Mobile Academy, Blackmarket for Useful Knowledge at the Bluecoat, 2008. Photo Alex Wolkowic

A new documentary display at the Bluecoat looks at how the Liverpool arts venue has engaged with the city and participated in wider public debates.

In these challenging times, the function of the arts in society is becoming increasingly valued, as well as put under scrutiny. Publicly-funded arts organisations are being challenged to develop new ways to engage with their audiences, to become more relevant to local communities, and to grow their civic role.

As the first arts centre in the UK, constituted in 1927, the Bluecoat has long engaged with Liverpool’s cultural and civic life, providing a home for artists, cultural societies, creative retailers, festivals, and a place for public discourse and social interaction.

The new exhibition, A Civic Role, reflects some of the ways in which the Bluecoat has strived to be more than simply a venue that presents art in its spaces. The material selected to tell this story is drawn from the arts centre’s archive – photos, film, posters, publications and other documents – and offers a glimpse at some of the key strands of the Bluecoat’s civic engagement.

This has taken place both within and beyond the building, interacting with local people in a variety of ways, such as artists’ interventions into the public realm, residencies by artists and academics, leading on debates, and a wide-ranging participation programme with communities.

A range of topics is covered in the exhibition around four themes:

  • Bluecoat’s contribution to public debate, starting with the study it commissioned from John Willett in the early 1960s, which was published in 1967 as Art in A City, a seminal work that was the first sociological study of art in a single place. While the building was closed for its capital development in 2007, the Bluecoat went on the road to local neighbourhoods to promote the Liverpool Debates, inviting local people to discuss hot topics of the day. And in 2011 it devised a programme, Liverpool, City of Radicals that interrogated the city’s radical credentials.
  • Bluecoat engaging with the city, through artists’ interventions in the public realmtaking art out into the city in performances and installations in busy city shopping streets or on public monuments. Projects like Peter McRae’ Avenue of Heroes on the steps of St George’s Hall, Mandy Romero’s Queen of Culture during the construction upheaval of Liverpool One, or Richard Dedomenici impersonating Boris Johnson apologising to Liverpool, are represented in photos. While, at the arts centre, Bed-In at the Bluecoat recreated John & Yoko’s famous action for peace, restaged as a series of daily interventions by local people using a bed in the Bluecoat space.
  • The inclusive city focuses on the Bluecoat’s participation programmes with local communities, both onsite and as outreach, such as artist Humberto Velez’ The Welcoming, staged for the 2006 Liverpool Biennial and involving new migrants to the city welcomed by older established communities; and the Art Valley project with people in Alt Valley.
  • Global conversations are reflected in the Bluecoat’s engagement with the world through posters for exhibitions by artists from Senegal, China, France, Germany and elsewhere, including an exchange programme with Liverpool’s long-established twin city of Cologne, and the first UK visit by Pop Mechanica from Leningrad’s music and performance underground in a season in 1989 called Perestroika in the Avant Garde.

Though only a snapshot of these cultural programmes, the display indicates how they have aimed to draw attention to issues such as local democracy, housing, public space, the accessible city, sharing knowledge, pathways to creativity, contested histories, and global links.

This is the second in a series of archival displays in the Vide space, situated next to the Gallery, and it follows A Creative Community, which focussed on the Bluecoat as a centre for working artists. The third exhibition, starting in March 2022, focuses on Bluecoat’s colonial legacies.

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