A look at Tate Liverpool as it approaches its 25th birthday with new director Francesco Manacorda.
By Kenn Taylor
Much has been written over the last few years about the proliferation of new art galleries in the UK regions, especially the north. Often this is seen to have started with Gateshead’s Baltic, which opened in 2002 in a huge converted flour mill on the Tyne waterfront. Much has also been written about the viability and role of such institutions, particularly those located in deprived areas, especially since the public sector cutbacks have ensued.
Before all of this though, there was Tate Liverpool. One the first attempts at creating a modern art gallery in a post-industrial setting in the UK, and certainly so in the north, it will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year. In that quarter century, modern and contemporary art has moved from the fringe of elite culture to something approaching the mainstream while the idea of using culture as a regeneration tool has both risen and fallen.
In an era when the Imperial War Museum has a branch in Tameside and the V&A is building one in Dundee, it might seem common sense to have a Tate gallery in a northern city, but at the time, it was a radical idea. In the early 1980s Sir Alan Bowness, then director of Tate, began formulating a plan to create a ‘Tate of the North’. Bowness later reflected, in a letter now in the Tate archive, on the project’s beginnings: “We made it clear that we wanted if possible to find some great 19th century building that had lost its original purpose, and would lend itself to conversion into an art gallery.”
Having met with positive responses about hosting the gallery from cities across the north, he visited them all, reaching Liverpool last. There he was given list of potential sites to explore by Merseyside County Council. He recalls: “At the end of a stormy and blustery winter’s day we arrived at the Mersey, had a quick look at the Liver building (not suitable) and then went into the totally derelict Albert Dock. It was immediately clear to me that this was the place.”
Pushed along by the then ‘Minister for Merseyside’, Michael Heseltine as a key regeneration project for the city in the wake of the 1981 Toxteth Riots, the idea made rapid progress and in 1985 Liverpool-trained James Stirling was commissioned to design the new gallery in the dock. His work left the exterior of the Grade I listed warehouses largely untouched, but transformed the interior into galleries suitable for the display of modern art. The building opened to the public in May 1988.
There was some scepticism about this ‘branch of the London art world’ opening its doors in Liverpool, yet in the decades since, the gallery has firmly established itself as part of the city’s cultural landscape. Under its last director, Christoph Grunenberg, Tate Liverpool developed from a relatively quiet branch to holding some of Tate’s biggest exhibitions, including Gustav Klimt: Painting, Design and Modern Life in Vienna and Picasso: Peace and Freedom. Although some visitors from London and other exotic places occasionally asked gallery staff “Why on earth is this up here?”, Tate’s presence was a factor in Liverpool winning the title of European Capital of Culture in 2008. The gallery’s hosting of the first Turner Prize that year helped to pave the way for the current system of a regional venue every other year.
At the end of last year Tate Liverpool appointed a new artistic director, Francesco Manacorda, to steer the gallery through its next phase. The 38-year-old has previously been curator at London’s Barbican Art Gallery, curated various pavilions at the Venice Biennale and ran the Artissima international art fair in his native Turin. Manacorda acknowledges the importance of Tate Liverpool’s legacy: “Tate Liverpool was a pioneer in making modern and contemporary art accessible to a wider audience outside London. The results it harnessed have no doubt provided inspiration for the creation of institutions such as Baltic in Gateshead, Nottingham Contemporary and the Hepworth Wakefield.”
He feels that it was not just the regions that were influenced by the opening of Tate Liverpool, but London as well: “The commissioning of a prominent contemporary architect to convert a monumental piece of industrial heritage into a contemporary art venue was very successful in Liverpool. I am sure this influenced the decision to transform the abandoned Bankside power station into what we now know as Tate Modern.”
In the immediate future Manacorda’s focus is on the Liverpool Biennial, the largest visual arts festival in the UK, which opens this week. Since the Biennial’s inception under the stewardship of a former Tate Liverpool director, Lewis Biggs, the gallery has played a major part in it. Manacorda says: “Tate Liverpool’s relationship with the Biennial has been very good since the Biennial was established in 1998, and I would like to continue this. The Tate Collection is a great asset which allows emerging artists to look at history in an innovative and unconventional way.”
Tate’s contribution to the festival comprises two elements. The first is a new commission, ‘Sky Arts Ignition: Doug Aitken – The Source’, in which Aitken asks a variety of creative practitioners including Jack White, Tilda Swinton and Mike Kelley where their creativity comes from. The work is situated in a glass pavilion situated outside the gallery designed by David Adjaye. Manacorda comments: “I think it is a great piece and it has been a real privilege working with Doug. The work makes a very important point manifest, that conversations are one of the most important sources of creativity.”
There will also be a new Tate Collection display entitled Threshold, featuring a wide range of artists from Martin Parr to Gilbert and George: “The show was curated by Sook-Kyung Lee as a response to this year’s Biennial theme of ‘Hospitality’. She took a very rigorous and imaginative approach to looking at how both inclusion and exclusion can become social, political and economic tools that manifest in a variety of, not always visible, ‘thresholds’.”
As Tate approaches its 25th birthday in May 2013, plans are already in place to mark the occasion, though Manacorda will only reveal a brief amount at the moment: “We are planning a major re-hang of the Tate Collection at the gallery to coincide with our 25th anniversary. We will be reflecting on the past twenty-five years, using the re-hang to do something different, exciting and revelatory with the collection.”
Nearly a quarter century after its inception as part of a plan to regenerate Liverpool, I ask Manacorda what role he sees the gallery playing now in a city in many ways transformed, in many ways still struggling: “Tate Liverpool was at the forefront of re-imaging the city’s industrial heritage through culture, helping people project new meaning into it. Culture has literally and metaphorically moved into the empty industrial space following the economic evolution of the North in recent decades. Tate Liverpool has a larger audience than other regional galleries, which means that while we have a loyal and growing Merseyside audience, we are also able to attract audiences from further afield. This of course is what brings regeneration effects to the city. We bring visitor spend to Liverpool and work in partnership with organisations across the city to make it a focus for cultural tourism.”
Though he sees the gallery as having a deeper role than just being a tourist magnet: “In addition to considering the economic effects of regeneration, we also consider the other beneficial effects that art can have on people’s lives. Art can speak to people and become an emancipatory tool for people to innovate, question and reinvent. Tate Liverpool’s role is to bring international, top quality practices to Liverpool, activating a conversation between the local and the international.”
Finally I ask, as Manacorda settles into his new role and can start influencing the programme on a deeper level, what is his vision for the future of Tate Liverpool? “I see the museum as a space for learning that provides the public with edifying experiences, critical space for reflection and access to the enjoyment that art can grant. Since Tate Liverpool is a modern and contemporary art gallery, I’d like to involve artists in reinventing how we look at history.”
This piece appeared on The Guardian in September 2012.