Interview: Bryan Biggs, on Bluecoat’s 300th anniversary

The Peaceful Dome, Bryan Biggs on Bluecoat at 300

Bryan Biggs, on Bluecoat’s 300th anniversary

Interview, Patrick Kirk-Smith

Ahead of Bluecoat’s 300th anniversary year in 2017 we met with Bryan Biggs, Artistic Director of Bluecoat Arts Centre since 1994, and Bluecoat Gallery before that. If you’ve been keeping up with their developing plans you’ll know that there is an archival project, heaps of new funding and some massive exhibitions coming to Liverpool’s oldest building over the next twelve months. I got impatient though, and decided to find out more.

With a building that has developed alongside the city, and at times, led the development of the city as a whole, it’s easy to anticipate stories of turbulence and difficult times. But a poem due to inform one of the most important exhibitions of next year describes the tower above the building’s central wing as The Peaceful Dome. The poem by William Roscoe was written in the early years of Bluecoat’s life, in 1770. Now, three centuries later, Bluecoat have the task of questioning what value that dome plays in Liverpool now, and perhaps more importantly, what the building’s past can teach them about their future.

Bryan Biggs, Artistic Director of Bluecoat met with us last week, amidst the finalisation of plans for January. The interview that follows is a comprehensive explanation of what to expect from one of Liverpool’s favourite spaces.

Bluecoat has already sent out details on some huge plans for next year… Are there any extra details about any of the artists and history than what we already know?

Bryan Biggs: Well the latest development is that we got confirmation on Friday of the Heritage Lottery Fund for this project called My Bluecoat. It covers the whole year and gives the opportunity for people to join in, to tell their stories, about Bluecoat, whatever they might be, their memories and experiences.

That’s going to feed into a new website which we’re going to developing with the Bluecoat school in Wavertree, and the Record Office at Central Library. So it’s bringing together all that archival material and making a website with Nonconform, a local company. So that, telling the 300 year story – that’s the most important part of the development since we put the press release out.

But in terms of the exhibitions, the first one, Public View, opens on the 4th of February and runs until the 23rd of April. What I wanted to do is celebrate the breadth of the shows we’ve had here and the range of artists we’ve worked with. And indicate how Bluecoat has always been really good at giving early support to artists, who have often gone on the better things.

If you look at Jeremy Deller we awarded, probably, his first big commission. He used to do a thing called Acid Brass where he got a brass band, to do a performance where this electronic music was scored – which was quite a tricky thing for the musical arranger to do. It went on to greater success and toured around the country and put Jeremy on the map.

So for the exhibition we’re trying to get work in the show that we’ve exhibited, or with performance pieces, like Yoko Ono; she did a performance here the very first time she worked with us in 1967, and there’ll be the video of the performance rather than the piece of work itself. Again, showing the range from very local to very international.

There’s an archival link in that sense to the My Bluecoat project. How are people are going to be able to engage with that history?

BB: We’re going to be doing five displays that are telling those heritage stories. The first one, which opens on the 28th of January, is a new exhibition, called Art At The Heart of Bluecoat, telling that story of how artists were here from the beginning. We hope that’s going to trigger memories from visitors.

So the first one is about Art at the Heart of the building. The second one is about architecture, run with University of Liverpool 3rd year students who are redesigning the new wing that we built in 2008. So although a lot of the story is about looking back it’s also about where are going. Another way will be through or sociologist in residence, which we think is a world first – Dr Paul Jones, from the University of Liverpool.

His inaugural lecture is on the 8th of February. He’s going to be bringing the idea of urban sociology, particularly, whether we can relate to our urban setting and bring that to a wider public. He’s doing a series of talks, and classes for his students which members of the public can join. So there’s a lot of opportunities for the public to learn about the sociology of the changing city; the changing place; about the role of the arts centre in the changing urban space.

How much of the Bluecoat’s history has been defined by art?

BB: Well, it is. Absolutely. If you look at its three century history, for the first two it was a school, and the third, it’s absolutely driven by the arts and that’s a point that we’re really stressing across the year – through the website, through the exhibitions, the talks, the tours – that its really arts that regenerate the building; that saved the building. That’s really important.

