Lighting the blue touch paper for North East culture

Sage Gateshead

Mark Lane meets Sage Gateshead managing director Abigail Pogson, and is impressed by the sheer scale of the venue’s activities and its impact in culture terms on the people of our region

For those of us who live and work in the North East of England, it’s easy to take Sage Gateshead for granted. In historical terms, this key venue is a relatively new addition to Tyneside’s iconic architectural backdrop, yet it’s difficult to remember a time when the building wasn’t there.

Distinguished and eye-catching it might be, but somehow it fits seamlessly into its surroundings. The local population have taken it to the heart, recognising no doubt that it has played such an important part of placing and keeping Tyneside on the cultural map in the UK.

Sage Gateshead, with its grand plans and uncompromising ambition, could so easily have turned out to be a white elephant. However, in the 15 years it has been in operation it has been anything but, consistently punching above its weight in terms of its contribution to the region from both a cultural and economic perspective. For those who think too much money is wasted on arts-related projects – of which there are a sizeable number – Sage Gateshead is the perfect riposte.

Each year, Sage Gateshead welcomes more than 500,000 people and features over 400 concerts, including many kinds of local, regional and international music.

Its tentacles also spread beyond the building itself, with Sage Gateshead having become a regional catalyst for music-making and learning activity across the North East, with more than 13,000 people of all ages taking part in over 10,000 music classes and workshops with links to the venue.

Most recently, this cultural phenomenon has embarked on its latest development and, as it did so, I caught up with Sage’s managing director, Abigail Pogson.

Abigail, who was previously chief executive of London music charity Spitalfields Music, joined Sage Gateshead four years ago. While a native of Yorkshire, she had spent much of her career in London so I was surprised to find out that she was actually very well aware of Sage Gateshead before taking up the challenge of this role.

She says she had followed the fortunes of Sage Gateshead for several years before making the move up North, calling it a “game-changer of a project in terms of having performance and education sat side-by-side with equal value”.

Before discussing Abigail’s role and her general thoughts on the region’s cultural scene, I was keen to find out about key recent developments at Sage Gateshead, the most notable of which is the introduction of a bespoke seating system, which will enable the quick removal of seats to create space for a part-standing audience.

The project has been made possible thanks to £1.2m from National Lottery funding through Arts Council England’s capital programme. This in turn has been matched by donations of £800,000 from individuals and trusts from the North East and across the country.

The project will allow the installation of a unique new seat mechanism giving the venue the flexibility to provide standing space on level one of the main concert hall (Sage One) – beyond the existing standing pit – as well as continuing to offer the option of a fully- seated hall. The system will also enable the seats to be put back in again at speed.

In fact, removal of the seats has only been done twice before at Sage Gateshead, once for MS Life Conference and secondly for BBC 6 Music Festival.

Once seats are removed, the capacity of the hall will increase from a current maximum of 1650 to 2000, allowing the venue to add to its diverse programme, including more indie, dance and prom-style performances.

In addition to adapting the seating in Sage One, the project will also include a major refurbishment of the building’s main concourse, which has become a focal point for many festivals and free events as well as a place to relax, play and work. The concourse is open to the public seven days a week and the aim is to improve facilities so that more people can use the building each year.

In fact, numbers and scale has always been a major part of Sage Gateshead’s mantra. Abigail suggests the Sage has already, “had a massive impact on the cultural sector in the region… of course when you create a building like this it gets attention. But it was never just about the building, it was about the broader creative approach to widening interest in the arts. I was attracted by the mission of the organisation.”

Abigail has northern roots but has been pleasantly surprised since her arrival in the region, not just by the people and the wonderful countryside but also the interest in the arts and culture. “Audiences here are incredibly curious about different music and the appetite for hearing and learning about music is really strong here,” she says.

Our region is not particularly renowned for its cultural heritage, but Abigail feels sure that Gateshead, Tyneside and, “the region more widely is in a strong place culturally”, and that Sage Gateshead can act as a powerful focal point for cultural activities in the North East.

She adds: “There are some fantastic cultural organisations here and many important, brilliant artists that are living and working here. The region has a very strong track record and this building is an example of investment in culture that has been coming down the pipelines.

You can see the impact it has had and ripples it has created.

