Lennon Re-Brand: Inspired or Unimaginative?

Liverpool John Moores University are re-naming their Art Academy after its most famous son. Canny marketing to overseas students or a step backwards?

Last week, LJMU announced that they were re-naming their Art and Design Academy after former student John Lennon. After nurturing a working relationship with Yoko Ono since 2006, through profile raising events for the university and establishing the Imagine Awards for students, Ono granted permission for the change of name (to the John Lennon Art and Design Building).

The benefits of such a move seem obvious. Vice Chancellor, Professor Nigel Weatherill, called it a move to inspire “the young people who live and study here to achieve their dreams”; while School Director, Professor Juan Cruz, saw it as “a celebration both of the heritage of the school and the university as well as an ambitious declaration of our intentions for the future … This is not about dwelling in the past, but about reminding ourselves and our students about the impact that we are capable of having on the world from this city and this university.”

There’s no doubt that Lennon is a global brand, and with ongoing benefits in the form of support from Ono in publicity and endorsement, the school is likely to attract more international students. However, questions remain whether it will prove inspiring to current and future students.

“Future generations of students will know that they are following in his footsteps”

President of the LJMU Students Union, Curtis Reid, said: “future generations of students will know that they are following in his footsteps – it’s really exciting,” while History of Art student Kayleigh Davies saw it as a way to “intrigue people to look a little deeper into the history of the school and to understand the rich heritage beneath the glossy exterior”; and Fine Art student Danny Ryder thought it a “great name for a great place to study; John Lennon was, and still is, a big influence on the city”.

Other students sat on the more sceptical side of the fence. A Fine Art student who asked to remain anonymous seemed confused rather than excited. “I don’t see what John Lennon’s name has to do with the art building, as much as the Beatles’ unceasing popularity is understandable, I just can’t think of a reason that would justify this decision.”

Masters in Research student Elizabeth Edge was insistent that “the school should be recognised for its own history and credibility”, rather than the celebrity name.

Sifting through the more reactionary comments on Twitter there emerged concerns about an “unhelpful” and relentless return to “the Beatles Themepark”; a reference to cities who associate their cultural future with its past. In Liverpool’s case, of course, this is manifested through pride in the Beatles and their enormous global success.

“An “unhelpful” and relentless return to “the Beatles Themepark”"

Writer Kenn Taylor put it another way; in his excellent article on the commodification of culture, What Price Culture?, he muses on the ideas (good and bad) of heritage and tourist culture in a city:

‘While [the Beatles] were a product, in-part, of Liverpool culture and remain in the collective memory, there is also the cultural experience created to be sold to visitors.’

Liverpool tourism is still boosted by the Beatles ‘product’; but long-gone are the days where Liverpool is reliant on their cultural cache. The city is packed with dynamic, innovative and forward-looking organisations, making an impact internationally and locally, aiding student retention and inspiring (and employing) future creatives: Liverpool Biennial, The Kazimier, Tate Liverpool, Bold St Coffee, FVMA, Uniform, Baltic Creative, RIBA NW, The Royal Standard, FACT, Liverpool Philharmonic … whilst the Beatles connection will and should remain, they’re far from defining what the city is currently about.

As a ‘cultural experience’, does LJMU (and the area it resides in) really need to be sold to visitors and prospective students? Of course it does. Universities are in fierce competition. Non-elite universities who have chosen to charge top fees are losing out on student numbers, with figures from 2012 enrollments revealing ‘shocking declines’ at some UK institutions.

In the final assessment, an institution will be judged on its merits, rather than by association. Is co-opting the Lennon brand a strategy for quick gains or playing the long game? Importantly, Liverpool School of Art and Design (LSAD) are seeking future contemporary visual artists, designers, architects, illustrators, and art historians, and one can’t help but feel that this, perhaps, isn’t the right approach.

“Importantly, LSAD are seeking future contemporary visual artists, and one can’t help but feel that this, perhaps, isn’t the right approach”

You could say that the incentives to reach those top students are already in place. Just recently securing a £5 million collaborative European bid alongside major international institutions such as MACBA (Barcalona), Reina Sofia (Madrid) and Salt (Istanbul), LSAD students can look forward to new European links, leading to placements and contacts, so vital in launching a career in the arts.

New staff, new courses, a new Exhibition Research Centre and an ambitious School Director in Cruz make for a justly burgeoning reputation. Shouldn’t the School be focused on that, rather than a cultural reference that new generations may be eager to leave behind? As one anonymous staff member said: “I think it sounds like a marketing ploy. Why can it not do without the inevitable celebrity name, isn’t LSAD doing its job?”

Another (again anonymously) commented: “In one word – unimaginative. Which is ironic considering the subjects that the building contains. I’d have preferred Yoko Ono’s name to be linked with the art school rather than John Lennon’s. However, as a cynical piece of marketing it will probably serve its purpose.”

Considering the economic climate, is it naive and churlish to questions the re-brand at all? Is it an unimaginative step backwards or a loving homage to inspire future generations? We’re interested to hear your thoughts.

Posted on 10/07/2013 by thedoublenegative