The Playground Project, looking at the history of public playgrounds and featuring climbable creations, started a ‘play’ strand running through Baltic’s activities.
This summer’s Equal Play by artist and educator Albert Potrony is its latest manifestation.
Sarah talks of the balance to be struck between the established and the up-and-coming.
“I’ve always been interested in how you enable artists to have step-change moments, so in a lot of the programme now we’re working with artists at a much earlier stage.
“Look at what Joy Labinjo did here with her first solo show (the Newcastle University graduate saw interest in her paintings soar after Baltic displayed them in 2019).
“We’re giving opportunities to take risks much earlier.”
Sarah stresses the importance, post-Brexit, of not becoming inward-looking.
An artist exchange programme was set up between artists in the North East artists and the Baltic states.
Meanwhile, international artists whose work chimes with North East communities will, it seems, find favour.
Carolina Caycedo, a Colombian artist based in Los Angeles, focuses on the destructive consequences of hydroelectric schemes.
Before her current Baltic exhibition, though, she met the Women’s Banner Group in Durham and researched for an epic new drawing called Tyne Catchment.
In her first major UK show, therefore, global themes are given a North East perspective. The Kielder reservoir, it is worth noting, was opened 40 years ago.
Sarah is proud to have increased the representation of women in the galleries.
Most of Baltic’s senior roles are now held by women and Sarah, the first female director, is keen to point out that on International Women’s Day in 2018, all its galleries were showing work by women.
Sensing a softer touch in Baltic’s work can’t just be fanciful. Recently it became the UK’s first Gallery of Sanctuary for its welcoming approach to refugees and asylum seekers.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, activity packs were distributed to Baltic’s local communities. As Sarah says: “If you want to be neighbourly, you don’t disappear in hard times.”
Reopening after lockdown, the now vacant ground floor café was reopened as Front Room, a community space with free tea and coffee available (donations welcome).
It might not last, says Sarah, but it was a gesture. “My family’s from the Orkneys and my granny would always offer tea and a scone.
“If I’d had to take a business plan to my trustees it might not have happened but we had an empty space, we knew people were struggling and we thought: let’s do the generous thing.”
Baltic, 20 years on, is attuned to the climate emergency, in touch with its local communities, established as an international institution and still exciting visitors who arrive in their droves.
One third of those visitors are family groups or young people and most will find nothing incongruous about its activities. It has become part of the fabric.
Looking ahead, Sarah says: “I can’t predict the future but we know the next few years are full of challenge for ourselves and our communities.
“But I also know there is more need than ever for public institutions that create space for people to connect, engage, learn and play.
“Art is powerful in such times, be it to imagine new futures or simply escape for a few hours from today’s pressures.
“Baltic will change but I’m confident it will continue to bring art and people together for another 20 years.”
Baltic Birthday Weekend, this Saturday and Sunday (10am to 6pm), features a programme of special activities including creative workshops, fanzines, performances, street food, a livestreamed DJ set and an art car boot sale. Find details on www.baltic.art