Inside The Bluecoat
Some places in Liverpool seem heaven sent and Bluecoat is one of them. Tranquil, creative, open and engaging, the place just gives off great positive vibes (which isn’t always the case when dealing with 300 year-old buildings).
Next year Bluecoat are celebrating their triple centenary and are soon poised to announce their 300th birthday plans. I’ve had enough of peering through the windows as I walk through Liverpool ONE, so I arranged a catch up with Mary Cloake, the woman in charge, to find out what’s new at Bluecoat and discover Mary’s most treasured spots, in a building with many to choose from.
I meet Mary in Bluecoat Café, and fend off offers of cake and sandwiches. As we talk I observe silver-surfers ordering scones, absorbed artists sketching still-life statues and carefree musicians catching up over coffee, while strumming random riffs on guitars. It’s quite an atmosphere and I ask Mary how she achieves it.
“We work hard on being welcoming. We want to be the most welcoming organisation in Liverpool and we’re open to everyone. Many things are free here, so we get this great mix of people from all walks of life and they come to our doors for all kinds of reasons”.
Mary’s not kidding. Whilst researching Bluecoat I discovered that plenty more goes on at the centre than I realised. We take a seat and order coffee and I ask Mary how she would describe the Bluecoat to people who’ve never visited.
“I think of us as an oasis of calm and creativity in the heart of busy city. First and foremost we’re an arts centre – we were actually the very first arts centre in the country. But the term arts centre can mean a lot of different things.
“We’re a cutting-edge contemporary arts gallery. We’re a home for an amazing community of artists. We’re a historical building. We’re a centre for education, a meeting place, a venue, a leisure destination, all these things fit under the umbrella of ‘arts centre’. But there aren’t many arts centre’s like ours”.
True. In fact, there aren’t many places quite like Bluecoat, full stop. Originally a school, built in 1717, the building was taken over by artists in 1907, and bought by them outright after 20 years of fundraising. Mary and I talk about the building’s incredible history and I ask her what it brings to the organisation.
“I think it makes the place very special. The history, but also the fact that for so long it’s been a place where Liverpool’s artists and creative thinkers have converged. Stravinsky was here, Simon Rattle, George Melly – even George Bernard Shaw, we believe – scores of prominent artistic people, people who have genuinely changed the world.
“That creative energy is what gives this place it’s very particular, quirky feel. Bluecoat is steeped in a rich history and you can feel it. Only the arts can bring that type of aura to a place. If it was simply a historic building it wouldn’t feel the same”.
We finish our coffee, as Mary is eager to show me around the building, she asks how much time I have and I tell her as much as she does. She seems pleased, informing me that it’s ‘a deceptively large building’. First up is the gallery, currently showing Bloomberg New Contemporaries – internationally recognised as a reliable barometer of future trends in art.
At one point during the tour, Mary points out the place where three walls, from three different periods in the building’s history meet each other. “In 1820 there was an extension to the original eighteenth-century building and in 2008 we built the new gallery, which allows us to show art on a grand scale and to really surprise people”.
I ask Mary to show me a current piece of art that surprises visitors the most. She takes me to a large space in the gallery, that allows Liverpool ONE’s shoppers, on College Lane, to peer in at what’s going on inside, as they hurry past.
Currently, a giant multi-coloured, multi-proportioned wax figure, lounges on a plinth. ‘The Fallen King by Jamie Fitzpatrick is a wondrously weird, sculpture, that looks like it’s about to topple over. But the figure itself doesn’t look concerned, instead he appears to beckon you with giant hands and feet.
His first head, the one on his shoulders, looks suitably regal, even composed, but his fourth, animatronic head (hidden around the back) appears much more agitated, as it bites and snaps at visitors, with robotic frenzy. It’s quite a sight and causes many shoppers to stop and stare.
“Shops are great and we all love shopping, but sometimes it can get a bit relentless. Bluecoat helps to break up that experience, show people something different and give show them some of Liverpool’s creativity. One of the brilliant things about Bluecoat is that the city has become very busy around us. Liverpool ONE is such a huge development and it’s been great for us, as people who are simply going to shop now get an opportunity to pop in and see us and that’s a huge advantage”.
From our conversation, it becomes clear Bluecoat loves to think creatively and take chances. Mary tells me about an upcoming appointment they are making for a ‘Sociologist in Residence’, following the culmination of a successful two-year ‘Philosopher in Residence’ position – the first of its kind in the UK.
“For me, art means making the most out of life…”
“Our philosopher-in-residence, Dr Yiota Vassiloppulou, had such a huge impact. Through Yiotta we were able to offer people a free ten-week course in aesthetics, studying the nature and art of beauty. It was a new approach and it’s a model that we’re seeking to continue. Sociology is up next, but we could have a scientist or even a mathematician-in-residence in the future”.
Whilst were on big subjects, it seems like a good time to ask Mary why art is so important and what it means to her.
“Art gives people the opportunity to think about the world differently. That includes literature, music and dance, as well as visual art. Say, for example, you read a book about Russia, Dostoyevsky, or even a contemporary book, you begin to see the world through another person’s eyes. Now you would never have the opportunity to be in that person’s shoes otherwise and that’s one of art’s great qualities. It gives people that difference of perspective. So art, for me, means making the most out of life by altering or deepening our point of view”.
As we begin to leave the gallery, Mary points out an exhibition that she feels, demonstrates this difference of perspective and also a new trend in art – crowd sourcing. Three huge mounds of fluffy white material take centre stage in one of the gallery’s rooms, each variously adorned in sporadic items of clothing, a fascinator here, a clutch there, a scarf to finish it off. (Imagine three ladies at the races got caught behind a snowmobile and you’ll get the picture).
