Godfrey Worsdale has been head of the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art since 2008 - its fourth director since the opening 10 years ago. For a while, it seemed the role came with some form of ancient curse that couldn't be shaken. But he’s turned Europe’s biggest contemporary art centre into his very own cultural masterpiece, as Ruth Lognonne finds out.
WHEN he was appointed head of Baltic, more or less every newspaper said that Godfrey Worsdale was taking on a poisoned chalice.
Having lost three directors since opening in 2002, it was tempting to think the landmark industrial building on the south bank of the River Tyne was somewhat cursed.
First, there was Sune Nordgren, who was integral in Baltic’s pre-launch period, overseeing the building of the gallery and witnessing the first one million visitors through the doors.
After almost six years, Nordgren left to take up a new post as founding director of the National Museum for Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo.
His successor, Stephen Snoddy, was in the post for less than a year. Peter Doroshenko lasted a little longer but left at the end of 2007.
Baltic’s board members hoped that Worsdale, the founding director of Middlesbrough’s critically-acclaimed gallery mima, would fare better.
His first move in 2008 was to instil confidence in the contemporary art institution’s 100-strong workforce who had answered to several directors in just six years.
He says: “When I first came to Baltic it was more about consolidating the strength the institution had already gained and bringing some stability.
“There had been a number of directors before me so I came with the intention to stay for a reasonable amount of time.
“When I was appointed, more or less every newspaper used the words ‘poisoned chalice’ to describe Baltic. But in reality, being director of Baltic seemed like a phenomenal opportunity to me.
“The reason why a number of my predecessors struggled is because it was a very big institution and a very young institution to get on top of.
“I had been working in Middlesbrough and had watched Baltic’s growth very carefully. I learned a lot from how it developed in its early years and one of the main things I saw Baltic needed was one director for a decent amount of time. Two many changes in leadership isn’t good for the stability of any institution.
“I’m a huge believer in partnership work, setting up relationships with stakeholders. Increasingly in challenging times, partnership working is the way to go because we’ve all got shared objectives in life.”
Born in Doncaster, Worsdale went to school in the pit village of Arnthorpe during the Miners’ Strike of the mid-1980s.
He went from there to Camberwell College of Art, London, where he studied the history of art. Launching his curatorial career in the department of prints and drawings at the British Museum, he spent 10 years in the city before leaving to become director of Southampton City Art Gallery.
“It was a very exciting time for contemporary art,” he says. “It was during the late 80s and early 90s that the Young British Artists movement really grabbed the public’s attention.
“Many of the artists were initially supported and collected by Charles Saatchi and included leading artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.
“Being in London at the time, there was a huge cultural buzz around the capital. It was a buoyant time for contemporary art and I was lucky to be in the thick of it.”
The Young British Artists revitalised, and in some cases spawned, a whole new generation of contemporary commercial galleries such as Karsten Schubert, Sadie Coles, Victoria Miro, Maureen Paley’s Interim Art and Jay Jopling’s White Cube.
The spread of interest improved the market for contemporary British art magazines through increased advertising and circulation. During his time at the British Museum, Worsdale took advantage of this boost in sales and enjoyed a successful career as a critic for a number of years.
His role in Southampton involved an art programme from the 14th Century to the present day but his love of contemporary art attracted him to the North East.
“When I arrived at the site in Middlesbrough it was just a patch of land. It required £20m worth of capital funding to get the gallery off the ground and I’m not just talking about bricks and mortar.
“I was responsible for creating an institution and building a reputation for that gallery on an international scale.
“The gallery needed to thrive and we were tasked with creating a brand from scratch; something new and then launching it.
“It was also a project that belonged to the council and it was very important to me that mima should be tightly managed to create the smallest risk to the authority.
“I was determined to hit targets and ideally I would have liked to have stayed at mima for one more year before moving to Baltic but it was the right time to move.
“However, mima will always have a special place in my heart because I was founding director and it was my project from the very beginning. I also live in Teesside now so it is my local gallery and one I feel particularly proud of.”
