The Bluecoat at 300 – an oasis of art, music and creativity in the heart of Liverpool

Bluecoat (Credit:Brian Roberts)

Bluecoat (Credit: Brian Roberts)

The Bluecoat is 300 years old in 2017 and Getintothis’ Rick Leach met up with Artistic Director, Bryan Biggs, to chat about Yoko Ono, Captain Beefheart and a year of celebrations. 

300 years is a mighty long time.

That’s what is being celebrated this year at The Bluecoat. Three hundred years. The Bluecoat Chambers in School Lane is the oldest surviving building in Liverpool City Centre.

It’s also home to The Bluecoat, the oldest and continuously running arts centre in the UK, since being formed as The Bluecoat Society of Arts in 1927. Something we should be rightly proud of.

Over the past ninety years there’s been long list of visual artists who’ve exhibited at The Bluecoat. The first Post-Impressionists show came to Liverpool following an earlier showing in London and featured works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Matisse and Gaugin, shown alongside British artists for the first time.

On a musical front the Bluecoat has been visited by a simply staggering cohort of artists. From Stravinsky, Bartok and Britten to Sun Ra, Captain Beefheart, Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars to The Last Poets and Benjamin Zephaniah.

Yoko Ono had her first paid performance at The Bluecoat in 1967 and in 2008 she returned as it reopened following a massive £14 million development into the building it is today.

There’s a whole year of celebrations planned for The Bluecoat in 2017 ranging from large and wide retrospective exhibitions and special musical events.

Getintothis strolled around the gallery with Bryan Biggs, Artistic Director of The Bluecoat, to look at the first of these. Art at the Heart of Bluecoat is a heritage exhibition which not only tells the story of the 300 years of the building but art connected with the Bluecoat over the past century. Additionally, the Public View exhibition includes works by over a hundred different artists, from the early 1960s right up to the present day. It’s the first time that all these works have been shown together in one place and a quick wander doesn’t really do it justice; it’s something that’s worth coming back to again and again.

Bryan Biggs has worked at The Bluecoat for over 30 years and his passion for art, music, creativity, The Bluecoat and the city of Liverpool is clearly evident as we sat down with him to chat about what this year has in store.

His knowledge of what’s happened over the last century at The Bluecoat is encyclopaedic and authoritative. What was striking is that he’s as much excited about what is to happen in the future as what’s gone before.

Byran Biggs (Credit: Brian Roberts)

Bryan Biggs (Credit: Brian Roberts)

Getintothis: “So what should we look forward to this year at the Bluecoat? What are the exciting points for you?”

Bryan Biggs: “Well, the exciting points for me… there’s several.

“The exhibition we’ve just walked round of course. This exhibition it is a highlight. There’s over 100 artists and it tells in a very interesting and varied way the history of exhibitions here, certainly last 40 to 50 years’ because the artists are in that span of years.

“It shows, I think what I’ve tried to do a curator, is to show the mix of the local and national and international. A mix of media.

“I’ve tried to show we’ve supported artists in the early stages of their career and some of those have gone onto win the Turner Prize – Jeremy Deller, we did his first commission here.

“And Yoko Ono, who obviously has a connection with Liverpool, but it started through here, because before it was known she’d met John Lennon, she exhibited here in 1967, the year she met Lennon, but she was still with her husband Tony Cox.

“She had that relationship with Liverpool not long before, but before meeting John, which is which is great and what the show reflects is art in Liverpool over that period.

“It’s always been adventurous and has always been inviting to artists outside. We’ve always tried to nurture local artists and take on issues. A lot of the work in the show is dealing with early feminist artists, black British artists, and disabled artists.

Art at the Heart of Bluecoat 2017

Art at the Heart of Bluecoat 2017

“There’s a lot of what I’d call issue based art because these were very strong trends in British art over the past 40 years. And this carries on absolutely.

