Re-entering stage left

March 7, 2022

The call to culture

There may never be a better year for North East culture. In terms of diversity, every box has been ticked across the whole region for the coming 12 months and beyond, and then ticked again, crossed over and marked with highlighter pen. And with plans announced for new developments on the quayside in Gateshead and in Sunderland city centre – where the new Fire Station is already up and running – the sheer range of venues, large and small, continues to expand and develop. And, as Colin Young discovers, there is plenty to capture the imagination this year, with an old, old favourite, perhaps surprisingly, grabbing the title of headline act.


It’s taken a while but the region’s cultural scene, so affected by the lockdowns and associated restrictions of the pandemic, is opening up again.

And venues and bosses are wasting little time in regaining the momentum.

Just days after software firm Sage committed £10 million to secure naming rights for a much-anticipated concert, conference and exhibition hub on Gateshead’s quayside, Sunderland City Council was last month unveiling its own blue ribbon leisure development.

Valued at £80 million, officials say the scheme includes a 10,000-capacity arena and associated attractions on the former Crowtree Leisure Centre site, which will act as “an incredible addition” to the city, bringing hundreds of thousands of visitors while complementing existing locations such as the Empire Theatre and new Fire Station.

But the future is only one part of the equation, with a headline act from the past set to play its own starring role in the region’s cultural renaissance later this year.

The entertainment bookers have been busy during the lockdowns.

And as we move, full steam ahead, into the ‘new normal’ following the Prime Minister’s recent announcement, working, meeting, socialising and going to gigs again, they are already starting to see the fruits of their labours.

Very few genres have been left uncovered for North East audiences in 2022.

From Sam Fender’s three-night hometown residency at the Utilita Arena, to 40 life-size illuminated sheep appearing in the villages, towns and landscapes of Northumberland.

And from five new Opera North productions, to Sarah Millican’s return to the Tyne Theatre, the list really is endless.

Yet it is a centuries old manuscript, making its own return to the region, which is truly exciting and inspiring artists and the public.

The Lindisfarne Gospels will soon be unveiled once again in a new exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery, in Newcastle, with a supporting installation at the City Library also aiming to attract plenty of visitors.

The Lindisfarne Gospels have long been acclaimed as the most spectacular manuscript to survive from Anglo-Saxon England, and currently sit in the British Library.

The 1300-year-old biblical books recount the life of Christ, containing the Gospels of the four evangelists Mark, John, Luke and Matthew, as well as the associated texts that typically form part of Gospel books, such as chapter lists, and letters written by St Jerome in 420.

They are believed to be the work of the Bishop of Lindisfarne, a monk named Eadfrith, who worked on them as a tribute to Saint Cuthbert, up until his death in 721.

Presumed taken in the dissolution of the monasteries ordered by Henry VIII, they were acquired by Sir Robert Cotton in the early 17th century, before his library became part of the British Museum and British Library following his death.

Organisers are hoping that the manuscript, which is being shown in the North East for the fifth time since 1987, will attract similar numbers to the 100,000 visitors who attended an exhibition at Durham University nine years ago.

The 2022 exhibition is focused on the meaning of the Lindisfarne Gospels in today’s world and how its themes link to personal, regional and national pride.

Venues across the region have been invited to host supporting events and programmes of activity for community groups and schools, while a high-profile artist commission will re-imagine the Gospels for a 21st century audience.

The plan to display the Lindisfarne Gospels in Newcastle was co-ordinated by the North East Culture Partnership and the British Library and Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

Newcastle City Library was selected as the preferred bidder and approved by the Association of North East Councils.

And their long-anticipated return has ignited a year-long, region-wide programme of cultural events, which
will peak in autumn with two new visitor attractions, around the focal exhibition of the Gospels at the Laing Art Gallery.

The two new attractions will be launched as part of the Inspired by Lindisfarne Gospels 2022 programme; the new Faith Museum, in Bishop Auckland – England’s first museum designed to explore the story of faith in Britain, which is located in the historic Scotland Wing of Auckland Castle – and the Ad Gefrin Visitor Experience and Distillery, in Wooler, Northumberland.

Ad Gefrin will be a fully immersive AV and museum experience, which will bring to life the Northumbrian Golden Age and the court of its kings and queens in their seventh century royal summer palace that was discovered at Yeavering only a few miles away, and is one of the finest Anglo- Saxon archaeological sites in Europe.

