2013 and leads a team of four, mostly part-time, and a bank of freelance technicians, photographers and others, drawn in whenever specific expertise is needed. Its annual turnover is roughly £250,000; a lot of its income is self-generated through studio provision, supplemented by grants from Arts Council England, Community Foundation, trusts and foundations, and through partnership working. As of April 2018, NewBridge will be part of ACE’s National Portfolio, with an annual grant of £70,000.
Mission: nurturing an artistic community
As an artist-led organisation, The NewBridge Project’s first priority, says Charlotte Gregory, is to “support artists and the development of artistic practice. That’s about nurturing and generating a vibrant artistic community, and trying to create the right environment – such as affordable workspace, the conditions to develop and make new work, and the opportunity to show it – so that artists want to live and work in Newcastle and create a base here.” It began in response to a feeling that “after we graduated from university everyone seemed to go off to London or Glasgow or Berlin, because there wasn’t anything here: there weren’t spaces to work that were affordable, there weren’t entry-level opportunities for early career artists, the creative community felt very closed-off and close-knit. So we set out to create a very inclusive and open community, that was led by the artists themselves.”
“After we graduated from university everyone seemed to go off to London or Glasgow or Berlin, because there wasn’t anything here: there weren’t spaces to work that were affordable, there weren’t entry-level opportunities for early career artists, the creative community felt very closed-off and close-knit. So we set out to create a very inclusive and open community, that was led by the artists themselves.”
Support is offered in three ways: “Firstly, through the provision of space, so affordable studios, workshop space and production space; secondly, through its ‘Practice Makes Practice’ artist development programmes; thirdly, through an exhibition and commission programme, providing artists with “a platform and a process to support them to make new work”. All of this is shaped in conversation with a steering group of studio members, who are also encouraged to “self-organise and initiate their own projects. For example, we have a dark room that is run by one of our studio members, Janina Sabaliauskaite, which was a resource they felt was missing. We also support Hands On Film Lab, run by Leah Millar, on a similar basis, and Goldtapped – an artist-led gallery – is run by two studio members.”
As that community has become more established, so Gregory has come to see its support as an “internal ethos”, and since 2015 has focused on “the need for a conversation with the wider public”. She’s particularly interested in “exploring social and political issues, from what it means to be an arts organisation occupying a space that is owned by someone in the Times Rich List, to creating projects that respond to austerity, food production, the environment, housing – things we come up against in our day to day lives”.
In 2016, The NewBridge Project underwent a period of consultation with its members provoked by the impending redevelopment of the building that had housed it. It now has its studios, workshop and production spaces in central Newcastle, its bookshop in BALTIC 39, and its exhibition space in Gateshead, which also houses co-working spaces and a new one-year graduate development programme, The Collective Studio, run in partnership with Newcastle University to “provide support, mentoring and training to creative practitioners who have just finished university, to provide a bridge into professional practice.” That set of conversations also produced the current set of values defining The NewBridge Project, which include a flexible approach to art-making that aims to “allow alternative practices to develop”; a belief in “collaboration, collectivity and community”; and a commitment to being “responsive to the socio, political and civic landscape that we exist in”, underscored by a belief that art can “introduce new ideas” and “be used as a tool to deliver incremental change”.
A quick look at The NewBridge Project’s general programme indicates its commitment to proliferating ideas of social change: for instance, in 2017 it began producing a series of podcasts with activist and academic Dr Alex Lockwood addressing social inequality, climate change, and species extinction; and collaborated with Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art to create the Claudia Jones Space Station, an experiment in community formation and future imaging, named for the founder of the Notting Hill Carnival and the West Indian Gazette.
But two large-scale projects in particular illustrate its values more deeply:
1: Urban Organisms
Over six weeks in summer 2015, the Urban Organisms project “explored food sustainability and urban food production”. At the centre of the gallery was “a massive circular table made out of recycled materials, which acted as a space to host discussions and practical workshops. When there was no scheduled activity, people could come in and encounter information and work that was responsive to food sustainability”. Among the workshops, participants could learn the skills behind cheese-making, micro-breweries, and “growing your own food when you don’t have access to soil or a garden”; there were also film screenings and talks led by Cinema Politica, and an “edible map” of Newcastle made by artist Mikey Tomkins: people who, says Gregory, “were already exploring these issues – so we were creating space for them to have a platform, hopefully to create some action and strengthen that network”.
