Newcastle’s Side Gallery to close after funding cuts and energy bills rise

Photography space that inspired Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall launches fundraising campaign with aim of reopening in 2024

A small and much-loved photography gallery that has punched well above its size for more than 45 years will close this weekend because of funding cuts and cost-of-living pressures.

The Side Gallery, near the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle, was opened in 1977 by a collective championing positive images of working-class life.

Today it is much more than that, with a mission to be “an agent of change” through the commissioning, exhibition and preservation of visual stories that highlight “social concerns and celebrate diverse lives and landscapes across the north-east, UK, and the globe”.

Lee Hall, the writer of the film Billy Elliot, was a regular visitor as a child and soaked up imagery that has fed into his work.

He once wrote: “As a kid walking down the dark streets of Newcastle’s Quayside, which was decayed at the time, I wandered into a little gallery and a whole world opened up.”

The gallery became one of the Arts Council England (ACE) national portfolio organisations in 2018, but last year it was told its application for another four years had been unsuccessful.

People looking at photographs by Marc Wilson in the Side Gallery
The Marc Wilson exhibition A Wounded Landscape is currently on display at the gallery. Photograph: Supplied

“It was awful,” said the gallery’s curator, Kerry Lowes. “We were absolutely devastated. We’ve been there before; we’ve lost funding, so we always knew it was a possibility. We are not one of the flagship organisations which are too big to fail.”

Last month the gallery was told it had been successful in getting transition funding. Lowes said the money had to be spent on winding it down.

The gallery has had to lose six members of staff and come up with a survival plan.

“We can’t go down without a fight,” said Lowes. “It is very easy to feel downhearted because when you lose money it feels very personal.

“But the response we’ve had in the past couple of days, the outpouring of public support, we were just blown away. It puts fire in your belly.”

The reduction of ACE funding, combined with rising energy bills – “Our electricity bill has gone up about five times the amount and when you’re a gallery, you’ve got a lot of light” – led to the decision to close the gallery from Sunday.

Photographs by Marc Wilson in the Side Gallery
Photographs from the exhibition A Wounded Landscape. Photograph: Supplied

It has launched a Save Side fundraising campaign to raise £60,000 so the gallery can continue working towards reopening in 2024.

The plan is to apply to a larger number of funding bodies in an effort to ensure it survives the current crisis.

Sunday’s closure means there are just three days for visitors to see an exhibition of photographs by Marc Wilson of his sixyear journey across Europe documenting physical traces of the Holocaust.

An ACE spokesperson said: “It will have been a difficult decision for Amber Film & Photography Collective to temporarily close the Side Gallery and upsetting news for artists and visitors.

“Our latest investment round was extremely competitive as we received a record number of applications.

“We have awarded £70,880 to Amber in transition funding which is available to support organisations leaving the portfolio and will work with them to see how we can support them through our other funding programmes.”


Mark Brown North of England correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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