Liverpool Reawakened

Andrew Foulds assesses the state of the Liverpool Art Scene post Capital of Culture. Is it all doom-and-gloom or a mere blip in the continued renaissance of Liverpool as an art city?

In late 2011, Liverpool was dealt a blow which, whilst not exactly unexpected, will certainly challenge the resolve of many in the city. In a brief email circulated to contacts and then to the wider arts community Ceri Hand, the only gallery in Liverpool with a focus on showcasing and selling critically-engaged, contemporary international artwork, stated its intention to shut-up shop and move to the bright(er?) lights of London.

Ceri Hand opened its doors on the northernmost brink of Liverpool city centre in 2008 with the aim of creating a tangible legacy, establishing an art market and attracting investment into the city whilst supporting the already strong public arts infrastructure.  Around this time in the Baltic triangle, situated towards the south of the city centre, A Foundation and the Contemporary Urban Centre (CUC) opened their doors.  Each privately funded with a percentage of public funding thrown in for good measure, all three venues built on a spirit of optimism generated by the successful Capital of Culture bid.

Coupled with closures to the A Foundation in February 2011 and the death of the sprawling, flailing beast that was the CUC, the departure of Ceri Hand raises fears of a continued down-grading after the preceding excitement and panache.

2008 should rightly be remembered with fondness by the region, seeing artists of the calibre of Gustav Klimt, Yayoi Kusama and Ai Weiwei was a privilege. This piece looks to answer some of the pressing issues which brought about the closures to the venues. Why did they fail to establish themselves and now, how can we ensure that a more robust, and durable model of activity will take their place?

Looking at the criteria central to the success of Liverpool’s bid to win the Capital of Culture award, Liverpool Culture Company stated as two of its primary objectives: “to maintain, enhance and grow the cultural infrastructure” and “to develop a succession strategy for the role of the company past 2008 in the areas of cultural development in the City of Liverpool”.

With such an onus on development of infrastructure and sustaining the impact of activity beyond 2008, in what was a broadly successful Capital of Culture, the rapid closure of three relatively significant venues has to be marked out as a failure on the part of the Culture Company to safe-guard against such events.

“The departure of Ceri Hand raises fears of a continued down-grading after the preceding excitement and panache”

In a financial climate of continued uncertainty, with the global economy lurching from one crisis to the next, it is easy to come to the conclusion that it would be impossible to safeguard against such an unexpected occurrence.  Artists and curators from the city have stated that the Capital of Culture scenario was broadly unsustainable anyway; to have a drop-off in activity was inevitable.  Maybe it wasn’t possible to guard against governance and funding issues, which both CUC and A Foundation seemed to struggle with from the beginning. 

The global financial crisis came at a terrible time for Liverpool; a time of transition, before many of the initiatives developed for 2008 had fully matured.  This has probably left them more vulnerable than an established venue.  But to suggest the crisis was unexpected is missing the point.  It is relevant to question whether enough thought went into safeguarding these organisations against economic fluctuations and governmental policy changes.  In order to grasp the potential of ‘08, venues were established on foundations of sand.

The warning signs, scrawled on the wall, were given an extended airing in Sara Selwood’s prescient essay Liverpool, Art City?  She writes: “Despite…the successful creation of a visual arts infrastructure in Liverpool over the past twenty years, sustainability is an issue. The visual arts sector…is heavily reliant on subsidies: according to ACE’s [Arts Council England’s] own data, of all art forms that it supports, the visual arts are the least likely to generate income and are most dependant on public subsidies…it is not so much a prediction as a foregone conclusion that during the next ten years things will not be the same. The economy will be less buoyant. There will be much less government money for cities.  European money will virtually dry up.” The question is, how will Liverpool retain its position as ‘Art City’?

In Ceri Hand’s case it seems to have been, as it so often is, a question of timing, which has resulted in the present course of action: “We have had success in Liverpool, but the evidence was apparent that there is a ceiling for the collectors we have worked with in the North West…we needed to be able to show and sell some of our artist’s bigger installations and more challenging works. This means being in a place where we can exhibit works to ambitious collectors… It would take us another good few years, maybe five to be able to achieve that from here.”

