My interviewee and the building in which he is the artistic director have a lot of accolades to them. Bluecoat is the oldest building in Liverpool city centre and the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also the UK’s first arts centre and 2017 marks the 300th anniversary of its existence. The 4th of February marked the launch of 300 days of celebration, in which the story of this enchanting building will be told.
One way in which this story is being told already is through Public View. This exhibition brings together works by 106 artists who have exhibited at Bluecoat. Bryan Biggs is the Artistic Director at the Bluecoat, curator of Public View, and my interviewee for this article. Bryan’s reputation in the art world precedes him. However, as an individual he is calm, measured, articulate and forceful with his narration. Although, this narration is limited to the current exhibition at the Bluecoat, Bryan’s experience and profundity signifies that the Bluecoat has a bright future ahead of it.
Question: Why should people come to this current exhibition and what can they learn?
It’s an incredibly busy exhibition, with over 100 artists, so there is much to engage the visitor. It reflects some of Bluecoat’s curatorial interests over a long period, including experimental performance in the 1960s, feminist art practice from the 1970s and the ‘black art movement’ that emerged in the 1980s. There is a strong ‘political’ strand, work that engages with issues such as racism, Britain’s colonial past and the environment – which all resonate with what’s happening today. Plus, there is a healthy representation of art produced on Merseyside and a balance of the local/national/international.
What singles out the Bluecoat from other art centres such as the Tate?
We have an accompanying display that tells the story of how art has been at the heart of Bluecoat for over 100 years – again a lot of material to get lost in! This demonstrates Bluecoat’s pivotal position in Liverpool culture: it is the UK’s first arts centre with a long history of progressive art. Its programme combines visual art with music, dance, literature, live art. It has a working community of artists and creative businesses. It is a very social space right in the middle of Liverpool- where you can join a choir, make a screen print, try some contemporary dance, take part in storytelling, young people’s theatre or improvised music, browse for second hand books, get your clothes mended, relax in a garden, buy a record, a pair of shoes or piece of jewellery, get married, and much more. All this combines to make Bluecoat unlike anywhere else in the city, and arguably in the country.
Question: What can people look forward to this year?
One highlight will be a concert at the Metropolitan Cathedral on 13 May by the French composer Pierre Henry, a pioneer of musique concrète, who was commissioned by them to create an ‘electronic mass’ for their opening in 1967. His Liverpool Mass was never performed and we are staging this haunting work in the setting for which it was originally intended – the magnificent ‘brutalist’ architecture of the cathedral – using 40 speakers placed around the space and a live mix by Henry’s sound engineer collaborator, Thierry Balasse.
There is also a full programme of exhibitions and events across the year, detailed on the Bluecoat website. We have a Sociologist in Residence, Dr Paul Jones from University of Liverpool with us throughout the year with an exciting programme of public events, a year-round heritage archive and participation programme, and we are tweeting a ‘Bluecoat fact’ everyday (#300Facts).
Question: How do you see your role at the Bluecoat and in practice how does this role play out day to day?
As artistic director, I am responsible for overseeing the artistic direction, working with a great team of specialist curators who work closely with our participation, marketing and engagement staff to make sure the arts offer is accessible and that visitors have an excellent experience and there are opportunities to join in as much as possible.
Question: Art and artistic expression comes under the remit of the humanities. The humanities are caricatured as not worthwhile for future careers. Furthermore, there is an emphasis on the economic impact they make. What can students do to change this impression?
Look at the evidence! The Impacts 08 study (at University of Liverpool) provides compelling and robust evidence of the economic, social, publicity and other values of Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2008. And that impact has continued to grow. As the city’s Lord Mayor says, culture is the ‘rocket fuel’ of the local economy. The return on every pound invested in the arts is very large. And there is the perhaps a more intangible impact of the arts that is difficult to measure, such as community cohesion, improved health and wellbeing, transferable skills etc.
Question: How does art enrich human life?
A deeply philosophical question! But in a nutshell, art has always been a manifestation of the human spirit, and I hope that what we at Bluecoat have demonstrated over the years is the continuing power of contemporary art to engage, delight and surprise people, sometimes ask difficult questions, and offer a different perspective on the world.
Question: What does the next 300 years hold for the Bluecoat?
300 more years of supporting artists, and being in dialogue with audiences hungry for fresh ideas, a cup of coffee and a relaxing garden (which may by then be tropical – that’s if the city is not under water by then).