Liverpool’s Art Scene Now

Cactus Gallery, Liverpool

Ahead of this week’s Biennial 2014 opening, ArtReview’s Oliver Basciano assesses Liverpool’s contemporary art offer, and wonders at the striking absence of new artist-run initiatives…

Contemporary art – at least if we follow a western narrative – was born somewhere between Paris and London. New York and, later, Los Angeles took European modernism and blended it with American themes: architecture, the vast plains, pop culture and the movies. In the later decades of the twentieth century various cities began to have their moments as the cult of the contemporary grew momentum. Scenes in Berlin and Cologne grew out of a DIY party atmosphere of cheap rent and bohemian spirit. European painters and American painters pinged styles back and forth.

Amsterdam and Frankfurt joined the art world courtesy of their schools. The Hans Ulrich Obrist-monikered ‘Glasgow Miracle’ gave the UK a second art city. Basel became a powerhouse because of its art fair. Zurich, because of its money and advantageous tax system. The art world has become global. The frontiers spread well beyond the west: Beijing, Dubai, New Delhi, Johannesburg, Tokyo. Twentieth century avant-gardes ignored from the western cannon were given their dues: São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Warsaw, Kraków. Brussels is worth a trip now; Lyon, Oslo and Stockholm are pouring money into their scenes, chasing the municipal cache that comes with a thriving art scene. People have said there’s amazing stuff to see in Mali and Indonesia; that the art in Singapore is really mature.

“We can think of the ‘art world’ – that ungainly, ugly, term – as having topography mapped rather like those diagrams airlines provide in their in-flight magazines to show their routes”

In this context we can think of the ‘art world’ – that ungainly, ugly, term – as having topography mapped rather like those diagrams airlines provide in their in-flight magazines to show their routes; a spidery tangle of airborne passages that spread across the globe. For art, these routes are lines of exchange. Artists, curators and critics talking to each other through the objects shown in exhibitions, biennales, art fairs, in art magazines, on blogs like Contemporary Art Daily, through Facebook and Instagram. On this global map, London remains a hub. A thicket of lines stretching internationally, busy carrying both art produced in the city, and the art that travels through it. Among those busy lines are domestic exchanges too. Birmingham, Newcastle of course. Bristol a little, Manchester a bit.

And Liverpool.

Where does Liverpool find its place on the map? It certainly has a place. It is rich with institutions; it has a respectable biennale; The Royal Standard, the city’s independent yet firmly established artist-run flag-waver has substantial national profile. More to the point, or rather less academically, what does Liverpool’s position on this map offer the artists who live in the city?

This question arose from an intensive two days of meeting people who make and present art in Liverpool. Over the first hot weekend of May I spoke to BA students just finishing their graduate shows, an MA student deciding what to do next, tutors, recent émigrés from London either returning or fresh to the city, directors of institutions, artists at various stages in their career (all of whom had various plans of what kind of career they were pursuing.) I emailed a ton of people too. Talked to people who don’t live there but know a thing or two about the challenges of making art in a smaller city, or who know and love Liverpool from afar. The reason for all this chatter was to take stock at a prescient time in the development of art in Liverpool.

The Biennial’s sixth edition of course opens this week, but more generally the city’s landscape has changed. The legacy of the 2008 Capital of Culture has firmly taken root. The Royal Standard expanded a year ago; both the exhibition and studio space are now double their original square footage. The Baltic Creative project has had tangible results, breathing new life into the city’s Baltic Triangle area, until very recently the site (and an echo) of an industrial revolution of a previous era. The remaining warehouses are now home to designers, app developers and film companies, their rents stabilised through the landlord’s status as a community interest company. Change at the Liverpool John Moores’ School of Art and Design too. None of the students now graduating the three-year Fine Art BA at will remember the college’s historic site on Hope Street – they are a generation who took all their classes and studio time at the new £27 million, Rick Mather-designed building at Liverpool John Moores University’s Mount Pleasant Campus.

“All these developments, though welcome, have however made the city’s art scene rather top-heavy, with institutional setups dominating”

All these developments, though welcome, have however made the city’s art scene rather top-heavy, with institutional setups – and their requisite obligations to funders for wide audiences, accessible programming and a certain level of artists being exhibited – dominating. This hasn’t always been the case. Indeed, the Bluecoat – oldest art institution in Liverpool and by most estimates, the UK – was set up as an artist-run affair. The now Grade I listed building was originally built in 1725, as an institution ‘dedicated to the promotion of Christian charity and the training of poor’. In 1907, however, the school had outgrown the building, and moved to other premises. A group of artists who had been based at studios in Sandon Terrace moved in. The building quickly embodied a radical spirit that its founder, Fanny Dove Hamel Calder, described as wanting ‘to stimulate the artistic and intellectual life of Liverpool by bringing together those who are interested in more that fashion and football… we want all the bright, appreciative people, to meet the clever and original’. This freewheeling, creative group also had ambition: for example, part in protest to what they saw as the conservative autumn exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery, the group staged the first incarnation of Roger Fry’s 1911 Impressionist show outside of London.

