Lauren Healey speaks to Bryan Biggs, Artistic Director of the Bluecoat, about dissolving distinctions between art forms, working with artist studio groups and supporting artist development.
Tell me a little about yourself. What’s your background, how did you become the Artistic Director at the Bluecoat, and what does this role involve?
I trained in Fine Art at Liverpool Polytechnic and was fortunate to fall into an arts job at the Bluecoat shortly after graduating. That was thirty-five years ago and I am still here! Starting as an admin assistant, I progressed to running the gallery, then was director of the whole organisation, taking it through a major capital development, before returning to a purely arts focus in my current role as artistic director. This involves directing a small team in the delivery of our arts programme and working with senior management colleagues on other strategic aspects of the organisation. We adopt a project team approach, which has helped create a more holistic way of running the organisation that connects the various activities – arts, participation, creative community, visitor services etc.
What are the overall aims and ambitions of the Bluecoat?
To be Liverpool’s ‘creative hub’: a place where the processes of creating art are evident, alongside its presentation. There are three main strands to this: firstly, supporting artists (which broadly encompasses independent curators and researchers as well as practitioners), working closely with them to develop their ideas and produce new work, sometimes through commissions. Secondly, developing audiences, both through visits to our programmes (so interpretation is important) and through a range of opportunities to join in – from printmaking workshops, to gallery talks, to innovative participative approaches working with specific groups such as adults with learning disabilities or young people. Thirdly, we have an overarching ambition, to develop a new model as an arts centre, one that is rooted in its locale, engages with the city and is globally connected.
As an arts centre, the Bluecoat programmes music, performance and literature events as well as visual arts. How do these different strands co-exist, and are there any particular advantages or disadvantages in having such a broad range of practices being shown via one organisation?
Having a range of different art forms on offer opens up possibilities for programming across disciplines, literature feeding off the gallery for instance, or live art enhancing the music programme. It also means that art form distinctions start to dissolve and that the programme is enriched by this breadth of creative expression. So an event like a recent season celebrating the centenary of the birth of Merseyside writer Malcolm Lowry (‘Under the Volcano’) encompassed a major exhibition, commissioning of dance, music and poetry, films, a community Mexican Day of the Dead project, publishing a book, and a psychogeographical day dedicated to Lowry’s local origins. Disadvantages of this broad range include trying to build audiences for such a diverse programme with limited marketing resources.
What is your approach to programming the gallery spaces?
Our Exhibitions Curator, Sara-Jayne Parsons, works closely with me to programme the spaces and she curates the majority of our self-generated shows. I do maybe one every two years (the Malcolm Lowry show in 2009, ‘Democratic Promenade’ this year). We seek a balance across the year, mixing our own shows with toured-in ones, or others created in partnership with another venue or an independent curator. It is important that we make each show distinctive, so if it has been seen elsewhere before, we aim to ‘re-fashion’ it to the Bluecoat’s particular spaces. This worked well with Jyll Bradley’s recent solo show, on tour but given a different feel and emphasis here. We aim to develop a fruitful local/international dynamic, which raises the game for artists in the region. This year, for instance in our summer show ‘Honky Tonk’, Liverpool and Texan/international artists will exhibit together.
The Bluecoat reopened in 2008 following a significant expansion and improvement of its facilities, and the new gallery spaces - twice as large as before - are highly distinctive. With new connections to the rest of the building and to the (now visible) busy city centre streets outside, the architecture of the gallery spaces has brought new challenges and opportunities to open up our exhibitions. We therefore think about how we can maximise for instance those galleries that are visible from outside, to extend the art beyond the white cube in imaginative ways.
Does the Bluecoat work with other organisations or artist-led initiatives on projects, either in the gallery or on off-site projects?
Yes. Partnerships are crucial, especially to our performance and literature work. In visual art too these range from large scale collaborations such as the Liverpool Biennial or touring exhibition partnerships with Hayward Touring, to working with artists’ studio groups like the Royal Standard. This is one of the local groups we worked with for last year’s ‘Global Studio’ exhibition, for which we gave the gallery over to artists in the city to present projects alongside international artists they have connections with.
Do you consider approaches from artists with exhibition proposals / ideas for projects, or is the programme brought together in-house?
We do consider proposals from artists, curators and other venues, however even when we do accept these, their planning and delivery is always in close collaboration with Sara and her team. As already indicated, we help shape shows even when they come from a previous venue, as there are spatial as well as other considerations like local audience, interpretation needs, participation potential which come into play. Once an idea for a show is agreed it is shared with all areas of the organisation so that from an early stage valuable input from Participation, Marketing etc is possible.
Are there particular advantages in having artist’s studios and other creative businesses occupying the Bluecoat building?
Yes. Artists have been central to the life of the Bluecoat for over a century. The first artists moved into this former school building in 1907, establishing an arts colony that evolved into today’s arts centre -and we think it is important to maintain this environment of creative practice. Having a creative community in the building contributes to our aim to reveal creative processes in the arts centre, so we are more than just a presenting venue. We encourage our resident artists and creative businesses to respond to the arts programme. For instance, alongside our new exhibition, ‘Confined’(part of the city-wide Look 11 photography festival), we are presenting an installation by one of our studio artists, Sharon Mutch. We are able to provide professional development and employment opportunities (for example design, running workshops and even exhibiting), and our artists get the opportunity to meet curators and visiting artists including those on residencies, a process which is reciprocal. I think that artists who rent studios here can also gain a lot just from the everyday interactions that take place in such a busy and diverse creative hub. It is very gratifying to see two of the artists at the Bluecoat – Markus Soukup and Bernadette O’Toole, amongst the four shortlisted for 2011’s Liverpool Art Prize.
What different ways does the organisation support artists’ development?
In addition to the creative community support outlined above, we can occasionally provide residency space for UK and international artists - these have included Sally Booth as part of Shape’s Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary, and most recently US painter Vincent Falsetta. We recently expanded our printmaking facilities, a growing and popular aspect of our work that helps develop the skills of artists – both experienced and beginners - in this area. We provide a lot of informal advice to artists in the region, and to students through the good relationships we have with HE art courses. Talks programmes around each exhibition are another way of developing critical discourse amongst the local artists’ community. Importantly, we hope that the relationships we build with exhibiting artists, particularly emerging artists, help in their development.
The Bluecoat has been given National Portfolio status for 2011 - 2013, albeit with a real terms drop in funding of 11%. How are you looking to fill this gap in funding?
It is going to be a challenging time. We are already highly resourceful in terms of generating income from our building for instance, but I think in the new climate of even greater austerity, partnerships (on exhibitions, commissions, residencies, festivals, etc) are going to become more critical as a way of sharing costs and resources.
In what ways will the artistic programme be affected by these cuts, and are there different approaches you are exploring in order that the integrity of the programme is not compromised?
We are determined to maintain a quality programme and, despite funding constraints, have some very exciting gallery plans in development.
Look 11 Photography Festival: www.look2011.co.uk
The Bluecoat: www.thebluecoat.org.uk
Royal standard: www.the-royal-standard.com/events
Liverpool Biennial: www.biennial.com
Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary: www.adamreynoldsbursary.org.uk
First published: a-n.co.uk August 2011
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