“For example, an artist like Keith Piper who was part of what was called the BLK Art Group in the mid 80s/early 80s – we showed him in 1985 and we continued the relationship. We worked with him in a big project in 1992 called Trophies of Empire and then he came back twice more. The last time he showed was literally last month, we showed him in January. That was a big film commission for which we got Arts Council funding.

“So he’s an artist we’ve worked with over thirty something years. And that was important for us to show that.

“And particular arts we are dealing with include big, tough meaty subjects. Like Keith’s dealing with race and racism and identity and the history of colonialism. I think we do that dealing with big issues pretty well and it’s still exciting. Maybe it’s because I’ve been here a long time, but there’s been that continuity. So one of the highlights for me is this show. If you get a chance to see it then you get a really good overview of what the exhibitions are in one venue.”

Getintothis: “And across the year?”

Bryan Biggs: “There’s loads more exciting things!”  

Getintothis: “You’ve got the concert at the Cathedral?”

Bryan Biggs: “Yeah! Pierre Henry is 90 this year.

“And he was a pioneer of musique concrète; music that was made without live musicians. It manipulated taped sounds and he’s manipulating existing sound. Back in 1967 he was commissioned to do a new piece of music to go alongside a dance piece at the Metropolitan Cathedral alongside Bill Harpe – who subsequently who went onto run the Black-E with Wendy, his wife. She actually at that time was working here, running our arts programme.

“It was a very bold choice. The Cathedral were a bit nervous, as they would be. As for Henry. I think one of the problems was that one of his parents was dying or something and he couldn’t complete the work and the deadline was missed.

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“So he sent another work. He sent another tape which they played and they did the choreography and I think it was over five nights. But the piece he should have performed was Messe de Liverpool, Liverpool Mass. A proper Catholic Mass. He was using the actual words, the structure.

“But he put his voices in, the sampling and made them distorted and so on. But because it was never performed in Liverpool at the time, about three or four years ago we went to see him and asked if he’d be interested in performing it in Liverpool. Because he’s very old and not very well he couldn’t.

“But he was very delighted at the prospect so he sent his sound engineer over, because basically all you need is someone to do a live mix. Because the sounds exists, it’s there already. The engineer has been over to do a sound design and he’s got 40 speakers around the perimeter of the circular bit of the cathedral. It’ll be a 47 minute piece, it’s not very long and under an hour. It will be mixed live and presented in that space on May 13.”

Getintothis: “So it’s the world premiere?”

Bryan Biggs: “Well, kind of. It was presented in the mid-90s as part of a mix programme. but it was without his blessing so…this is the first proper, premiere in that sense and it’s being performed in the way he intended with the sound being mixed in a particular way and in the right venue. And it doesn’t make sense not being in the venue. This is quite unique.

“It’s a bit of mad thing for us to do! We do things musically here but not that much off site and not for a long time! It’s great for us to get off site and make those connections with another anniversary which is the 50th anniversary of the Cathedral. So it fits in nicely with that as well.”

Getintothis: “The Bluecoat is geographically in the centre of Liverpool. Where do you think it fits in with the cultural life of the city?”

Bryan Biggs: “It’s always been fairly central. Geographically, as you say, but culturally it’s been at the heart and because it’s the first arts centre in the UK then it’s always had that combined arts focus.

“Although the gallery is the best-known part of it there’s always been music, there’s always been dance, there’s always been literature, there’s always been artists working in their studios. I think we’re the venue that pulls all that together.

“In the way that Tate is visual art and FACT is the digital and moving image and the Everyman does theatre, we do a bit of everything and I hope we do it well. I’d say we’re quite pivotal to the idea of inter- and multi-disciplinary arts focus for the city.

“The fact that we have artists working here is quite unique. There’s not many arts venues that have a working community and we’ve had them since 1907.”

Getintothis: “Do you see it as a centre of gravity; pulling things in, falling towards The Bluecoat?”

