It’s fair to say that, artistically, Liverpool has been riding the Capital Of Culture train since 2008. And why shouldn’t it? It’s been a hell of a ride over the last decade: 2008 marked a revolutionary change for Liverpool’s arts and culture scenes, with independent creative businesses from the Ropewalks to the Baltic Triangle blossoming alongside big-hitters like FACT, The Bluecoat and The Walker Art Gallery, gaining international recognition along the way. No other city knows how to show off its creative talents quite like we do.
However, the journey started a long time before 2008, and its first stop was in 1988 with the regeneration of the newly named Royal Albert Dock. It started its new life by welcoming TATE LIVERPOOL to the colonnades, bringing modern and contemporary art to Merseyside. Dubbed the ‘Tate of the North’, it was the first time Tate had moved out of London, making Liverpool the official home to the national collection of modern art in the North of England. Tate’s presence in Liverpool no doubt caught the attention of the rest of the country and played a vital role in the formation of art organisations such as FACT by supporting Video Positive Festival in 1988. However, it does leave me to question if the booming creative landscape that we inhabit today would be so successful if it wasn’t for Tate’s move into city; would our creative quarters still be so fertile?
“I don’t think anyone could have foreseen how many other venues would have developed and how Liverpool would look now in such a vibrant ecology of other institutions,” Jemima Pyne, Tate Liverpool’s Head Of Media And Audiences muses on the early days of Tate Liverpool. “There just wasn’t the same cultural economy then.” Tate Liverpool started off showcasing work from the Tate’s collection, which developed into curating international exhibitions and finally putting Liverpool on the artistic map. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing as Pyne recalls: “It was hard to have ambition, I guess, because there weren’t the resources or the ecology to make it happen.”
Seated Girl (1910) by Egon Schiele
30 years is definitely something worth celebrating and the two exhibitions Tate Liverpool have planned for this summer are clever nods to the history of the building and the journey it has been on. “I think we place expectations on ourselves,” Pyne says as she discusses the 30th birthday celebrations. “I guess one of the things about being 30 as an institution is it allows you to look back at your history, what you have done previously and how you can reflect on that.”
This idea of looking to the past and the future of Tate Liverpool and the city was the main driving force behind this summer’s exhibitions. Life In Motion: Egon Schiele / Francesca Woodman is a celebration of exactly what it says on the tin, of a life in motion, of changing times, of two artists, very different in style but very relevant to the eras in which they were producing art. Tamar Hemmes, curator at Tate Liverpool, discusses the thought process behind creating the show: “We started with Egon Schiele and the thinking behind that was, 10 years ago Liverpool was awarded the Capital Of Culture which was an incredibly important time for the city. At the time we had an exhibition of Gustav Klimt and Schiele was Klimt’s pupil – we wanted a connection to 10 years ago to celebrate that anniversary, but also to look forward because it is our 30th birthday. So that is why we wanted to look at the relevance of Schiele’s work today and we had some Francesca Woodman work in the Tate collection already. We thought that their approach to the human body had some similarities and we felt it would create an interesting dialogue between the two artists.” Not only is the exhibition a nod to an exciting time in Liverpool’s past, it also alludes to the very relevant topic of gender within the art world, across music and in Hollywood. “What we do is always related or relevant to the time we are in now. The expectation is to make sure that is what we are doing,” Pyne adds. “We want to welcome as many people as possible and not just people who love art. We believe that modern and contemporary art is really helpful for people to navigate the modern world; it is made by artists living and working now [and is] about their lives now. It’s about us opening our doors.”
Opening up to the public is what the recent exhibition Ken’s Show: Exploring The Unseen has done with great success. The show saw a collection of art work handpicked by Tate Liverpool’s art handler, Ken Simons, who has worked in the building since its opening. The pieces reflect Simons’ favourite moments from over the decades, with works from Turner and Rothko stealing the show. Each piece is accompanied by a personal account of why Simons picked the work of art for his exhibition and is a moving addition to the show. Ken’s Show has allowed viewing artwork at Tate Liverpool to become more accessible; rather than having the gallery’s voice, you are spoken to by someone who has worked with the pieces in ways very few people ever get to do. “Ken’s take on the collection and how he has worked on it for so long brought a different kind of learning and insight [to the gallery],” Pyne explains. “We are interested in learning and academic learning about art history, we are proud we have that but there are other ways you can learn about art.”
Teaching people about art and bringing people into the gallery is something Tate Liverpool puts at the forefront of their exhibitions and something Simons, who is now retired, thinks should be done more often: “We want to open it up to non-curators to do things in the gallery, to work with the learning staff to do small displays. I’d like to see our other staff be given the opportunity I have been given – you get a different voice then rather than just a museum voice. I think it’s something museums and galleries have got to do now, open up [to] the community more. That is a benefit to us because we are getting more people in through the doors.”
Self portrait (1914) by Egon Schiele
To help get more people through the doors, Tate has recently introduced Tate Collective, an initiative which allows young people between the ages 16 to 24 to buy tickets to any special exhibition, in any Tate building, for £5. On top of that, students and staff at all of the Liverpool universities get into Tate Liverpool shows for free, which as Pyne suggests is “one of the benefits of being a young person in Liverpool”. Making art accessible for young people from an early age is vital for driving people to all types of art galleries and towards creating art. To help with this, a Tate Exchange open experiment has begun at Tate Liverpool. It is a space developed by artists and practitioners from Tate and beyond to encourage members of the public to collaborate on new ideas and discover new perspectives on life through the use of art. Tate Liverpool have worked with local arts organisations on the project to create a space open to everyone to enjoy pop-up art, live performances, workshops or just to meet like-minded people. It’s a brilliant set-up that is encouraging people to explore art galleries in a non-traditional way and raise awareness for all the talented artists and creative people that reside in the city. “I think Tate Liverpool has an important role to play in showing that London is not the only significant place when it comes to culture in the UK. There is so much going on in Liverpool,” Hemmes explains. To really bring that to the forefront of people’s minds with programmes like Tate Exchange is an exciting step to raising awareness of Liverpool’s vibrant art scene.
Tate Liverpool does have that kind of big brother feeling about it, but it would be wrong to say that it dominates art in the city. If anything, it creates reassurance that Liverpool is a city worth investing in, in terms of time, people, money and the opportunities to bring more art to everyone who wants to explore the world through their creativity. So here is to another 30 years of Tate Liverpool and to another 30 years of Liverpool as a whole leading the charge on making arts and culture accessible to everyone.
Life In Motion: Egon Schiele / Francesca Woodman is showing at Tate Liverpool until 23rd September.