The fact that there is a ‘collecting ceiling’ in Liverpool is not a surprise according to Bryan Biggs (Artistic Director at the Bluecoat): “there is tons of research into the state of the UK art market – notably research that ACE commissioned – and it’s clear that outside London (which is an international market anyway) the British do not buy art.”

Indeed, is an arts market here in Liverpool really sustainable? As Mike Stubbs (Director, FACT) ponders: “Is there the economy of scale of the very rich (who traditionally buy art in capital cities globally) to sustain it on an economic basis [in Liverpool] and is this really an indicator of where the value, innovation and peoples fascination lies?”

With the relationship between artist and gallerist being a complex symbiotic affair, a question of supply and demand from both sides, it is possible to see that as Ceri’s artists achieve greater success, it becomes more pressing for her to be able to provide the right environment  in which to sell their work.

Establishing Ceri Hand was based on a high risk strategy; with enormous overheads, the requirement is to sell; sell big and sell often.  By choosing a venue separated from much of the city’s cultural activity (the closest being artist-led gallery and studios The Royal Standard), it was in isolation, away from passing trade. The extent of the overheads meant that time was ticking from the moment it opened its doors. It is easy to look back in hindsight and criticise the choice of location; had it enjoyed greater longevity, it is easy to imagine, in a location full of potential, with masses of rentable spaces at very low costs, a momentum may well have taken hold. More commercial galleries and artist-led initiatives could have decided that this was the location for them and in this scenario, you could envisage something of a scene taking hold.

“It is not so much a prediction as a foregone conclusion that during the next ten years things will not be the same… There will be much less government money for cities”

The curious thing about momentum is that once developed it largely feeds itself, in much the same way that the ‘Glasgow Miracle’ occurred.  In a scenario whereby a local energy attracts a media presence, developing a national and international awareness, something of a gravitational pull is imaginable. More like-minded individuals are attracted to the location in order to be a part of what is happening and in turn bring their own ideas and enthusiasm into the mix.  More wood is thrown onto the fire and the flames grow.

Musing on such interconnectedness, one can view the ‘Glasgow Miracle’ as serendipitous. This coming together of separate elements, leads to an environment where it was possible to deliver an advanced and productive visual art scene.  An intrinsic part of this set-up was the quality of student and tutor found in the Glasgow School of Art in the late 1980s.

In stark contrast, art courses at the universities in Liverpool during 2008 were going through a period of uncertainty and restructuring.  Changes to staff and the prospect of moving venues meant Liverpool John Moores University fine art course was struggling to find a sense of place, and even a sense of identity.

Three key artist-led spaces delivering an alternative during this time were Red Wire, The Royal Standard and Wolstenholme Projects (now Wolstenholme Creative Space), each founded in 2005-06 largely by graduates from LJMU.  No other venue has been established since, underlining the importance of a talented, engaged graduate-base to invigorate, re-energise and challenge the status-quo.

Recently there have been signs that LJMU fine art course is recovering from its strife, with a new sense of purpose and a collective identity. Students of the course are being seen again, visiting and playing an active role in the artist-led scene. Only through such engagement will students understand the particular language and cultural heritage that is on offer in the city.

Comprehensive findings on the effect of Capital of Culture can be found at with research undertaken by LJMU and Liverpool University.  Research is restricted to members of the largest eight maintained arts organisations in Liverpool (known collectively as LARC).  Understandable, however, to accurately judge a city’s cultural wellbeing, a picture has to be developed including broader activity.  Without such research any results could appear lopsided, and to conclude that classical economics is a gauge on assessing success is too easily reached.

Why is the artist-led scene such an important part of the cultural health of a city? One could say that these individuals are the workforce maintaining the larger umbrella galleries and museums, working (as many do) as gallery assistants or technicians.  Within these recent graduates and early career practitioners are the next generation of art world leaders, the directors and curators of the large institutions. The individuals involved with the artist-led organisations are the life-blood of its culture; they are its producers, participants, drive and moral compass. They are elements driving the momentum.

