Liverpool Biennial 2016 Evaluation, unpicked

Lara Favaretto, Momentary Monument – The Stone, 2016. Welsh Streets. Photo: Mark McNulty

Liverpool Biennial 2016 Evaluation, unpicked

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith

1.2 million people experienced Liverpool Biennial 2016. It contributed £5.3 million to the Liverpool economy, equivalent to creating 138 permanent, full time jobs. Of the 1.2 million people who experienced the Biennial, 109,339 are said to have been highly engaged.

They’re the headline figures, but for me, they’re not what needs celebrating. Those figures reflect the idea that people wanted to come and see it, what’s more important, is that of those visitors, 90% agreed that Liverpool should be proud of its art scene.

90% of people visiting Liverpool Biennial, whether local, or part of the 60% travelling in to see the festival, thought that we deserve pride in what we can produce. Now, I realise I had nothing to do with it, and most of you didn’t either. But the Biennial does more than just support themselves, they support local infrastructure, spaces, partners and people. So whether you’re directly related to the Biennial, you were, probably, in some small way, affected by what they did last year.

The report, at a glance:

  • Approximately 1.2 million people had an experience of a Liverpool Biennial exhibition or public artwork
  • This includes 109,339 ‘highly engaged’ visitors who made 645,100 visits to Biennial venues – an average of 5.9 venues per visitor
  • 60% of visitors were from outside the city, with 36% from outside the North West, including 9% from outside the UK
  • 90% of attendees agreed that Liverpool should be proud of its art scene, 82% agreed that Liverpool should do more of this sort of thing, and 63% agreed that they are more likely to visit Liverpool again based on their experience
  • Using a UK Treasury standard methodology, we calculated that the total net contribution Liverpool Biennial 2016 made to the Liverpool economy is £5.3 million; and the net contribution to the North West economy is £5.5 million. This is equivalent to supporting 138 permanent full time jobs in Liverpool

(For the full report, including artist responses, and more specific visitor opinions, find it on Biennial.com here)

But what, if anything, does that mean for the city?

In no small part are those numbers owed to the environment Liverpool creates, where international giants like Liverpool Biennial can thrive. Whether it’s the use of galleries we’re used to, or the building’s we’ve forgotten, it has a local impact that can’t be denied.

Just during last year’s festival 280,000 people saw, or rode, the Biennial busses. That kind of partnership with local services is invaluable to understanding the impact of the festival on our everyday lives, not just for the three festival months, but for the years between each Biennial too. The busses won’t go away, just like to Dazzle Ferry didn’t. It continues to be a presence and part of the identity of the city. That’s something Biennial have started perfecting now, but have always had an eye for – take the Wolstenholme Square development from Jorge Pardo (part of Biennial 2002) which has outstayed some of Liverpool’s best known clubs, including Cream, and confirmed its place at the heart of new City developments.

It’s the permanence Biennial delivers on that makes it so good for the city. The report reflects that “Stakeholders suggested that Liverpool Biennial is recognised as a globally leading contemporary art festival, but at the same time provides an opportunity for people “to reflect on Liverpool as Liverpool”.”

That’s what I’m taking away from this. The festival is just that, a global leader, but it can only build that by using the existing culture and energy of the city as its bricks and mortar. Something that the report reflects it could do much more of…

Both audiences and peers expressed a desire to see the Biennial play a stronger role in promoting local artists and independent studios and galleries. The Biennial’s primary role is to produce an exhibition and commissions that create a ‘festival’ moment, but many look to the Biennial and its leadership role to help improve the sector locally” – Liverpool Biennial 2016, Evaluation. BOP Consulting

What this implies is that the Biennial should be doing more to support local galleries, studios and artists. For me, that was always the job of the Independents Biennial, which, whether you’re happy about it or not, didn’t happen last year. The Biennial Fringe (coordinated by Double Negative), in its first year, covered a good range of this, but didn’t get picked up on as much as previous fringe events. That’s a learning curve though, and they made a fantastic start in creating a platform to build a competitive Biennial Fringe. In future, the Fringe is where that responsibility lies, not with Biennial themselves.

Biennial is an international event. It supports and celebrates the best of international visual art. Sometimes, that includes incredible, local, talent. Last year it involved four artists from the Liverpool City Region amongst the 42 artists commissioned for the festival. The Associate Artist Programme is designed for just that. Its role is exactly what the statement says, a leadership one.

The other recommendations to come out of the evaluation include that the Biennial should explore further “placemaking”. Apparently, ABC Cinema, Cains Brewery, Toxteth Reservoir, The Oratory, 143 Granby Street, Roseberry Street, Rhiwlas Street, Mr Chilli Restaurant, Hondo Chinese Supermarket,  and three Arriva busses [breathe] weren’t enough.

ABC Cinema, Liverpool Biennial 2016
ABC Cinema, Liverpool Biennial 2016

It’s probably the cleverest recommendation in the report though, and one that has come from the public feedback. This is something the Biennial has famously done for years; find places worth celebrating and draw attention to them by exploring great art. If Liverpool Biennial 2018 is dropping hints in this evaluation, it’s that there will be even more.

One of the other recommendations is slightly contradictory… “fewer and less dispersed works”.

Whether it is the work of Liverpool Biennial, or the Fringe, or of independent artists working outside the structure entirely, there is one thing we can say with absolute certainty: We don’t want to see fewer and less dispersed works in 2018. We want to see work in Garston, Vauxhall, Anfield and Huyton, because working my way, over a few days, around a “global player” is something we see as a privilege. And we hope others do to.

Art in Liverpool’s evaluation: We miss 2016, and can’t wait for 2018.

To read the report in full, including artist responses, and more specific visitor opinions, find it on Biennial.com here)