“It is so important to make sure young people can see that music and cultural activity is available to them and can be a big part of their life.”

Abigail suggests there is also a bigger picture here. The Sage Gateshead is in many ways about helping people in our region make connections and network beyond the North East. It is well known that for young musicians, the best way to get recognised is to play gigs in London where so many of the promoters and agents reside. Yet this is not always easy – it costs money and it requires a level of business acumen many young creatives might lack.

Thus as I interviewed Abigail, Sage Gateshead was running a Summer Studio initiative for emerging artists, providing training briefings on how to network more broadly beyond the North East and helping them gain a more practical understanding of the industry they aspire to enter.

We know, however, that this training does not come for free. We also know that money for what is loosely termed the arts is in short supply in the UK, with numerous organisations competing for funding.

A little surprised, I discover Sage Gateshead is only 20 per cent publicly funded. The rest, it must find itself.

Abigail says: “We are 20 per cent public funding, 50 per cent is earned via events then we fund-raise and trade to bring in the remaining 30 per cent. For instance, if you purchase a coffee here, part of that will be gifted to the charity.

“20 per cent public funding compared to some of our peers is modest but there is real strength in a mixed model. Our audience is an important part of that mix. If you buy a ticket you are part of the economic model of the charity and I see that as a strength. We are not about profit we are about breaking even and delivering social value.”

Money from conferences is a key source of income. Some conferences are on rotation and, as Abigail points out, “you want to make sure you are on the list of rotated venues”.

Other conferences are essentially locked down, and it is here where you are competing with the likes of Glasgow and Liverpool. “We work with NGI in putting forward bids and they have a great track record of capturing business,” Abigail says.

She continues: “At the moment we run lots of conferences in Sage Gateshead but we don’t have pure exhibition
space, which means the very biggest conferences don’t fit. So, for example the very biggest international conferences or autumn political party conferences can’t come to the site as it stands.

“Beyond our own capital development in the next 12 months, there’s the bigger development of Gateshead Quays by GMBC in the pipeline which is targeted for completion by 2023/24. The new facilities will complement Sage Gateshead’s facilities, particularly with purpose-built exhibition space. This will mean the site will be able to accommodate international scale conferences and is a really exciting prospect for the region.”

That said, Abigail firmly believes that the venue already has a fantastic offering, thanks to its sheer scale, the quality of its space, and its unique configuration which includes two main auditoriums, a rehearsal hall and many smaller spaces.

“The mix of audiences is one of our strengths,” she says. “One night we might have an audience in for a concert, the following night it might be a gig. We might have local school children in or people having a business meeting.”

This, of course, is a significant strength. Abigail also believes the identifiable architecture of Sage Gateshead has become “an emblem for Tyneside and has been part of a gravitation back towards the Quayside”.

As indicated, Abigail’s background is in the London arts scene which, as we all know, is recognised and celebrated internationally as well as being a lightning rod for culture in the UK. Does London get too much support? Does its arts scene get too much funding? Should money be better and more evenly distributed across the UK?

For Abigail, such a question is not as black and white as it might sound. She says: “I think there is value in a national investment which is what happens through London. There is also a positive awareness about the need to invest outside London although this needs to be dependent on context rather than a blanket thing that replicates London.

“I don’t think the answer is to take money out of one place and put it in another. I think you need both. For instance, a region like the North East needs a different kind of investment to London.

“I also think we need to acknowledge that really exciting things are happening in the arts in the likes of Middlesbrough, Sunderland and other parts of the region. The blue touch paper has been lit on this issue and investment is taking place.

“I also don’t think we should be thinking exclusively in public funding terms. This organisation is a mixed model and our primary income is people purchasing tickets. Cultural organisations are about a range of funds coming in, not just public money.”

Asked what her ambitions are for what she can achieve at Sage Gateshead, Abigail says: “My main driver is to see this place open to as wide a range of audiences as possible. By that

I include a musician doing work in the studio, somebody coming to an event to hear a band, somebody coming to try
a festival, a young person participating in our In Harmony programme in West Newcastle, students from schools across the region – I include everybody in that.”

She finishes, “My passion is about making sure as many people as possible can connect with music as that is our currency here.”

Sage Gateshead