By 1967, however, the Bluecoat had professionalised and had become a model for successor arts organisations within the city, including the Open Eye Gallery, set up in 1977 and from 2011 based in a swanky portside space, but most directly the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, initially based at the School Lane premises. FACT grew out of Merseyside Moviola, a project initiated in 1987 by artists Josie Barnard and Lisa Haskel with the aim to show experimental film and video. In 1997, Moviola became FACT and the idea of a purpose-built home was first mooted. By 2003 – with £10 million spent – this idea had come to fruition joining the swelling list of publicly funded arts institutions in the city.

Tate Liverpool is of a similar age. The regional offshoot of the Tate was one of the first examples of art being used to initiate civic and economic regeneration. Built in 1988 at the bequest of the Merseyside Development Corporation, a Thatcher-era quango set up in the embers of the Toxteth riots, it was tasked with reinvigorating the local economy through art (the irony of the Tory government’s part in the destruction of the city’s original blue collar industry not withstanding).

Such political aims for publicly funded arts organisations have not gone away of course – if anything under New Labour, and their fiscally-driven coalition successors it has intensified. As such, institutions that take the taxpayer’s pound tend to have a rather diametric personality in terms of their official public activities. On the one level, they must maintain a curatorial seriousness in their research aims – an outlook that is very much about tapping into the sort of international network outlined above. Within their own professional, curatorial, circles, for example, Tate Liverpool or FACT will be talking to high-level colleagues internationally, dealing with international artists and exchanging ideas in which geography has very little affect.

Yet they are also required by their funding bodies to be accessible to a wide public audience. While Director Mike Stubbs might note that FACT is not interested in addressing a passive audience, and instead wishes to turn them into producers, these audiences will be largely non-art professionals. The people who get lost between these two disparate, though perhaps laudable, roles tend to be emerging artists who are more informed than the average punter, but not yet at the level to be exhibiting in the galleries themselves.

“Do you think the director of a biennial in other cities would take time to visit every single person’s studio?”

That said, a city rich in institutions will be one rich in talent, either homegrown or imported, and the generosity with time and expertise on a personal level by the institutional curatorial staff was something mentioned by pretty much everyone I talked to. One artist based at The Royal Standard asked, in praise of Sally Tallant, “Do you think the director of a biennial in other cities would take time to visit every single person’s studio?” Others similarly pointed out how Stubbs, Bryan Biggs, Artistic Director of The Bluecoat, and the various curatorial staff at Tate Liverpool, were accessible for a chat, and showed genuine interest in the endeavours of the city’s artists, both established and emerging.

Nonetheless, whatever the personal kindness of individuals, and the occasional opportunity that arrives from this, professionally their obligation largely remains with both the international art world and the local lay-audience (even if they may not care to admit it). This is not necessarily a factor for woe, however. Traditionally artists in the first stages of their career, and especially artists working in areas without a commercial gallery scene (and Liverpool’s sole endeavour in that area, Ceri Hand, left the city in 2012 having hit a ceiling in the amount local collectors were willing to spend), will rely on peer-led initiatives to give them exposure and space to develop their exhibition-making practice.

Yet, in Liverpool, the past 10 years have seen a striking absence of new artist-run initiatives, with those set up in around 2005 and 2006 either coming to a natural end – such as Red Wire and Wolstenholme Creative Space – or evolving into something larger and more ambitious, such as the The Royal Standard. This dip in artist-led activity compounds itself of course; if there aren’t any places for recent graduates to exhibit in initially, then they tend to move out of the city or give up their practice, and the problem perpetuates.

It is notable that the most exciting new player on Liverpool’s art scene is one that has been set up by a graduate from outside the city. Joe Fletcher Orr is a graduate from the Manchester School of Art and set up Cactus this year, entirely self-funded through a part-time job on a market stall. With an irreverent attitude towards the formalities of running a gallery (the press release to one recent show stated: ‘I’ve never written a press release before and to be honest most shows I go to I never read them they just either end up screwed up in my back pocket…’) and a penchant for experimental exhibition setups (another exhibition took the form of a party in which invited guests were asked to bring an artwork), Fletcher Orr’s venture raises the question as to why something like this hadn’t emerged in Liverpool, and from Liverpool art school graduates, sooner.

