Why a Newcastle city centre building colonised by artists will soon be empty again
Artists who brought new life to one of Newcastle city centre’s giant former office blocks are packing up and moving.
Their final exhibition – called Moving On Up, Moving On Out – finishes on Saturday and that will be the end of Norham House as a cultural venue.
The building on New Bridge Street, opposite Newcastle City Library, is on the East Pilgrim Street site which the city council has earmarked for major regeneration.
Eventually it will be demolished like the old Odeon, on nearby Pilgrim Street, which was on the same site.
But it has brought into question the value of having clusters of mostly young artists and creative people in the centre of a university city which has long prided itself on its culture and vibrancy.
It was in 2010 that a pair of young fine art graduates were handed the keys to empty Norham House as part of a scheme to keep the city centre alive during the recession when a lot of development projects got put on hold.
Previously its five storeys had been occupied by lawyers and accountants. Now the artists invited others to join them, paying a peppercorn rent.
Norham House became better known as The NewBridge Project with a street level gallery and bookshop and a warren of studios, workshops and exhibition spaces.
It has run a programme of exhibitions, talks and other events and has been a popular destination during the annual Late Shows in Newcastle and Gateshead.
Charlotte Gregory, who studied fine art at Newcastle University, became director of The NewBridge Project in 2014.
She said the artists had been given six months’ notice to leave the building back in October.
“Norham House includes the bookshop and gallery and there’s also the Maker Space next door and the Alphabetti Theatre underneath,” she said.
“Then there are the 80 studios we have upstairs along with workshops, a dark room, a film lab and also a rehearsal space and project spaces.
“Nearly 100 people regularly work here but if you think of our public bookshop, gallery and events, there are a lot more people that benefit from these spaces.”
Charlotte said the eventual move had always been anticipated but that didn’t make it easier.
“I think it’s quite difficult for a lot of people because we’ve been here for nearly seven years now.
“It forms a big part of people’s lives because it’s not just a work space, it’s about a sense of community and being surrounded by a network of your peers.
“A lot of development work happens here and there are opportunities for commissions and exhibitions.
“It has sparked a lot of things for people, enabling them to continue their creative careers and remain in the city.
“A lot of our studio holders studied at Newcastle and Northumbria universities, and even at Sunderland, and have said they would have moved away if it hadn’t been for things like NewBridge because it’s affordable and there’s an openness.
“There’s a grassroots feel with the sense that anybody can get involved.
“So there was initially a lot of sadness and a sense of loss. But there has also been a sense of camaraderie. It has brought people closer together and there has even been a sense of excitement about creating the next space.”
It’s not the end for the NewBridge artists who have been given the chance to relocate to Carliol House, a Grade II-listed building in the same ownership on the corner of Market Street and Pilgrim Street.
“The landlords have been quite accommodating, allowing us to have that six months, and the council have been very supportive in helping with the relocation,” Charlotte said.
“For this building we’re signing a two-year lease. It’s slightly smaller so I think we’re going to have to use it in a slightly different way.
“But we have also been looking for a more secure space which would be sustainable for the longer term.”
Charlotte said places like NewBridge were “incredibly important” for cities such as Newcastle which boasted big cultural venues.
“If you have places like Baltic and Northern Stage you want young creative people to stay in the region and places like NewBridge allow a really experimental approach.”
Charlotte said The NewBridge Project had worked closely with Newcastle University and had commissioned a study by academic Dr Martyn Hudson, looking at the social and economic impact of its work.
This was launched at Norham House this week with high profile speakers supporting the idea of creative hubs in the city centre.
Sarah Munro, director of Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, said places like NewBridge were “absolutely critical” to Baltic and an important constituent of the region’s cultural scene.
They ensured a community of artists with a “high quality practice” and a culture of experimentation.
Artists and smaller arts organisations she likened to bees. “They’re really tiny but you take them out of a system and it collapses.”
Hans Möller, innovation director of the North East LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership), said “creative people doing creative things” were important economically and socially.
“Creative/digital is one of the sectors we’re focusing on because you can get access to funding for it,” he said.
“We need to be better at supporting start-ups in the digital sector.”
John Tomaney, professor of urban and regional planning at University College London but based in the North East, suggested the value of places like NewBridge shouldn’t be measured purely in economic terms.
“The biggest problem facing Newcastle and the North East is a problem of civic disenchantment which was best expressed in Brexit,” he argued.
“In terms of the impact and value of NewBridge, rather than its economic value we should be asking, ‘What does it contribute to the city and region as a decent place to live for the majority of people?’
“It’s a massive, massive question but worthy of discussion.”
Earlier Tom Warburton, director of investment and development at Newcastle City Council, said: “They have really worked hard, the artists there.
“They have been on low rents but they have created quite a creative fulcrum so, from the council’s point of view, we’ll continue to liaise with them to keep the vibe going.”
But the council, while it doesn’t own the buildings, is keen to see the redevelopment of East Pilgrim Street which it regards as one of the most strategically important in the north of England.
It, of course, will benefit from the business rates paid by the eventual occupants of the Northam House area which has been earmarked for retail development.
Norham House, like other buildings on the East Pilgrim Street site, is managed by Motcomb Estates on behalf of Taras Properties, a company owned by David and Simon Reuben, billionaire property developers.
A spokesman for Motcomb Estates’ agents in Newcastle, GVA, said no date had been announced for the demolition of any of the buildings but the work would be phased.
Meanwhile the artists keep ducking and diving, adding colour and variety to urban life.