Bryan Biggs: “That’s it and that’s what we hope for. We’ve got some evidence to show that it does work as a hub where people know they’re going to meet somebody else involved in the arts in some way. It’s not just a place to meet because its central; but because of the connections and the working community and other artists around the place.

“We have several arts organisations within the building alongside what we do. We have Dada Fest who have been here since 2008, we have Arab Arts Fest (which we helped set up) and Fittings Multimedia which is a disability arts organisation, so there’s a lot of practitioners and arts organisations here.

“It’s not a dead space. It’s not just a place where you go and consume art. It’s a place where art is made. Sometimes you can see the process of the creation of the art through our participation programme that we do and that’s very important to us. It’s a growing part of what we do and particularly working with adults who have who have learning disabilities. That’s a key thing that we’ve done for 15 years or longer.

“The programme that we’re doing is quite unique and a lot of councils are looking at this now. When we started we were doing it in day centres – but they were one-offs and they were quite successful yet the problem was when you had done it that was it. It was over.

“There was no continuity, so we decided when we reopened the building in 2008 we’d have dedicated space for this work and it’s used four days a week, there’s a different group every day. Basically we provided an alternative to day-care provision.

“We’re providing a service that’s meaningful and makes them feel at home, because they’re here so much. It’s brought out something for them that they probably couldn’t get elsewhere in a different environment. And here, they’re meeting interesting artists.

“Every exhibition, they go around it and talk about it They go back to the studio they’ve got here and they make work. Not just copying but telling their own stories and about what the art sparks off. 

Blue Room at Bluecoat (Credit:Brian Roberts)

Blue Room at Bluecoat (Credit: Brian Roberts)

“And there’s been some amazing work! Like films with international artists such Sonia Boyce or David Blandy. They’ve made work with these visiting artists who’ve got international reputations. And the artists get a lot out of it because they’re meeting people that they wouldn’t normally meet. And working with people they wouldn’t normally work with. So it’s helping them and helping breaking down those barriers and improves their understanding.

“I think that it just shows what can be done if you get the right approach to contemporary art. Because the non-disabled approach is “I don’t get that, it’s all weird” whereas, for the people we work with it’s “I like that, it’s great.” There’s no preconceptions. It’s like young children. It’s only when you get to a certain age when it gets knocked out of you by the education system.

“We think that it’s an interesting model not just for people with disabilities, but for all education. So it’s really, really important for us. It’s small, there’s only about twenty people. but they’re becoming really good artists. “

“And getting back to your original point, ‘where do we see ourselves in the cultural landscape?’

“Access is very important to us. We are a very comfortable space. We haven’t got it all right yet, we’re still working on it and sometimes it’s those simple things you need. But we did a lot when re reopened in 2008 to make it accessible which it wasn’t before.

“We might have an off-putting exterior-it’s a Grade I listed Queen Anne building that almost says “don’t come in” because of the architecture, but once we get people through the gates, get them into the building, everybody says this, the visiting artists, ‘It’s just feels normal!’

“How to get them to engage with the arts? That’s a big challenge for us, always. And so we try to improve that all the time. Our conversion rate from the people who come in for a coffee off the street and then go to the gallery is good, but we’re always looking to do better.

“The challenge is, I suppose, to get people to go to see an exhibition more than once, but when we talk to other arts organisations they’re really surprised at how well we do.”

Getintothis: “Where does the balance between art and performance and music fit? Is there a balance?”

Bryan Biggs: “At the moment, and I’ll be clear about this, it’s towards the visual arts because we have a gallery that’s open every day and it’s free so we have to get that right. Most of our resources go towards the gallery.”

“When we reopened in 2008, we had sufficient funds to employ a literature officer and a performing arts officer for music and dance, but then the crash happened and the Arts Council got hammered, so that plug was pulled. We lost two key posts and the money went with it. So, we’ve had to build up the performing arts side up gradually, which I think we’ve done, but we’ve got a long. long way to go.”

