“People got very angry. So angry that they would come and pay good money to see it.” So director of THE BLUECOAT Bryan Biggs describes the first time Jacob Epstein’s Genesis was put on display in the Liverpool gallery in 1931. With the national press filled with vilification of the sculpture, in a single month 50,000 people paid sixpence each to see it and feel the outrage for themselves.
86 years later Genesis is back, as the centrepiece of In The Peaceful Dome, the final exhibition in The Bluecoat’s 300th anniversary year. The show will look at the ambiguous history of the building and its legacy as the oldest arts centre in the country – but will also consider its future, featuring work by young artists. The idea of bringing Genesis back to the gallery is, of course, inspired by history, but with the modern audience firmly in mind, giving us a chance to explore our own contemporary feelings about the piece. “I’m very interested in the way that meaning [of art] changes over time, and also reaction to it,” says Biggs.
This critical engagement is not just for the art aficionados who would make visiting In The Peaceful Dome a priority. Indeed, you won’t even have to step foot inside the gallery to participate in the Genesis debate. The sculpture will be on show in The Bluecoat’s own ‘shop front’ – the full-size window looking out onto College Lane – for all passers-by to enjoy. This window is a great way of generating new visitors for the gallery, acknowledges Biggs: “A lot of people just wander in from curiosity because they’ve seen it from outside.” But by using it as a showcase for some of the most important pieces, The Bluecoat is recognising that it can play an important role in bringing art to everyone.
This window for the arts, in the heart of the city’s commercial district, is just one of the things which makes The Bluecoat a unique space. Its Classically-inspired architecture is always distinctive amidst the modern boxiness of Liverpool One. But it also offers a place to get away from all the surrounding commercialism. Stepping into the courtyard garden instantly takes you a world away from the bustling streets outside. Biggs agrees: “Since Liverpool One’s been here, I think it’s taken on a new meaning. It’s a place where you don’t have to shop or spend money, you can just sit, you get something for free… and as the city’s grown, we find more people saying to us ‘What would I do without it?’”
This is something which The Bluecoat shares with another of the city’s centrally-based arts centres, a quality which is often underappreciated. THE BLACK-E has a similar status as a local landmark, and a similar proud history as a community arts centre (the oldest such arts centre in the UK) – but of the many people who walk past these buildings every day, how many take advantage of the activities happening inside? ‘Local landmark’ status doesn’t pay to keep the lights on – something that the organisations they house are all too aware of, and the reason why you’re as likely to have visited The Black-E for private hire events as for its artistic offering. As at The Bluecoat, the building is a gateway to artistic participation in more ways than one.
In August, The Black-E played host to one of the main legs of the Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu’s Welcome To The Dark Ages event, bringing a whole new audience across its threshold. Many of the attendees of that event would not have been aware of the history of the building perched on a busy intersection at the corner of Chinatown, much less what it brings to the city’s arts scene. The ‘open door’ policy operated by The Black-E’s guiding lights Wendy and Bill Harpe is very much part of its ethos. What might have seemed almost fortuitous at the time of the centre’s public launch in May 1968 can now be seen as essential ingredients in determining the character of the UK’s first community arts project. They’ve succeeded in creating a centre where all the arts (performing and making, experimental and traditional) might engage with all the people who choose to come through the doors (young and old, disadvantaged and privileged).
One thing which hasn’t changed in the 86 years since Genesis’ last visit to The Bluecoat is that contemporary art is still often reviled by the press and seen as difficult by the public. Biggs acknowledges that “We’re not a place that’s always easy; putting on challenging art is what we do. But we try to make is accessible, make it relevant”. In their tricentennial year, history has been a natural gateway for new audiences. “Heritage has been a huge success this year, which shows there’s a need for it. People like history, and they want to get involved in it.” This is a particularly enticing prospect when a building has as much complex history as The Bluecoat. The exhibition title In The Peaceful Dome comes from a description of the original Bluecoat School given by William Roscoe in his poem Mount Pleasant, but the school of the 18th Century was not so much a ‘happy home’ as a source of indentured labour for shipping companies.
And then there’s the fact that, through the fortunes of the school’s original benefactors, The Bluecoat owes its very existence to the profits of slavery. This dark fact is not something that the modern gallery has ever shied away from, and the legacies of colonialism from both local and international perspectives are being explored in In The Peaceful Dome. Biggs has always had a personal interest in giving diverse voices a space. “I put it on the agenda [here] and it wasn’t necessarily always popular… but these [BAME] artists were interested in identities, and Third World politics, and to me they were doing the most interesting work. We don’t just do it because it’s tokenistic.” Nowadays, with debates around entrenched racism seemingly more relevant than ever and BAME artists like Lubaina Himid receiving institutional recognition, the rest of the world is catching up with the idea that these voices should be heard.
Having so often given a platform to innovation in the past, what next for The Bluecoat? As the arts are squeezed out of education and politics, its public function is surely more important than ever. The Bluecoat is always worth exploring – because with a public programme covering everything from philosophy to Captain Beefheart alongside the exhibition space, there’s something to appeal to every taste. With so many of Liverpool’s attractions focusing on the city’s history, having a place which looks to the future – continually interweaving the present with the past – is a precious thing. Biggs is proud of The Bluecoat’s place as “Absolutely independent – nobody owns it apart from us, we can do what we like in it… and it ain’t going anywhere.” Long may this be true.
In The Peaceful Dome opens at The Bluecoat on Friday 13th October. The Bluecoat are running a crowdfunding campaign to help bring Jacob Epstein’s Genesis to the venue after 86 years. You can support the campaign by visiting crowdfunder.co.uk/bluecoat-genesis.