In the latest in her ongoing Arts Central series, Julia Johnson looks at the role that public realm spectacles play in our relationship with our city by chatting to the team from Open Culture.
The beginning of 2019 marks the curtain coming down on another officially designated year of culture. If Liverpool 2018 looked back at the legacy of the past decade, it also provided a chance to look at some of the areas of disconnect which still exist between the voices of the Liverpool arts scene. As valuable to a sense of identity events such as the Giants may be, they offer the city’s many independent artists limited space for involvement. It can feel like there’s a parallel world between smaller studios and artist operations, with their own close networks for support. These networks need opportunities to reach the audiences so vital to maintaining creative activities, or perhaps unlock new perspectives for artists and audiences alike.
OPEN CULTURE, then, are exactly the team Liverpool needs. As the force behind events such as the Summer and Winter Arts Markets and LightNight, they are perhaps the strongest link between the artist and maker communities and the wider public. Consider the scale of December’s Winter Arts Market, the busiest ever, with over 9,000 attendees supporting over 200 local artists and craftspeople. When you realise that these huge events are brought together by a team of just three women, the scale of what they achieve becomes even more staggering.
Their motivation is straightforward. In the words of director Charlotte Corrie: “Our mission is to create a platform for artists and engage the Merseyside public in that.” A mission they’ve been working on for almost a decade of their own; for the seeds for Open Culture were sown when Corrie and fellow director Christina Grogan were working on the official preparations for European Capital of Culture. After all, Phil Redmond recognised that the year couldn’t have been such a success without the engagement and support of the public.
The question of what happened after 31st December 2008, however, was left a bit loose. “There wasn’t space for us to stay… but we didn’t feel that we’d finished what we’d started,” Corrie recalls. Finding a way to go it alone seemed like both an obvious and necessary path.
Corrie is half-joking when she describes Open Culture as “the glue” between the city’s best-known arts organisations and the creative community, but it feels like an accurate description. As we discuss the mechanics of how LightNight comes together, Communications and projects co-ordinator Rachael Jones mentions the incredible statistic that, in some years, they’ve found that up to 50 per cent of the visitors to Tate have never been inside the building before the evening’s events. This significant number shows the role landmark events can play in encouraging audiences to explore culture in new ways, putting curiosity into practice. The team themselves are in no doubt about the importance of this work. “Hopefully that means that once you’ve got someone over the door, you can get them coming back. That door is less of a barrier.”
The glue metaphor also rings true in Open Culture’s desire to fill in gaps in the city’s cultural life. Another of their recent developments, Uncover Liverpool, is the online iteration of this. With characteristic clarity of purpose, Uncover is based on a simple question: how can we let the public know? It fills a gap you’re almost amazed to discover existed in the first place, functioning as a single space where workshops, exhibitions, gigs and theatre are listed together. To Jones, its most exciting aspect is its egalitarianism; “It’s non-hierarchical. No matter if you’re a big or small organisation, an independent producer… you’re able to put events somewhere for people to find.” Letting local and independent workshops sit alongside the most headline-grabbing events on the calendar gives everyone the opportunity to find a place for arts and creativity that they’re comfortable with.
The more they talk about their work, the clearer it becomes that everything Open Culture facilitate is done out of true passion. Ten years of establishing these events has only strengthened their ethos. “We’ve stuck with what we’re doing. We find the time and money to do this because of our belief that it needs doing,” Corrie affirms. But sticking to principles doesn’t always mean sticking with what’s worked before. The success of the Arts Markets depends on finding a balance between established participants and creating new talents. “Liverpool is absolutely choc full of amazing people,” enthuses Jones, “the sheer variety of different things you can get. There’s also that lovely extra element that the market does, which is it gives the person the opportunity to meet the person who’s made that work.” The popularity of their events continues to grow with both the public and the artists – December’s 200 stallholders represents an enormous growth from a mere 60 in 2009. “The makers scene has a real sense of community – lots of our artists know each other well and help each other out on [market] day. We like to think we’ve played some part in that!” says Jones. This year’s success would seem to confirm this self-belief.
With the Christmas activities over, thoughts are turning towards the organisation of the tenth LightNight. The theme changes every year, a strategy that lays down a challenge to themselves, as well as every artist, group and venue, to continually evolve their offer. Alongside new commissions, local artists and communities have been invited to apply to play a role. As with all their events, the team’s aspiration is that participants find as much value in the process as the event itself. Corrie explains that it’s about “asking how they can gain from [events] that will go on to lead to other commissions. To question, ‘How are you presenting to the audience? How are you selling yourself?’, saying ‘Have you thought about this?’ and trying to make people think differently about what they do”. Open Culture’s model of dialogue has at its heart the determination show off Liverpool’s creative communities at their strongest, offering the best cultural diversity possible to show the public what the city has to offer.
The theme for Open LightNight 2019 – Ritual – could scarcely feel more appropriate. Actions become rituals when they are repeated consistently and with particular social significances. In many ways, Open Culture have spent the last decade facilitating creative rituals, from annual landmark events to providing entry points into learning new skills. From their straightforward and positive belief – “Give people opportunities, and they will amaze us” – marks the last decade as a starting point, from which, with the help of Open Culture’s platforms, creativity can work from a legacy and continue to flourish.