When the school moved out there was no sense that it would continue in its present form, and there was every indication that it would have been demolished. There were all sorts of plans for it to be a monorail station or a bus terminus. In the end, it was a group of artists, the Sandon Studios, which was a break away from The School of Applied Arts, an independent art school, who saved the building.

They move in here, and they eventually raise the funds to buy the building, and at the same time the School of Architecture has designs on the building, and they move their department from up the road. Because Charles Riley, he hated what they’d got there and really wanted to establish the architecture front here.

So Architecture and Art are what saved this building, and kept it through the 20th Century. And if it weren’t for those people seeing the value in the classicism of the architecture, the value of the different art forms all under one roof, and the value of bringing different artists to practice here, the building wouldn’t stand now. And the arts have been enshrined in the building ever since the Bluecoat Society of Arts constitution in 1927. And we will be doing a book towards the end of next year telling this history.

You’ll see it’s quite an uneven history. It starts with this avant garde, progressive, group of artists including exhibitions with the Post Impressionists in 1911 – Picasso, Matisse, etc. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that that radicalism continues right across the century. There’s a moment at which it becomes quite an elitist club, but then it becomes public again and continues to change over the century.

You can almost chart and change the history of the city through this building. The sense of the civic, which is important at some times, and the inward lookingness and outward lookingness, and the global connections. You can see it. The changes from being a philanthropic school for 200 years to a closed place. If you wanted to progress as a merchant and a business, you put money into this place. It’s all tied up with the development of the town, development of Liverpool. Even though it’s funded a lot through slavery, through the funds coming through the ports.

It’s a fascinating history, from the enlightenment to where we are now. And now, in the last century, the arts have been essential to that. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve got a sociologist in residence; to broaden the debate and widen the impact on regeneration, on health and wellbeing.

What are you most looking forward to here in 2017?

BB: Well I’m really looking forward to the Public View exhibition, which is just around the corner. I’ve done a lot of work on it and it’ll be great to reconnect with a lot of artists who I’ve worked with over many years. That’ll be a great opening highlight for me.

The Pierre Henry concert at the cathedral too. There’s still quite a lot of work to do on that but it’ll be interesting to see what reaction we get. It was an experimental piece back then then, but now I think it could be even more radical. I think we’re so familiar now with electronic music being something you can dance to. This is quite a hard-core, difficult thing. It’s avant garde. It’s an electronic mass. It’s a serious piece of music and it won’t be easy listening.

We have an exhibition with Larissa Sansour, a London based Palestinian artist. She’ll be making a new film piece which’ll be mixed into some craft elements. Then we go into the summer which will be a show called Abacus, focussed around children, and artists making work that children can engage with. In between we’ve got Siobhan Davies Dance Company as well, which again, is quite a new departure for us; to have a dance company with us, in residence for nine days in the gallery.

And then the other show that year is going to be called In The Peaceful Dome. From the poem ‘Mount Pleasant’ by William Roscoe, written in 1770. This line in it where he talks about the school, as this ‘peaceful dome’. He’s referring to the cupola, the dome built on the top of Bluecoat, under which the children have this happy experience. They’re all poor orphans who get a home, and a proper education. He’s romanticising obviously. It wasn’t easy for the kids, it was a tough life here. But it’s about that idea of a building being a peaceful dome or a place of refuge. And is that the role of art? Is it to make you feel comfortable, or is it to unsettle you, and I think it’s both. Art centres are places of welcome, social spaces, but the art it presents can also problematize, and sometimes ask difficult questions, otherwise it’s not really interesting as art. It should make you question.

So, we’re taking that phrase from the poem as a title, a meditation, or a reflection if you like on our history and what contemporary artists are doing in relation to our history – also if there’s any themes that you can chart across that history, from 1717 to the present, how the building was used, how it engaged with the public, the issues that we’ve been tackling over the last hundred years as an arts centre. So, ideas about public, about modernism, about applied arts, these offer a lot of complex, rich subjects, and we’ll just try to knit them together into this quite ambitious exhibition. The centre piece of which, if we are able to loan it, is Jacob Epstein’s sculpture ‘Genesis’ (this sculpture, made in 1930, was a controversial piece of work that was shown at Bluecoat in 1931).We will put historical art works together with more contemporary work that relates to it in some way, to create a multi-layered, very rich show that’ll have significant older works and archival material, alongside new works from younger artists.