“We’re not doing as nearly as much music as I’d like to do. We used to do loads and loads of music and it’s a bit sporadic. We do them when we can do them and we work in partnership, so we do them with Deep Hedonia or Harvest Sun – we’ve worked with them before, just different promoters; but we’re not the ideal venue for what they want. This is a problem.

“You can have a great night time venue that’s not accessible, but it’s open to 3 am or you can come here which is accessible, but we have to close the bar really early, so we have to try to get the balance right. And the capacity is an issue – we haven’t got a big enough capacity performance-size to make it work as a gig.

“That’s the problem we’ve got at the moment, but we’re addressing that through a capital project we’ve got over the next three years…so… if we get the funding for that..!

“The balance is visual arts led, I suppose, and when we can, we do try to link the visual arts to other things that we do. For example, with the exhibitions, we always work with John Moores University creative writing team and they bring in poets to either respond or to work with the exhibitions.

“Partnerships are really important because they can bring in resources and expertise, and secondly, audiences.”

Keep up to date with what’s happening with Getintothis’ Liverpool Arts Diary

“But we’ll always do music. A few weeks ago, we did The Three Johns for old times’ sake. John Hyatt from the band is one of the artist in this current show. We’re interested in the crossover and he’s perfect because he’s a visual artist who’s also a musician.

“We’ve got Probe Records in the building too, obviously not integrated, but still part of the building. We do record fairs and will continue to do them so music is an important part and we want to bring it back to centre stage if we can.

“We have a resident theatre and movement dance company called Liverpool Improvisation Collective. We recently got three years funding for them, partly working with disabled audiences, and we have a dance company called Siobhan Davies Dance who work in galleries and will take over the galleries for ten days later this year. This is a new move for us and we are very keen moving forward to having visible exhibitions and activities which are visible.

“There’s always lots going on here. We have print making studios but obviously the public don’t always see them. It’s difficult balancing the access to the public so they see the activities such as pottery making etc with the security with some of our students who are quite vulnerable. With this capital project we are doing we’re looking at ways of opening up more of the building in a way it can be managed with the setup of the building.

“There’s always something on every night; we have a youth theatre company called 20 Stories High and a life drawing class, storytelling group etc and sometimes I wish we didn’t have quite so much on! But we do really well. We like to have a variety and it’s a busy year with the anniversary.”

Getintothis: “Captain Beefheart and The Bluecoat. There’s a strong connection with Beefheart, isn’t there, between art and music?”

Bryan Biggs: “Ah, well Beefheart! I’ve been trying for a long time to do a follow up to 1972. I wanted to do it in 2012, but well, I wanted a whole gallery of his work/art/record sleeves/gigs/film clips, a whole multimedia experience saying he was a total artist who did this this and this etc.

“He was a renaissance man, and you could argue if he was any good at them (art or music), or whether he was just a cult, but it doesn’t matter.

Beefheart at Bluecoat 1972

Beefheart at Bluecoat 1972

“He was a really interesting 20th century figure and I’ve been trying to do that gallery thing for ages but need to get permission from the gallery that represents him. His estate who don’t really want to give it. They say his name is Don Van Vliet and he is a painter, he’s not Captain Beefheart, the musician, so you’ve got a problem there.

“I think if they let go a bit it would serve his reputation well; it would actually increase the value of his work because people would see that not only was he was a great musician, but a really good painter as well. It might happen one day.

“What we are doing this year – a guy called Kyle Percy who’s a local guy and a big Beefheart fan has put a bid in to the Arts Council with a lot of input from me and a guy called Chris McCabe who’s a poet. If that’s successful and we get the money we’ll have a Beefheart day.

“We should find out in a few weeks and we will have a Beefheart day in November, with a music gig/tribute to Beefheart. There’s a lot of interest in Liverpool (for Beefheart) and there’s quite a lot that can be covered. If we get the money, we may try to do it as regular thing.