Mary explains how the artist partnered with Debenhams personal shoppers, who selected the appropriate accessories, and how many artists are now using the public’s input to create their art. I ask Mary about Bluecoat’s own collaborations. How important are they to the organisation?
“Partnership is everything to us, we’re a broker, a real hub for partnership work. We really believe that one plus one is three. When I came to Liverpool I was amazed at how well the city’s arts organisations worked together. In other cities arts organisations are often in competition with each other, because funding is scarce. But Liverpool has such a commitment to working in partnership and the city achieves great things because of this”.
Mary tells me about Bluecoat’s enduring partnerships, of which there are many. They host meetings for creative consortiums COoL and LARC, work closely with TMESIS Theatre, DADA Fest, Liverpool Irish Festival, Liverpool Arab Arts Festival and Writing on The Wall. There are also 33 artists and designers based in the building, creating anything from screen-prints to spectacular jewellery. But one example of Bluecoat’s partnership work, entitled The Blue Room, stands out.
“About seven years ago we spoke to various disability groups and said ‘why don’t you come here, one day a week, and do arts activities, as well as going to your usual community centre?’ Over time the groups built up and ‘Blue Room’ was born.
“Some members of The Blue Room achieved such technical skills that they were able to volunteer as artist assistants, through our ‘Out of The Blue’ project, an after-school educational group which travels to schools to help young people create art.
“But what’s really exciting is that some of these artist assistants are now becoming curators themselves, creating really interesting exhibitions. So they’ve gone from service consumers to service creators. We’re going to be exhibiting one of their exhibitions in the autumn. A project like this could never happen with any single organisation working on their own. The most important thing in any collaboration is always the quality of the idea. So we’re very proud of Blue Room.”
It’s clear that inclusivity is also something that Mary is very proud of, and this manifests itself in various ways. Be it putting a spotlight on social issues, through the art itself or through the educational programmes and partnerships Bluecoat makes. Mary stops on a stairway to point out an old framed Bluecoat promotional poster.
“In 1985 we hosted an exhibition called ‘Black Skin Blue Coat’ and it was one of the first exhibitions of black art in the UK. One of the artists in that exhibition, Keith Piper, was a young man at the time. Now he’s a well-established British artist and he’s coming back to Bluecoat, with his own exhibition this year, more than 30 years later, from Friday 28th October – Sun 22nd January. Keith remembers that Bluecoat was welcoming at a time when it wasn’t easy for black artists to get a show”.
But through the decades, Bluecoat hasn’t only offered a platform for marginalised voices, it’s also brought international art to Liverpool, through just about every art form going. Mary shows me Bluecoat’s auditorium and performance studio and she tells me how Merseyside Film Society was originally based in Bluecoat and brought foreign language and arthouse films to the city for the first time.
As we leave the auditorium, an energetic troupe of dancers thunders past us on the corridor, so Mary and I follow them to Bluecoat’s dance studio, where a class is about to start. We watch the men and women warm up and Mary tells me more about Bluecoat’s relationship to dance.
“Liverpool has such a wonderful dance community. Merseyside Dance Initiative and TMESIS, a world-class dance and physical theatre company, are both based in the city. These dancers are from the Liverpool Improvisation Collective, and they’re based here in Bluecoat.
“I love to see people dance. Some people express themselves through language, or the written word, but some people find using words difficult and the wonderfully liberating thing about dance is that it enables people to express themselves and to understand people in a way that is physical. If you look at the evolution of human beings, even before language was written down, we had dance, it’s elemental to our nature, because it’s one of the ways we can express what’s in our soul. Dance deserves more recognition, so we’re looking into ways we can celebrate it more”.
Whilst we’re on the subject of future celebrations I ask Mary if she can reveal more about Bluecoat’s 300th birthday plans. How are they using the anniversary to promote the work they do?
“I can’t give too much away just yet, but we’ve got a really exciting programme, we’re having 300 days of celebration and most of the events and activities will be completely free. There’ll be exhibitions and school programmes and we’re developing an idea called ‘My Bluecoat’ where we’ll be inviting people to tell us their memories of the building”.
After taking in Bluecoat’s ‘Upstairs Bistro‘ and bar and their much loved, Zen-like courtyard and garden, we arrive back at the gallery. Mary points out the lights that she’d like to replace. “They cost us a fortune, so we want to replace them with LED ones. We’re currently raising funds to replace the lighting through a Marks and Spencer’s scheme. It’s a great fund for us because M&S match every donation. We want to become carbon neutral in the future, but it’s not easy with a building like this”.
As our tour comes to a close, we walk out into Bluecoat’s front courtyard. Mary has one more thing she wants to show me before I leave. To the far right of the courtyard, inscribed in the walls is some sort of writing, featuring Roman numerals and what looks like Latin.
“We think it’s Liverpool’s oldest graffiti. There’s a brilliant group called the Sandon Society and they’re going to translate it and date it for us as part of a larger project. We’re going to be revealing a lot more about the building’s heritage next year, particularly how artists have flourished here. I think people will be really intrigued, because Liverpool is a city that is truly proud of its heritage and history”.
As I prepare to leave and thank Mary for her time, I ask her if she had one single ambition for Bluecoat, what would it be? She doesn’t hesitate.
“I want the aura of Bluecoat to spread further, to expand our boundaries and reach more people. Bluecoat shouldn’t just be an oasis of calm. We want to shine our light back across the city. We’re really thinking big now and what better year to start? Here’s to the next 300 years!”