Worsdale was lured to Gateshead where he began his directorship of a gallery that had suffered stern criticism from the national media.
Where his predecessor promised a raft of major changes when he was appointed, Worsdale took a more cautious approach. “I’m more of an evolutionist than a revolutionist,” he says.
“There are lots of wonderful things at Baltic, and one of the things I wanted to do was ensure that those things were preserved and enhanced.”
Worsdale reckons Baltic has been treated rather unfairly by the media in the past, and is keen to highlight the institution’s excellent facilities and strong programme. He is also passionate about art education.
“Art isn’t always immediately easy for new audiences and there are times when we might show something a little bit more challenging,” he said.
“In those circumstances, we will put extra energy and effort into engaging the audience and providing them with routes of access. What I don’t think you should do is dumb down the programme.
“It’s the way that Baltic is now perceived, both in the arts community and in the region, that is what makes me proud. It has a feel-good factor around it at the moment and that’s really important. In 10 years we’ve shown work of artists from 50 different nations and that has really raised the gallery’s profile on an international stage.
“I don’t think we need permanent collections because other galleries in the North East have those and it’s our temporary exhibitions that set us apart from the rest.
“We will show an artist because we really believe in their potential and that artist may never have been seen in the UK before.
“We do show artists who are based in the North East but we don’t show them because they are based in the North East. They have to be of a very high standard.”
Twenty years after the closure of the old Baltic Flour Mills, the gallery opened in July 2002. Worsdale said: “The biggest thing we’re doing to celebrate our 10th birthday is opening a second Baltic over the river in Newcastle. Baltic 39, on High Bridge Street, is very much about our next 10 years.
“It is a collaboration between ourselves, Newcastle City Council, Arts Council England and Northumbria University.
“By converting the former Ward’s printing warehouse and Grade II-listed building at 39 High Bridge Street we will become home to a vibrant community of practising artists.
“The building will house a new public gallery programmed by Baltic, 33 artists’ studios and a new home for fine art students from the university.
“It will bring together opportunities for training, creativity and exhibitions, offering a unique centre of artistic excellence, development and experimentation. It will also act as a magnet to draw artists from across the world for teaching, residencies and exhibitions.”
One of Worsdale’s proudest moments was hosting the prestigious Turner Prize show, from October 2011 to January this year.
Baltic was the first non-Tate gallery to host the exhibition and Worsdale admits it made a significant impact on the institution’s earned income and trading activity last year.
He recalls: “I remember looking out of the window at the whole square outside the gallery and the bridge was full of people queuing to get in.
“It reflected a real enthusiasm for contemporary art in the region as more than 640,000 people came to Baltic.”
The gallery attracts around 500,000 visitors annually but free admission does not put bread on the table.
“I do not agree with Baltic ever becoming a paid admission venue but we do have to increase our earned income from somewhere,” says Worsdale.
“£700,000 worth of public funding is in place until 2015 but we expect that will come under pressure in the next spending round so we want to increase our percentage of earned income in line with that over the next three years.
“The business side of Baltic has performed better this year than in my previous three years.
“When I studied art history I very quickly learned that art is one of the great economies. Wherever you find wealth and success, art is always very close to that. In the crudest terms, art is an economy and in the same way you can put your money into bonds and shares, you can invest your money in art.
“More and more people in the public and business sector value the cultural economy and the contribution it makes to the region. It’s worth noting that for every public pound that is spent, the cultural sector pays back £4 into the region’s economy.”
Despite his enthusiasm for all things contemporary art, Baltic’s strait-laced leader has to refrain from dabbling in the modern masterpieces of today.
“Unfortunately I’m not allowed to collect contemporary art because its a conflict of interest,” he says.
“I collect 18th and 19th Century English drinking glasses instead. If I’m not at work I go to an exhibition as it’s something I take great pleasure in. Art is, and always will be, a bigger part of my life than just my job.”