Baltic What's For Tea

Gateshead’s BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year and over the last two decades this figurehead for a creative North East has consistently been at the forefront of ‘democratising’ the arts.
June 1, 2022

Back in February, a very special ‘Mini Baltic’ set sail for destinations across the region: A complete BALTIC experience - An exhibition, informative talks, artist-led workshops, fun and friendly conversation and free hospitality all squeezed into a purpose-built Art Bus and is visiting lots of community locations across the North East, before returning to base for BALTIC’s 20th Birthday Celebration Weekend, as the bus parks up outside the gallery on Baltic Square on Saturday 16 and Sunday 17 July2022. 

The mobile exhibition, ‘What’s for Tea?’ is a partnership between BALTIC and the Scotland-based arts organisation Travelling Gallery is currently journeying to communities far and wide. Travelling Gallery has visited every type of location across Scotland since it first hit the road in 1978, but it has only crossed the border once before: on a visit to London’s V&A.  

The exhibition title comes from the age-old question which Northern residents get quizzed on daily by friends, family and partners: “What’s for tea?”, referring to their main/evening meal of the day. What’s for Tea? references BALTIC’s history as a working flour mill, opened in 1950 by Rank Hovis.  

The exhibition is exploring food production and consumption - what we eat, how much we eat and how our eating habits could help combat the climate emergency. 

Works by Isabella Carreras, Kara Chin, Turner Prize-nominated duo Cooking Sections, artist collective Future Farmers, Asunción Molinos Gordo, Julia Heslop, David Lisser and Sarah Qaed look at sustainable food production and community initiatives through film, installation, sculpture, print and the written word. 

BALTIC Curator Elaine Robertson and Andy Menzies from Travelling Gallery parked up at The Winlaton Centre recently – and Mag North hopped onboard to check out this innovate project. 

We started by asking Elaine how her career had led her to demystifying complex artworks on a bus: “I did Art at Oxford’s Ruskin School of Art. I am a painter – although I haven’t done much recently! While at Uni, I got some funding to set up an arts project in Consett, County Durham [where she’s from]. That was the start of community work. “I then became Community Co-ordinator at the NewBridge Project [an artist-led arts engagement organisation in Newcastle]. After that I moved to BALTIC and this project.” 

(Adopting a ‘posh voice’): “We’re going to take art to the people who don’t have anything.” Returning to her own warm accent: “It’s not that!” 

She explains that the project has challenged the artists to think about how to engage with the audience. “We’re asking them to think about how the work they’re making changes in different contexts. Obviously you never really know what an artist is thinking or trying to convey, but asking them to think about the communities that will see their work has been good.”

Elaine goes on to confirm what many of us might already feel: Contemporary Art can be nerve-wracking and galleries can be intimidating –so visiting people in their own community, removes a lot of the potential barriers to engagement.

This particular Curator is one of the most impressive I have met. Her passion for the project is infectious. Her ability to chat about the exhibition with either middle-aged people, a gang of teenagers, or very young kids was wonderful to watch.  “Look at me: I’ve got all these grapes. Look how rich and cool I am”. ‘Still Life’ and its origins explained in a way nine tracksuit wearing, energy drink-sipping young people connected with immediately. Brilliant. 

Driver and fellow creative Andy Menzies was similarly engaging – and a perfect fit for the project: “Let people decide for themselves [about art]. What could be more inclusive than taking art to their neighbourhood and saying “Here – you have a look”?

“We’re not trying to convince everyone that contemporary art is the best thing since sliced bread. We just want people to have a look.” 

Andy and his bus have visited community centres, shops, schools, prisons and hospitals across Scotland – and he’s had the conversations – and seen the impact of making art accessible.

“It’s great when art can bridge the gap, or express something you’ve been struggling to find the words for.” 

He’s clear about his role and that of his fellow creatives: “Artists can often address issues concerning society in a more succinct and accessible way than we might be used to.

“An image can very often carry a stronger message than any number of arguments. We must remember that art isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity. 

“In any community, art and artists bring an energy. A culture of change. Creatives are Agents for Change. Not Shock Troops for Gentrification.” 

It’s incredibly powerful stuff and coupled with a Stormzy-connected exhibit, the absence of a fee to access – and the wonderful women of The Winlaton Centre serving up delicious pasta to visitors – Elaine, Andy and everyone involved really are making a positive statement about ‘who art is for’. It’s for all of us. 

BALTIC would have had to devise an incredibly original and dynamic project to celebrate their twentieth anniversary, given the history of ‘reaching-out’ they’ve been doing since Anish Kapoor’s ‘Tarantantara’ wowed everyone in 1999. With ‘What’s For Tea’ they’ve done just that. How many futures are about to be changed by a visit to a bus in their community? I think: lots. 

Three dates remain for the tour: 

Sat 4 June. Birtley Community Centre, Ravensworth Road, Birtley, Chester-Le-Street

Sat 11 June. Chopwell Pavilion, Chopwell, Newcastle

Sat 16/Sun 17 July. BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead Quayside 

Details of the exhibition and the exhibiting artists can be accessed here:

A fantastic video about the exhibition is available here: 

Image credits:

BALTIC & Travelling Gallery: What’s for Tea? during a visit to Bensham, Gateshead. Photo: Colin Davison © 2022 BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art & Travelling Gallery

BALTIC & Travelling Gallery: What’s for Tea? during a visit to Sunderland. Photo: Colin Davison © 2022 BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art & Travelling Gallery

BALTIC & Travelling Gallery: What’s for Tea? during a visit to Ouseburn, Newcastle. Photo: Colin Davison © 2022BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art & Travelling Gallery

BALTIC & Travelling Gallery: What’s for Tea? during a visit to Newcastle. Photo: Barry Pells © 2022 BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art & Travelling Gallery