Published: 27th September 2017

Sadly in the recent National Portfolio funding announcements our ambitious plans to create an exciting new contemporary art gallery at St. Hilda’s were not supported. Our standstill funding means in 2022 we will still receive less than we did in 2008.  The increased costs we carry and the need to look to reinventing the building and its use meant very difficult options were presented to The Arts Council,  their strategic review supported our “exemplary” work with children and new young people.

As a result of this Gallery curator Esen Kaya recently left Port of Tyne Gallery at The Customs House after more than 10 years in charge of its visual arts programme.

Here we look back on Esen’s contribution to The Customs House and look forward to our future visual arts offer.

Esen joined the organisation in October 2006 as visual arts development officer, from her previous role as education officer for Newlyn Art Gallery in Penzance.

She has overseen more than 130 exhibitions in the main Port of Tyne Gallery, Fusion Gallery and Stairwell Gallery at The Customs House, in Mill Dam, South Shields, including the ground-breaking Casting Off: Coat for a Boat in 2009.

Esen said: “I came to The Customs House with a real sense of ambition. I very much wanted the gallery to be at the heart of the cultural calendar in the north east.”

The first exhibition she curated was called Drawing the New, featuring work from recent graduates of north east universities.

Supporting emerging artists has been one of Esen’s passions throughout her time at The Customs House, having established the annual Transition series of exhibitions, showcasing work by new and early career artists, in 2010.

Her final exhibitions are also related to drawing and form part of a region-wide arts and culture partnership involved 35 visual arts organisations called DRAWING, bringing her time at The Customs House full circle.

Esen, who lives in Newcastle, said: “I have absolutely loved my job. I feel very proud to have represented The Customs House as a contemporary arts centre that aims to enable people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to access arts and culture.

“I have been fortunate to work with a broad range of artists and makers that are not only based in the region, but nationally and internationally.

“I have had the chance to bring the work of really exciting, international artists to The Customs House, so the people of South Tyneside and the rest of the region were able to see a really broad spectrum of contemporary art.”

The exhibition she believes had the biggest impact during her time at The Customs House has been Casting Off: Coat for a Boat, which attracted a whole new audience to the gallery and created knitting group The Materialistics.

The project saw a 20ft coble boat – and everything around it – covered in knitting, with over 350 people from all over the world donating items including knitted rocks, seagulls, lobster pots, compass, stopwatch and a plate of fish and chips.

As well as being displayed in the gallery, the boat was launched on the River Tyne as part of the Mouth of the Tyne Festival 2009.

It also formed part of a co-production with Guild of Lilian’s Theatre Company in 2014, called Follow the Herring, in which the boat accompanied the play Get Up and Tie Your Fingers in a national tour of east coast fishing communities.

Dave Parker and Alex Thirkettle, from the North East Maritime Trust, which was involved in the project, continue to volunteer at the gallery and have helped to hang every exhibition since Casting Off: Coat for a Boat, alongside the late Charlie Lowdon.

Some of the other community groups Esen has worked with include Sight Service, Apna Ghar, BLISS=Ability, Ocean Arts and Sangini.

She has also worked with a number of other galleries in the north east, most notably Vane Gallery in Newcastle. Together they have shown work by Mark Epstein, from New York, and Morten Schelde, from Denmark.

Esen will continue to be involved in the DRAWING project and will return to The Customs House in November to oversee the installation of Drawing Closer, which follows the current exhibition, Drawn, by Anita Taylor.

Ray Spencer MBE, executive director of The Customs House, said: “Esen has successfully engaged thousands of people in huge community engagement projects, making our gallery one of the best attended in the north east.

“Who can forget Casting Off: Coat for a Boat, which led to Follow the Herring, a national project that engaged over 40,000 people.

“Many new and emerging artists owe much to Esen for her guidance and experience to develop and present their work in the best possible way.

“She leaves a huge legacy and also many excellent memories of some incredibly challenging and engaging exhibitions.”

Come down and share Esen’s legacy with the current   exhibition, DRAWN by Anita Taylor which runs until 12 November followed by Sabina Sallis’ Drawing Close – Voynich Series which runs until 31 March.

Although we no longer have a curator Visual Arts will still be part of our offer. Young Interpreters, Drawn Together and masterclass workshops are still being programmed by Lesley Guy and we will still display art across the building.

Until additional funding is secured to redevelop the building the gallery will be used for a range of activities including community led exhibitions.