As a student in Newcastle in the early 1990s, a trip down the Quayside meant one of two things: drinking in Offshore (a pub that strongly resembled a smugglers’ tavern) or a (usually ill-advised) club night on the Tuxedo Royale, a floating former car ferry moored on the banks of the River Tyne. Ah, good times.
Today the renamed NewcastleGateshead Quayside looks rather different – and has a slew of high-brow attractions to tempt students, tourists and locals alike. One of the most striking new(ish) additions is Sage Gateshead, an international centre for music, education and conferences, housed within a love-it-or-hate-it glass and stainless steel structure designed by Norman Foster. Detractors refer to it as ‘the slug’ while admirers regard it as a fine example of modern architecture. Whatever your sentiments, it dominates the skyline.
Sage Gateshead celebrates its tenth anniversary this year and it’s certainly true to say that its actions within its first decade have boosted the cultural, academic and economic life of the area (it has hosted 5,000 performances since 2004).
“I think Sage Gateshead’s achievements over ten years have contributed to a sense of ambition in NewcastleGateshead,” Anthony Sargent, director of The Sage, tells Northern Soul. “The Sage has made an enormous contribution to a sense of pride in the region. Certainly in music, it’s given people a whole new sense of extraordinary things being possible.”
The Sage stages up to 500 performances a year and welcomes 750,000 visitors over the course of 12 months. Its programme of music includes everything and anything, from classical, jazz and acoustic to country, world, electronic and dance across its three spaces. This is set to expand now that The Sage has taken over the management of Gateshead Old Town Hall, an inspiring Grade II listed building just a stone’s throw away.
Sargent (former head of arts for Birmingham City Council) says: “There’s an extra ambience in the Old Town Hall and we can do stuff there we couldn’t do so well at The Sage. In the Norman Foster building there has be a certain element of formality in how we run it. But youngsters love Gateshead Old Town Hall. It has a slightly skuzzy feel to it and it’s all a bit more relaxed [than The Sage]. We really want to build richer and more energetic links with more young people.”
Although people living outside the NewcastleGateshead region may only know The Sage for its performance schedule, a lesser known part of its remit is education: one in three members of the 500-strong workforce at Sage Gateshead works in the education team. One of the organisation’s projects involves children who have fallen through every possible safety net; with The Sage’s help, they rebuild their lives to the point where they can apply for employment. Another initiative focuses on numeracy and literacy through music.
“We work with very tiny children, with schoolchildren and with older students,” says Sargent. “We also work with the 22nd most deprived school in the country. At that school, every single child is learning a musical instrument. It’s an incredibly exciting journey. Both Sting and Lee Hall immediately put their hands in their pockets to build a proper music centre for the school.
“Britain is unique in that all major arts organisations do education work. The different here is that it is actually half the company. We’ve reached several million students. And we get almost no funding from the Department for Education. Funding is difficult, it’s a constant struggle.”
So how does Sage Gateshead manage to deliver its wide-ranging education work?
“We get an Arts Council grant and some of that goes on education,” explains Sargent. “And we have degree programmes that we do with local universities, that brings in money. We do quite a lot of work that is bought by schools or early years centres. And adult learning people pay for it. We’ve got a really complex and perilously business model that just about works but it’s on a knife-edge.”
For a town that numbers just 189,000 people, Gateshead has scored quite a coup with The Sage. It says much about the ambitions of the locals as well as the collective cultural will of the area.
“Gateshead is unbelievably small when you think about all the things that it has done,” muses Sargent. “For a small town like Gateshead to commission Norman Foster to do a project like this, it’s really interesting. Now Sage Gateshead is known internationally. And it says something for the real determination of the borough that it pulled together the money for The Sage, for the Millennium Bridge and for the BALTIC. It’s not true that Gateshead is the poor relation to Newcastle. But we do have a very, very close bond with the major cultural organisations in Newcastle. The cultural offering of the conurbation is really well joined up.”
He adds: “There is a North East geography. There isn’t another comparable conurbation between Leeds and Edinburgh…It can feel isolated and if we didn’t have such a great facility it would be difficult to get great artists here. But we have one of the finest concert halls in the world.
“In the early days we had to work hard to persuade people to come here, it’s the other way round now. There’s a real sense now of artists really wanting to include a performance here as part of their trip. And it’s nothing to do with their fees. We get artists who are at the top of the tree. We have presented many of the greatest artists on the planet to local audiences who would never have seen them otherwise.”
Main image: Mark Savage