2: Hidden Civil War
Programmed in the aftermath of the EU Referendum, Hidden Civil War took place across the city in October 2016: “We wanted it to be very open and not only accessible if you come through the door of the gallery, because that’s already a barrier.” The overall concept emerged through conversations co-organised by The NewBridge Project, activist Chris Erskine and Shaun Curtis, director of Metal in Liverpool, which gathered writers, curators, theatre-makers, artists and activists, “who were invited to respond to the current landscape of: colossal public asset stripping and dissociation via corporate tax evasion; the tearing up of the welfare state and the commitments to each other that it was built upon; the vilification of the vulnerable, discriminatory cuts imposed on disabled people and deaths among them. A serious increase in homelessness amid the biggest housing crisis for several generations, family debt, the ongoing denial of access to land and erosion of civil liberties.” The programme was structured in accordance with “the theory that there are three ways to start a revolution: one is disrupting the inevitability of the everyday; two, cultivating outrage; three, developing alternative moral economies. We felt it was important to be angry, but how do we then present an alternative as well?”
“We wanted it to be very open and not only accessible if you come through the door of the gallery, because that’s already a barrier.”
Involving “nearly a hundred different artists and activists”, the programme included a billboard exhibition across Newcastle created by the photo-journalism network Dysturb, presenting “evidence that there was a hidden civil war going on”; Mini-Henge, “a massive outdoor sculpture made from three cars as a homage to Stone Henge and the Battle of the Beanfield” by a community of travellers working under the name Unfairground, creating a scrap-yard monolith to counter culture; and several participatory projects. Among these was Pocket Money Loans, made by the artist Darren Cullen, which created “a fake pocket money loan shop on the main shopping street in Newcastle: it didn’t actually provide loans, but used the aesthetics of money-lending companies to look at debt and the entrapment of vulnerable people”. A series of workshops led by artist Nini Ayach invited community groups across the city to make “a utopian political puppet and develop their manifesto. At the end of that process we hosted a big parade around the city centre, like a political rally, with the 15-foot-high puppet controlled by residents of Newcastle who were in recovery or living with physical disabilities or mental illness – people who don’t feel they are represented.”
Hidden Civil War has had a lasting effect on The NewBridge Project’s commissioning. “We worked with a lot of national and international artists and activists doing really exciting work, but want to generate more projects with artists in the region, so we’ve started to look at how we can support regional artists to develop work in this way.” It supported development elsewhere too: “We hosted a project with Acorn, a group for renters’ rights and housing rights, and their activity has since grown and become even more necessary; and giving a space to Sisters Uncut Newcastle helped to widen their regional network and provide visibility. A lot of connections were created, helping activity and action to grow, whether directly or indirectly.” For instance, as part of Hidden Civil War, writer and activist Jessie Jacobs and artist Andrew Wilson hosted a workshop on creating “a tabloid for the oppressed”; a year later, the first issue of an “alternative newspaper for the North East” called The Eclipse was published. Hidden Civil War also generated its own newspaper, with 10,000 copies of “a newspaper called The Precariat distributed across the city”. Gregory thinks the programme had impact because “it provided an open space to existing groups who had just started, or had a seed of an idea, and no agenda was placed upon it. We just said: here’s the project space, do what you want.” That open space is “symptomatic of NewBridge, because that’s what the studios are: an affordable space for experimentation, which allows you to try things out”.
“We worked with a lot of national and international artists and activists doing really exciting work, but want to generate more projects with artists in the region, so we’ve started to look at how we can support regional artists to develop work in this way.”
Hidden Civil War also made The NewBridge Project aware of some of the problems of its structure: “There is an issue of capacity within such a small team, and when working with individuals to support and participate in projects in a voluntary capacity. There are also issues around who we’re engaging and who we are working with, when the people programming it are lots of artists, and the majority are white, the majority are middle-class.” These realisations have opened up questions around how to “diversify the curatorial voices”, how not to exploit people when there is already “a lot of underpayment in the sector”, but also how to avoid “falling into the pitfalls of other organisations that have started out as very artist-led, non-hierarchical communities or cooperatives, then moved into a more institutional structure. Although we want to be a sustainable organisation, we’re really wary of losing our original mission.” In becoming a charity, NewBridge is seeking to ensure that it will “remain artist-led, so we’ve written into our articles that we have to have a percentage of representation of studio members on our board of trustees”.
“There are also issues around who we’re engaging and who we are working with, when the people programming it are lots of artists, and the majority are white, the majority are middle-class.”
The change of building has also created a new set of challenges: “We’ve always been within the city centre in Newcastle, in a commercial retail district – but the new exhibition space that we’ve set up, in Gateshead, is close to residential areas and part of a community. It will be interesting to see how the programme develops in response to that, and how it can be located in this community context.”
Photo: Pocket Monet Loans. The NewBridge Project