Despite clear problems, there exists a bullishness in the mood of the artists working in the city. This is not just a matter of carrying on regardless; it is an attitude of using any obstacle as a catalyst to project you onto the next thing.

“The individuals involved with the artist-led organisations are the life-blood of its culture; they are its producers, participants, drive and moral compass”

Paul Domela (Programme Director, Liverpool Biennial) gave his opinion: “After showing that Liverpool is one of the best places in the UK to see art, can we also make it one of the best places for artists to work and live?  What are the ingredients to make this possible?  An art bookshop?  Access to (inter)national networks?  Collectors? Curators?  Cheap rents? Reviews?  Critically acclaimed Art Schools?  Cutting-edge club nights?  Most of these are here or within grasp.  But the aim should not be simply to emulate the conditions of Liverpool’s bigger neighbour London.  Instead the challenge is to find a viable alternative within Liverpool’s singularity.”

The general sense of camaraderie amongst the individuals participating in the creative scene here extends out to those who have decided to leave.  As with Ceri Hand, the need to follow the cash-cow down to London and the 2012 Olympics is not seen with any bitterness.  There is a sincere feeling we have been active in the gallery’s formative years and if it succeeds in London, we will also share a small piece of that. In the same breath, the dichotomy of this most individual of cities reveals itself.  Behind the well-wishing, there is the old fighter, correcting his bloodied-nose and vowing behind the smile, that he will prove the unbelievers wrong.

With Mercy continuing to garner a committed cult following, Hive Collective excelling in their own cross-disciplinary events and The Royal Standard being selected to be a part of Tate Modern’s “No Soul For Sale – A Festival of Independents” showcase in 2010, it is clear that significant developments are occurring in the artist-led scene here. This is perhaps best exemplified by the recent edition of Creative Review; where Liverpool and in particular, Wolstenholme Creative Space gets extended and positive coverage.

A necessary shift in the attitude of the umbrella organisations is creating new types of opportunities, with a new ethos of collaboration between themselves and artist-led spaces. “Working collectively and in collaboration to reinforce the quality, validity and value of what we do as artists, as we approach corporate and commercial organisations, is high on the list of priorities right now” (Jon Barraclough, Artist and co-producer of The Drawing Paper). This is best shown by The Royal Standard’s growing relationship with the Walker and the Bluecoat, and has resulted in challenging dialogues as equals.

The resurgence of the LJMU Fine Art course and the continuing high standard set by its Graphic Design cousin is starting to breed a strong new current of practitioners; the likes of Young Pines are making waves and speaking their own particular visual language.

The beady eye of recognition is turning towards the city and the momentum which I seem to have been evangelical about over the course of this article is showing signs of picking up speed.  It is so important now, that this attention is fed across the board.  The best new graduates need to be retained in the city, and introduced to the poetry of the place, to be shown the unique character here, and pushed to establish their own venues and support networks from which they can survive and make a living. Output within Liverpool should become more ambitious, the artists and organisations more unified, and new strategies need to be developed to overcome any economic restrictions.

I started by entertaining the possibility of Liverpool: doom and gloom city, but in reality, the signs are there, more than just fragile green shoots. The city is incredibly well placed to seek out and forge new, sustainable ways of doing things. Alan Dunn, artist and lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University agrees: “I firmly believe that Liverpool has always nurtured artists and creative practitioners whose main thrusts were not always commercial. For me, that is what makes the city (including the Wirral!) so exciting... Perhaps those with money that may have been in a position to purchase existing works need also to be educated towards differing models of commissioning or ‘buying’ art.  That may be a more useful role within Liverpool, for an agency approach that links potential funders to the creative energy that actually exists in the region.”

It is often said that during times of severe economic downturn, cultural production responds. We must ensure this is the case now if we are to nurture the clear signs of positivity that exist – we cannot afford to waste the opportunity.

Andrew Foulds

Image © Ben Johnson 2008. All Rights Reserved. DACS.

Posted on 17/01/2012 by thedoublenegative