Then, from Hartlepool to Hexham, Berwick-upon-Tweed to Bishop Auckland, multiple venues and locations will invite visitors to explore, experience and enjoy a wealth of events, all drawing inspiration from different aspects of the manuscript.

The programme has already opened with Monogatari – the art of storytelling in Japanese woodblock prints – which has been organised in partnership with the National Museum of Japanese History and is being held in Durham’s Oriental Museum.

This month will also see the opening of a project led by the National Glass Centre, named Glass Exchange, which will be split between major locations in Sunderland and Durham and see four, established contemporary artists create new work in glass that will remain in situ until the end of September.

Durham Cathedral will also be used for light projections in April in a mini-festival that will feature more contemporary music and drama performances, plus lectures, a family fun day and food market, all based around the lightshow on the building’s 12th century facade.

Between March and October, Museums Northumberland will present ‘A Northumberland Menagerie’, a series of new works by local artist Bethan Maddocks, and Berwick’s Gymnasium Gallery will host Suki Chan’s film installation Still Point throughout the summer.

There are also plans for exhibitions throughout the year in Hexham Abbey, Newcastle Cathedral, Sir William Gray House, in Hartlepool, and, of course, Jarrow’s Bede Museum.

However, perhaps the most eye- catching spectacle of the year will be found in the streets and hills of Northumberland, when digital and light

artist Deepa Mann-Kier is let loose and 40 life-size illuminated sheep will appear across the county’s villages, towns and landscapes.

Inspired by the themes of light, sheep and pilgrimage, which are referenced in the Gospels, Deepa will create a flock that will be adopted by communities and hosted in spaces across the county, with
a series of trails on foot, bike and public transport created for people to appreciate the sheep in their diverse locations.

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums curators have worked with the British Library and with artists to explore the history of the Gospels, and how it can bring people together today by inspiring ideas about identity and sense of place.

Keith Merrin, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums’ director, says: “It is wonderful that not only do we have the display
of the Lindisfarne Gospels at the Laing Art Gallery to look forward to, but we also have this amazing range of events, exhibitions and new attractions for people to enjoy right across our region as part of the ‘Inspired by’ programme.

“There will be a spotlight on the North East in 2022 with must-see events like the Lindisfarne Gospels programme and also Hadrian’s Wall 1900 – celebrating 1900 years since the Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage site was built.

“It is fantastic to see so much energy and activity in the arts and heritage offer in our region.”

All this comes as venues across the North East prepare to open their doors, or their wide-open spaces, and welcome back audiences large and small.

And exciting plans for two major cultural developments in Gateshead and Sunderland will only add to the eclectic mix of venues available to concert, conference and exhibition-goers in the coming years.

North East-founded software firm Sage recently announced a £10 million deal to sponsor a sprawling new visitor attraction – to be known as The Sage and which will include the Sage Arena and Sage ICC – that will sit between the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and Sage Gateshead on the quayside.

Planned to be ready by 2024, bosses say it will deliver a £70 million annual economic boost and create 2000 jobs.

Steve Hare, Sage Group chief executive, says: “Our heart has always been in the North East, and this embodies our purpose – to knock down barriers so everyone can thrive.

“The Sage brings the world to the North East’s front door, providing a platform to celebrate the region’s brilliance.

“We are committed to making sure The Sage is an inclusive venue by giving access to all, no matter their background.

“We believe it will unlock the huge potential the North East has, attracting greater investment and innovation.”

And over on Wearside, on the former Crowtree Leisure Centre site, Sunderland City Council has unveiled what it is calling a game-changing showstopping addition to the city, which is already being transformed before our eyes with projects underway and others planned for the former Vaux brewery site and Sheepfolds.

The proposals for the former home of the Sunderland Chiefs include a new 10,000-capacity, multi-purpose arena, food hall, restaurants, hotel and studios, together forming a unique destination that officials say will have something for everyone and help bring in hundreds of thousands of visitors.

The project has already attracted more than £20 million in funding from the council and the Government, and it will move into the advanced design stage if the local authority’s cabinet signs off the proposed budget for the scheme.

Councillor Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland City Council, says: “The rate of transformation in our city points to the level of regeneration we are delivering for Sunderland, and this development raises that bar higher.

“We set out an ambition to bring more experiences to the city as part of our Riverside Sunderland investment strategy, and you only have to look at the change to date in the city centre to see that it is more than an aspiration.

“It’s something we’re determined to make a reality.”