Does Liverpool’s art scene need more Hands?


Posted by: Creative Times on January 20, 2012 10:07

It’s all change in Liverpool’s art scene as Ceri Hand Gallery, the city’s only commercial contemporary art space, prepares to move to London. Rob Allen reports on what the gallery’s departure means to the art ecology of the city and the wider North West, and ponders what should happen next.

In the same year that Liverpool was rediscovering its cultural confidence as the 2008 Capital of Culture, a quieter, but still hugely significant event, occurred – the city got its first and only commercial contemporary art gallery. And when Ceri Hand Gallery opened in a disused warehouse on the outskirts of the city centre, many in the city felt it was proof of Liverpool’s growing importance on the UK art scene.

That Hand is to leave Liverpool for London less than four years on will cause raised eyebrows amongst some, mixed with deeper levels of concern. Taking a roster of impressive artists with her, such as Matthew Houlding, S Mark Gubb and Juneau Projects, her departure raises a key question: Can Liverpool cultivate a definitive, sustainable art ecology capable of attracting collectors and retaining talent?

“Ceri going to London is a major blow,” claims Mark Doyle, Head of Collector Development for the Contemporary Art Society North West. “If somebody like Ceri thought that Liverpool was a good place to be based, then it suggested to everyone else in the art world that they should check it out. If it worked for her, then maybe it could have worked for them. Other galleries were watching what happened and could have made a similar move.”

Ceri Hand going to London is a major blow… If Liverpool had worked for her, then maybe it could have worked for other galleries.

Despite deep affection for the city and funding support from the Arts Council, Hand says she has been forced to face up to the difficult truths that inspired her decision. “We’ve reached a watershed moment,” she believes. “Our artists have developed so that their profile is higher and their work is becoming more expensive. We’ve reached a limit to what we can ask collectors in the North West to stretch to. Our artists are at the point now that more people need to see this work, so there’s no way of getting around the need to move on.”

The scale of ambition for her artists is abundantly clear and, although inevitably disappointed, local artists appear in charitable mood when considering the legacy she will leave behind. Emily Speed, an artist member of The Royal Standard studios, is appreciative of the need to move on.

“Ceri’s vision worked here, but she just has to get bigger,” says Speed. “Her artists are doing really well, but there’s a cap on what people will spend and how many people will see the work. I think moving to London is just part of the job. It’s not easy to sell work, and I guess if you are making good money in Liverpool out of selling art then you’re probably a figurative painter and making things for people’s houses.”

Hand identifies with Speed’s reading of the local sales climate. It’s one of the obstacles in her way to attaining the next level her artists require. She has, however, demonstrated that great strides in artist development can be taken outside the capital, despite limited access to adventurous buyers.

Hand represents Manchester sculptor Samantha Donnelly, whose biggest solo show to date opens at Cornerhouse at the end of January – perhaps a sign of just how potent a force her gallery has become in the North West. But Hand argues that, although she has enjoyed working in the region, and in particular the vibrancy around Liverpool’s international art biennial and other visitor-focused initiatives, there are vital components of the wider art infrastructure of the North West that are missing. Not that opportunities don’t exist. Hand feels there is still great scope for the development of smaller galleries and artist-led spaces, but they require more support.

Sally Tallant, the new Artistic Director of Liverpool Biennial, is keen to not only praise Hand’s role as an ‘explorer’ since setting up in the city, but also echo her view that the key to a healthy art ecology in Liverpool and other regional cities could lie in the courage of artists themselves.

Reflecting on her time spent in the capital, Tallant, who was previously Head of Programmes at the Serpentine Gallery, says: “I remember a similar time in London when there was nothing like a major, global art market like there is now. One of the things that was vital to that market developing was the establishment of small spaces, like artist collectives and studio groups that slowly formed into smaller, grassroots commercial organisations. They realised that they could create a mixed economy. Not only relying on funding, but also selling their work.”

Whilst pledging to continue to commit Biennial resources to unite Liverpool with an international visual arts audience, Tallant predicts that artists will need to organise themselves to reach commercial audiences out of necessity as much as desire, as public sector support for the arts continues to dwindle. Although funding issues persist, such limitations can also offer opportunities. Large art galleries and museums are being urged to better support local artists and make diminishing budgets stretch further by acquiring new work from source, where previously the pressure was on to chase big names in search of big crowds.

Hand expands on the point: “Institutions in Glasgow, for example, buy and sell Scottish artists. In the North West there is a desire to support local artists, but they usually have to be internationally recognised before they are shown. I think there needs to be an adjustment in how people sail those big ships. There are some really good artists here and museums can’t afford to be buying these huge, international biennial stars anymore. They should be looking at local talent and buy more quickly. It’s about having curatorial collecting vision.”

The lack of recent acquisitions by National Museums Liverpool would seem to illustrate the point. Aside from the rather safe Before Vermeer’s Clouds, by 2006 John Moore’s Painting Prize winner Martin Greenland, and the Contemporary Art Society-assisted purchase of a video piece by Marcus Coates in 2010, there’s little sign of new work being heralded, and certainly no evidence of support for local artists.

Mark Doyle of the Contemporary Art Society would also like to see more meaningful connections between the major public galleries and the grassroots. “Public institutions should be encouraged to look at emerging talent and want to acquire it for their collections,” he says. “They have a big role to play. If they like a local artist and buy it for their collection then it attracts private collectors. They think that if it’s good enough for a public collection then it’s good enough for them and the ecology develops from there.”

The gauntlet hasn’t only landed at the door of museum establishments. Quality arts education must play a role too, and North West universities are often criticised for the lack of truly progressive art teaching. Scotland is never far from discussion when considering successful, regional art scenes and there is plenty to suggest that the other areas can learn lessons from across the border. With commercial galleries such as Mary Mary and The Modern Institute, and an art school that gleefully reminds us of the concentration of Turner Prize nominees and winners they’ve produced, Glasgow clearly has secrets to offer. (Although the closure last year of the city’s influential Sorcha Dallas gallery suggests that it is not immune to the realities of the art market.)

While in terms of regional English cities the media attention may be shifting to Sheffield, driven by the growth in artist-run spaces in the city and, in part, the success of Haroon Mirza, who won the Silver Lion award at last year’s Venice Biennale, this is no time for the North West to panic. In Manchester, artist-led but commercially focused galleries such as the International 3 and Bureau are working hard to reveal hidden talents, as is the city’s Blank Media Collective.

Hand, meanwhile, is promising to return to Liverpool for regular ‘pop up’ exhibitions, and this year’s Liverpool Biennial will again see the eyes of the international art scene on Merseyside. As one vital window on the art world closes in the North West, this is an opportunity for galleries, lecturers, curators and artists to all consider the role they can play in what happens next.

The final show at Ceri Hand Gallery is Henny Acloque: Lugar de culto, until 25th February. The gallery’s new London home opens on 31st March with an exhibition by Mel Brimfield

Images: Bedwyr Williams, Nimrod, 2009, Installation view, Ceri Hand Gallery; Juneau Projects, 3 Megabytes of Hot RAM, 2011, Installation view, Ceri Hand Gallery; interior view of Ceri Hand Gallery, Liverpool; Works from the current exhibition, Henny Acloque, ‘Lugar de Culto’: Henny Acloque, 277, 2011, Mixed media on canvas; Henny Acloque, Intrusion 1, 2011, Mixed media on canvas. All images courtesy of the artists and Ceri Hand Gallery.

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