“I don’t think he’s been valued properly. Whether you’re a music lover or not, he broke the mould in terms of what he could do: it wasn’t jazz, but still rock music and blues and all the other stuff on top. We are talking to Gary Lucas who was in later incarnations of the Magic Band and he’s been here twice for two Beefheart symposiums at The Phil. I was involved in both of them; one was two years ago and one was four years ago.”

“I never met Beefheart and I’m not an expert but I do have our archive from the show he did here. It’s not much but it’s enough. It was his first exhibition we think anywhere; that was 1972 and he didn’t really become an artist until the 80s so it was a good ten years.

“He was still doing the odd quirky drawing but for that 1972 exhibition we think he did them just the night before all in one go. There was a lovely quote from him in The Guardian ‘it’s like an ass’s tail – I just put the paintbrush on and swish it around’.”

“I don’t think it was that interesting an exhibition – it was more because it was him. He got better as a painter, the more he did it professionally; but I don’t know how significant he is as a painter as we haven’t had a chance to look at it all (his work) and assess it.

“He had a unique voice – he said he didn’t have any training. But he did have some. It is still quite a naïve voice and there were others doing it years before he was doing it. He liked to build a myth, but when you put it all together in one show he is compelling to music and he was a great performer. No one’s really looked at him properly.”

Getintothis: “Finally, there was a strong link in the past between “art” and popular music. Do you think that still exists?”

Bryan Biggs: “The link between art and popular music was quite strong in the 50s and is still there. When you look at an artist like Jeremy Deller, back in 1997 we commissioned him to do two years of projects with five commissions in each. The first was around the death of vinyl: a requiem for vinyl, called ‘Life in the Vinyl Junkyard’ – and the second year was called Remix based around remix culture and DJs.

Jeremy Deller, Acid Brass

Jeremy Deller, Acid Brass

“Jeremy’s idea was to fuse acid house music and brass band and he literally did that. We gave him the money to do it and he then paid the musical director of the Williams Fairey Brass Band, one of the top brass bands in the country, to score acid house anthems.

That’s quite hard! It’s electronic music so no actual musical notation existed so he had to notate it and transcribe it, and then get the band to do it live. We did it at LIPA as our venue was too small.”

“It was a huge success and he went on to win the Turner Prize and that piece of music was remixed by Bill Drummond. That’s an example of a contemporary artist who’s in love with pop music”

Getintothis: “But that connection between the “art world” and popular, as in pop music, as opposed to cutting edge or avant garde music – is it still there or has it dissipated somewhat?”

Bryan Biggs: “I think you’re right. In the 50s,’60s and 70s because you’ve got the classic people like John Lennon and Keith Richards, they all went to art school so it carried on through. Franz Ferdinand – they were from Glasgow School of Art – but what you haven’t now got as much in art schools is that social mix of working class kids that you got in the 50s and 60s and the regional mix too.”

“They were much more melting pots then. When I was at art school there was Deaf School who came from an art school background and were very successful, but it happened at the wrong time because punk came along and blew them away.”

“There is still that interest but it is harder to do it now. We live in a very different world now. There was that wider remit and you talked to those students or artists and you could only see films at film clubs at art schools or very small cinemas and there was that connecting to a wider avant garde. Nowadays most art schools are at universities and the modular systems and it is different yet I still have a lot of faith in art schools.”

John Hyatt has just joined us as a Professor of Contemporary Art at LJMU and there’s some good people there. I’m not saying it’s gone forever but it’s just different. There’s not that same energy and it’s very hard now with student debt, but we have certainly charted a lot of that through exhibitions here.

“This current exhibition has work by Malcolm Garrett and Peter Saville for Factory back in early 1981, so we’ve always had that interest. It just is different now.”

  • Art at the Heart of Bluecoat is at The Bluecoat until April 9.
  • Public View is at The Bluecoat until April 23.
  • Pierre Henry’s Messe de Liverpool will be performed at the Metropolitan Cathedral on May 13