There is, after all, a willing audience for shows and an abundance of artists who could collaborate together. There is also an apparent enthusiasm to try things out – an atmosphere that Ceri Hand, summed up by noting that “you really feel like you are contributing to [the art scene] and building something each day, you’re never just being a passive consumer of culture or city life”. Yet, besides Cactus, this enthusiasm has not formalised itself as a gallery venture in the present generation of younger artists.

“Liverpool’s friendliness also proves to a double-edged sword in other ways too, in that it seems to stifle any sort of critical discourse around an artist’s practice”

Liverpool’s friendliness also proves to be a double-edged sword in other ways too, in that it seems to stifle any sort of critical discourse around an artist’s practice. It’s a concern shared by many who live and work in the city. The artist Emily Speed notes: “It is very difficult to have good honest critical discussion about people’s work and even more so to write reviews, because Liverpool is small and it can often take things personally. There is not the volume of really engaged artists here to really create sharp edges and I wonder if that is because it’s inherently easier here.” A curator echoed this sentiment, slightly more caustically: “Being an artist in Liverpool is easy; being a good one is harder.” This politeness can perhaps be traced back to the same root cause as the lack, besides Cactus, of artist-led galleries: the narrow, perhaps, parochial sense of ambition that seems invested in the city’s recent art school graduates.

This report is not intended to point fingers at individual institutions, but LJMU’s School of Art and Design has to think of its responsibility in this department. Under Juan Cruz’s directorship there were signs of improvement, the affects of which may not have yet filtered through to the city’s art scene. Artists Rosalind Nashashibi and Imogen Stidworthy were brought in as tutors on the Fine Art postgraduate course in 2012. This is a positive sign for the graduates that will emerge under their eye. Art schools are not just about teaching and the development of practice, they are also about preparing students for the possibilities of applying their work after graduation.

Figures likes Nashashibi and Stidworthy, who both regularly exhibit internationally – Nashashibi has shown at Tate Britain, London, David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles and the 10th Sharjah Biennial; Stidworthy was part of Documenta 12 and has exhibited at Matt’s Gallery, London and Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp – are role models of how to live locally, with an engagement in the local art community, but also operate on the wider art world network. This is the key to a healthy art scene – one that acts locally and thinks internationally – and the school needs to build on these appointments and develop its own network of visiting lecturers and permanent tutors, regularly introducing students to practicing artists with international careers.

The appointment of Rory Macbeth as Head of Fine Art is an encouraging sign. Macbeth, who starts at the Liverpool School of Art and Design in the new term, is an experienced teacher, with a weary knowledge of the ins and outs of higher education. He is also a practicing artist – he has worked with the Turner Prize-winner Laure Provoust, shown at Tate Britain and Bloomberg SPACE, London and has undertaken various international residencies. This month he will take part in the brilliant (please do check it out), artist-run, Field Broadcast project. As such he has his own network of contacts and experience, and is a role model for students. In conversation to me he mentioned that when teaching at Leeds Met he asked his students to set up exhibitions outside the safety of the university, as part of their course. It was from this that the city’s Mexico Space came into being.

If Macbeth can give Liverpool graduates the confidence to follow the path of the original founders of The Royal Standard or Red Wire (who, in 2008, hosted the first UK exhibition of works by Texan musician Daniel Johnston), and, contemporarily, Fletcher Orr, who is collaborating with other artist-run spaces nationally and exhibiting artists of the calibre of Ryan Gander at Cactus, then his tenure should be deemed a success and will go some way in mending Liverpool’s stagnating grassroots scene. The more galleries and artist-run ventures there are, and the more they see themselves as more than just local concerns, then the more likely an environment conducive to critical discourse will be developed.

With City of Culture, Liverpool has had all the governmental and institutional help it needs; it’s now time for the artists to do it for themselves and get on the network.

Oliver Basciano is a London-based writer and critic. Since 2012 he has been Managing Editor at ArtReview and was Assistant Editor from 2010. He also contributes to various other media, including Spike Art Quarterly and Channel 4 News, and his essays have been included in artist monographs and exhibition catalogues internationally. He runs an irregular film night at Project Native Informant, London, and sits on the board of trustees at The Woodmill, London.

Introducing: Be A Critic’s Oliver Basciano

This article has been specially commissioned for The Double Negative by Liverpool John Moores University and Arts Council England. Part of the collaborative #BeACritic campaign — see more here

Liverpool Biennial opens this Saturday 5 July and continues until Sunday 26 October 2014

Images courtesy Cactus Gallery

Arts Council England

Posted on 30/06/2014 by thedoublenegative