There's a genuine community feeling at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. Young artists are nurtured there, and more established ones return to exhibit there time after time. What’s more, the same familiar faces of gallery-goers can be seen on every visit. Perhaps this neighbourly spirit stems from Baltic's Gateshead location, where it monopolises the contemporary art scene in the area, puncturing the grey skyline like a great temple of culture.
More likely, it’s down to how the place is run. Since she took the reigns in 2015, director Sarah Munro has been on a mission to put practitioners at the heart of everything that Baltic does. No wonder the likes of Monica Bonvicini, Mike Nelson, Lorna Simpson and Pedro Cabrita Reis return to exhibit again and again. It's because of their longstanding relationship with the centre that these four, internationally esteemed artists were chosen as judges for the inaugural Artists' Award – the first award in the UK to fill the judging panel with only artists. They were each tasked with nominating an art star of the future, who would receive £25,000 to create a significant body of work, along with a £5,000 artist commission. The results now spill over two floors of Baltic.
'wildkatze', by Toni Schmale, 2016. Photography: John McKenzie. © Baltic 2017
Unlike many award exhibitions, the work of winners Shen Xin (picked by Nelson), Eric N. Mack (Simpson), Toni Schmale (Bonvicini) and Jose Dávila (Cabrita Reis) intertwine, conceptually and physically. In Baltic's triple-height, warehouse-like top floor, Dávila's architectural assemblage of building-site RSJs and sandstone boulders (sourced from the Gateshead area) frame Mack's sweeping textile sculptures, installed directly behind.
Downstairs, the moodier, low-ceilinged third floor gallery houses the BDSM-inspired works of German sculptor Toni Schmale. They set the tone for Chinese, London-based artist Shen Xin's powerful video installation, which unpicks themes of power-play, femininity and intimacy. Four screens, arranged in a square, play videos on a loop, interrupting each other and overlapping – a purposefully frustrating, disorientating watch.
They're a very diverse bunch of artists, with contrasting perspecitves. But Baltic's friendly, welcoming feel seems to have swept the four nominees up with it, aided by the fact that there will be no standout winner of the award. ‘It was important for us not to pit the artists against each other,' explains chief curator Laurence Sillars. 'These guys are the future! Without them, Baltic, and importantly, contemporary art in general, will be consigned to history.’ In this sense, the award is a guardianship for future talent. It promotes cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary, cross-generational cooperation – and the team behind it should be applauded as much as the nominees.