Now, Then and Tomorrow:
A Postcard From Liverpool

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With the UK’s shambolic withdrawal from the EU finally confirmed, we look at the role Liverpool’s European Capital of Culture Award played in the city’s 21st Century renaissance…

In Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery there hangs a small cluster of paintings by L.S. Lowry, two of which are identified as Liverpool scenes. In one – The Liver Buildings, Liverpool (1959) – Lowry captures a view of the river Mersey implausible today. We see the hustle and bustle of a busy waterway as it would have been at that time; it is filled with all manner of vessel, behind which, three of the city’s most famous landmarks loom. These are the ‘Three Graces’ – the Royal Liver, Cunard and Port of Liverpool buildings. Still dominating the waterfront today, in this context they point to a bygone era, reminding us of Liverpool’s then maritime driven economy (built, in-part, on the city’s role in the transatlantic slave trade).

On the banks of the Mersey is the Royal Albert Dock. Founded in 1846, in its day, it stored highly-prized cargoes from around the world. Twenty years or so after Lowry’s painting, however, the docks, by then too small to accommodate the increased capacity of shipping containers, had fallen foul of progress. Unsustainable, they closed in 1972 and, left to dereliction and disrepair, they became an emblem of Liverpool’s catastrophic downturn. In 1988, however, the plain old Albert Dock (as it still was then) was somewhat miraculously reopened following the involvement of the Merseyside Development Corporation, a government initiative charged with regenerating the location. Today, it is a proud component of the city’s UNESCO designated World Heritage status, an oasis of relative calm just two minutes from the hubbub of Liverpool One and a major tourist attraction. Now part of a vital cultural and lifestyle economy rather than a maritime one, instead of dockers, it welcomes throngs of cruise ship passengers and day-trippers.

“Stimulating the city’s expectations, Tate Liverpool foreshadowed a startling revival of fortunes”

A key tenet of this transformation was Tate Liverpool, which celebrated its 30th birthday in 2018. Originally designated by directors as a ‘Tate for the North’, a kind of satellite that would exist only to display the national collection of art beyond London, its employees would soon harbour – and fulfil – larger objectives, and ultimately host an ambitious programme of exhibitions, international in scope. Stimulating the city’s expectations, it foreshadowed a startling revival of fortunes, and paved the way for more besides. It is often commented that Liverpool – perhaps uniquely in the UK – is a city that looks outward, beyond its shores. Apt then that from 1999, it has played host to its own Biennial, the UK’s festival of contemporary art that which, according to its website, ‘has commissioned 305 new artworks and presented work by over 450 artists from around the world’. Such internationalism, however, is frequently levelled as a criticism, in that artworks and artists are parachuted in at the expense of what and who is on the doorstep, leading to often fraught conversations about legacy and those outside the city centre. Almost as if to prove this truism, one of the Biennial’s most successful outputs began as a project that would become Homebaked – a successful, cooperatively run bakery situated in Anfield, a stone’s throw from Liverpool Football Club’s stadium.


In 2010, the site on which it stands had been designated for demolition under the Housing Market Renewal Initiative (HMRI). Initially supported and facilitated by the Biennial and Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, this inner-city project has sustained itself long beyond the socially engaged artist phase. Becoming something of a best-practice model, it has spawned related projects proposing community-led development and regeneration, and addressed questions of affordable housing, public outdoor spaces and social enterprise. I asked then Biennial director Sally Tallant about local value and international ambition: “I think together with the team and our partners, we have done something that has increased its [the Biennial’s] international reach and reputation, and certainly visibility; and at the same time, we’ve been able to do some amazing, really embedded projects with communities.”

“There is a confidence, and with it a sense of expectation: things happen here”

Enabled by the momentum Tate Liverpool and the Biennial helped to kindle, 2018 marked a decade since the city celebrated its status as European Capital of Culture. The second UK recipient of the award – after Glasgow in 1990 – our shameful and shambolic withdrawal from the European Union means it is (at least for now) to be the last. The extent to which the award was a transformative one for the city cannot be overlooked: although Liverpool has always had a strong sense of self and self-worth, this had arguably been tempered by factors beyond its control. Still struggling to emerge from the corrosive 1980s, there existed a problem of perception, its reputation and (self-) esteem tarnished. Growing up in Merseyside, one cannot help but remember the sting of terminology such as ‘managed decline’, the flagrant misreporting of the city, and the aftermath of tragedies such as Hillsborough. As a result, when Liverpool ushered in its 2008 celebrations, it did so with pride, certainly, but also with crossed fingers. Today, it feels different. Rather than a siege mentality borne of recent history, there is a confidence, and with it a sense of expectation: things happen here.

Let’s not forget either that Liverpool is blessed with medium to large arts institutions. Along with the aforementioned Walker and Tate Liverpool, we have the Bluecoat – itself reopened in ’08 following a £14 million redevelopment, FACT, (Film, Art & Creative Technology), and the Grade II listed Victoria Gallery & Museum (also opened in 2008 following significant renovation). Add to this the relocation to Mann Island in 2011 of Open Eye Gallery, and it begins to look like an embarrassment of riches. A true test of cultural good health, however, can’t be based on these terms alone. The proliferation of artist-led, independent spaces such as The Royal Standard is, perhaps, a better barometer. Founded in 2006, TRS has recently relocated to Northern Lights in the flourishing Baltic Triangle. Under the same roof are other creatives. Among them, Dead Ink Books, ‘a small, ambitious and experimental literary publisher’. Relative newcomers Output gallery (on Seel Street) has added its name to the rising tide of street level innovation. Dedicated to showcasing artists from or based in the city, it has quickly become essential to our cultural landscape, adding yet more gravitational pull to a destination rich with opportunities for emerging artists and creatives of all stripes.

“Recently graduated artists may swiftly find themselves priced out of currently affordable rents”

As we know, however, such growth and regeneration – arts-led or otherwise – almost inevitably leads to gentrification, and with it, opportunism, so that any emerging, recently graduated artists may swiftly find themselves priced out of their currently affordable rents. Spaces previously occupied by indie bars and venues have made way for, you guessed it, student flats, chain bars and hotels.When I first began researching this piece, it was announced that Liverpool City Council’s Cabinet, no doubt emboldened by the Baltic Triangle effect, was set to approve a (since ratified) policy poised to shape the development of a so-called ‘Ten Streets’ creativity district. Intended for ‘artists, independent creatives, makers and digital and technology sectors’, Liverpool’s Mayor Joe Anderson said at the time: “Ten Streets has a huge potential to transform North Liverpool and this new planning policy will ensure we have the building blocks to guide its direction. The whole area is on the brink of a very bright future.”

Innovators, artists, digital start-ups and others – the doers who occupy, and feed so-called creative quarters – are often used to paper over cracks, or as handy soundbites by city administrators; here, that equates to the powering of an ‘Engine for Growth’. Cynicism borne of experience comes all too easy, yet it remains to be seen what the future holds: continuing, healthy regeneration, although not to be taken for granted, feels almost like a given right now. But, will it be versus – or in tandem with – creeping gentrification?

Mike Pinnington

This is a version of an essay that originally appeared in Present Tense: A decade since Liverpool EU Capital of Culture… What now?

Images: Tate Liverpool site under construction, Albert Dock, 1988. Photo credit © Tate; 2Up 2Down/Homebaked

Posted on 05/02/2020 by thedoublenegative