Issues of identity seem to dominate contemporary discourse, both in the political and cultural spheres. They pose challenges to conceived notions of who we are, but what if those questions were to be considered not from the perspective of an individual, or groups of individuals, but rather are addressed to institutions?
Consider for a moment what makes a contemporary arts centre, or a centre for the contemporary arts? What objective does it serve? Who does it seek to address and engage? What distinguishes it from any other institution? A museum or gallery offers, at the most basic level, an exhibition space, but beyond a gallery space what does a ‘centre’ offer?
The Bluecoat is perhaps the most widely recognised ‘centre for the contemporary arts’ in Liverpool; indeed it is the oldest such institution in the UK. Earlier this year New Art Bluecoat sought to demonstrate that the case for such an institution is myriad and varied, embracing as wide a field of practices as possible whilst most importantly, willing to take risks.
Perhaps it is because Bluecoat appears so unprepossessing (the Georgian façade offers a subtle architectural statement, when compared to the more ornate shop fronts of Liverpool One), that one somehow discounts the progressive legacy of the grand dame of School Lane. The curious array of exhibits, invitations, photographs, flyers, posters and film are an archival testament to the procession of artists who have not merely ‘exhibited’ their work at the Bluecoat, but actively sought to engage with the local audience and wider communities.
The sheer variety of artists who have worked with, and at, Bluecoat and its wider network is quite staggering. Instantly recognisable names such as Yoko Ono (before she knew John Lennon), Captain Beefheart, Keith Haring, Cindy Sherman, Jeremy Deller and Sonia Boyce are catalogued along with some less familiar, but no less talented individuals. Significantly, these now ‘great’ artists did not enjoy their more recent accolades when they were first invited to Bluecoat, indeed one might say that Bluecoat was in some small way instrumental to their future success. Hence it is in no way coincidental that the Jerwood Arts Survey exhibition can be seen in the neighbouring gallery spaces – Bluecoat remains a proving ground for artists of many disciplines and practices. This may mean that, on occasion, a work or performance fails to hit the mark, but that the institution is willing to give it a try is a refreshing approach, one which is not solely concerned with financial results.
New Art Bluecoat is therefore not some sepia-tinted nostalgic exercise of mourning ‘the good old days’, nor, as so often today, is it a call for ‘bring backery’. Rather, it is a reflection on the very soul of the institution. What makes a centre for the contemporary arts? Visit Bluecoat and discover that secret for yourself.
Ed Montana-Williams is a writer and Art and Architectural Historian based in Liverpool.
New Art Bluecoat runs at Bluecoat, Liverpool, until 31 December 2019.