Having attended The Refractive Pool painting symposium at Liverpool Hope University in February, Julia Johnson reports back on the attitudes toward Liverpool as destination for practising artists, not just a destination to exhibit established art.
It is in the interests of many parties for Liverpool’s reputation to endure as a creative and cultural hub. It’s in the interests of the city’s marketing boards to be able to point to a legacy from a Decade of Culture, and to educational institutions looking to attract students with the lure of a vibrant experience. And, as Donal Moloney – artist and senior lecturer at Liverpool Hope University – exemplifies during his introduction to THE REFRACTIVE POOL symposium, in governmental interest, too. At least, the apparently associated economic growth is.
But it’s important to ask what this actually looks like for individual artists. Between Tate Liverpool, the Bluecoat and various venues of National Museums Liverpool, the visual arts do have a highly visible presence in Liverpool. But what does this actually mean for the city’s painters? Does this focus on a cultural economy consider the sustainability of the environment for the city’s grassroots and independent artists?
The Refractive Pool project has been masterminded by artists Josie Jenkins and Brendan Lyons to give the many talented painters in Liverpool the recognition they deserve. “We want to shine a light on these artists and to give them a platform to show their art – and, just as importantly, to allow the people of Liverpool to discover and enjoy it,” explains Lyons. “We want to document the artists and their activity as part of the city’s cultural fabric and heritage which has not always happened over recent decades, and for them to be given some sort of recognition and acknowledgement.” Beyond this survey of the current scene, the project also looks to the future with an aspiration to “build links between artists, studio groups, local institutions and the public in a way that will hopefully benefit all”.
The Refractive Pool has chosen to focus specifically on painting. When scrutinised, it becomes apparent that painting actually occupies a strange place in the cultural fabric. It’s one of the first art forms associated with ‘culture’, yet the pathway to being able to make a career as a painter is a muddy one. While it’s wrong to say that the city’s major galleries don’t support local painters, it’s also true that the majority of their programming is based upon exhibitions of artists who have already ‘made it’. Which begs the question of how and where, exactly, one does ‘make it’? The answer in part may hinge on being able to be much more than just a painter, but also an exhibition curator and publicist. Yet Josie Jenkins contends, to the audience full of artists that painters whose work is based on “knuckling down in their studio, shutting off from the world”, that finding this balance is particularly difficult to achieve. That the assertion is not contested by either participants or audience speaks volumes.
The symposium is described by more than one attendee as an “indulgence”: a valued opportunity to spend a whole day talking about art. A full survey of the scene would take much longer, but the event certainly acts as a snapshot of attitudes towards what it means to be living and working as a painter in Liverpool. And to most of the speakers, that would seem to be a positive experience. Local artist Gareth Kemp describes the ecosystem of painting as “vibrant”, adding “there’s lots of galleries and artist-run spaces”. Just as important is that it’s affordable – a point agreed upon by other panellists including chair Donal Moloney, who says Liverpool offered him opportunities for creativity London never could. “It came to a point of ‘I can stay in London and I can work five part-time jobs to pay for a studio that I store paintings in, but never make paintings’. It was a no-brainer: I moved up north, and I can make paintings.”
This ability to actually make work pays off both for the artists and us, the consumers, who are able to enjoy the fruits of a broad range of attitudes and approaches. This is borne out in presentations by three local artists – James Quin, Gareth Kemp and Joana de Oliveira Guerreiro. These three were selected, according to Josie Jenkins, to “present a variety of perspectives and artists from different backgrounds, in terms of their journey to becoming an artist and being at different points in their careers”. They certainly do that. Their styles are highly divergent, and their approaches to establishing artistic careers range from the academic to the self-taught. If it’s sometimes not clear from the city’s high street retailers that Liverpool painting extends far beyond representations of the skyline, it is here.
This variation of approach also pays dividends for the future of the city as a creative hub. Having recent Fine Art graduate Zahra Parwez as a voice on the afternoon’s panel is important – she provides a perspective on what makes Liverpool so attractive that can be missed by those of us who are longer established here. “This is a place I can be fully creative and have that support system. I’ve built up a network of people to talk to about art, I know what’s happening around the city.” Parwez believes that her painting practice has developed as it has in part because of the strength of its artistic community – a community whose development is in no small part due the city’s specific conditions of being small and affordable.
So, Liverpool is certainly not a city devoid of inspiration. But what about that question of being able to “make it”, and finding a way to really succeed? The afternoon’s panel discussion invites questions from the audience, and the points that they bring into focus suggest that the city may present as many obstacles as opportunities. One of the first questions addresses an essential issue, though often awkward to confront: how to sell work. Presenting a focus on creativity above commodity, the art world can seem to airbrush such questions out of its self-image. No matter how cheap the city is, though, if artists can’t make money from their work then practice becomes unsustainable. Though positive about their Liverpool experiences, none of the panellists are naive to these concerns. Indeed, there seems to be a tacit admission in some panellists’ responses that the difficulty in finding buyers might make Liverpool more of a stepping stone than an end in itself. For this, Liverpool’s small size may actually be a boon. Joana de Oliveira Gurreiro is candid that moving to Liverpool offered her the opportunity to be more than the “drop in the ocean” of a big city. With establishment comes opportunities – then connections and opportunities further afield.
So, where could these collectors come from? Social media can play a part: several panellists describe their relationships with platforms like Instagram as necessary for reaching audiences, if sometimes awkward and detached. To those of us with one foot in the arts scene and following these accounts, it seems to work – there’s always a great number of events and exhibitions being promoted. But is it reaching beyond this bubble? Apparently not: one member of the audience comments towards the end of the day that from all the discussion about practice, “I haven’t got a handle on where the public can actually come and see your work”. Other audience members chip in with similar observations that excellent exhibitions don’t get marketed, or that spaces are too difficult to discover and access.
One event highlighted as a success by panellists and audience members alike is 2018’s Independents Biennial, in particular the A Long The Riverrun exhibition which formed part of the programme in George Henry Lee’s. The event certainly seems to have addressed many key concerns: its city centre location made it widely accessible, which in turn led to artists selling significant amounts of work. That A Long The Riverrun’s curators John Elcock and Paul Mellor are in the audience to be able to give further context is a helpful coincidence – but they readily admit that “the stars collided” for the opportunity in a way which unlikely to be repeated. The George Henry Lee’s building is now under redevelopment, an opportunity too good for commercial interests to pass up. It’s yet another demonstration that for all the official political statements that “the region’s cultural offering will be a major driver for new investment” (as Moloney quotes), this means little on the ground. To produce an infrastructure, to make it mean something, is currently left to the artists, and panellist Anna Ketskemety explains that, “It takes an awful lot of energy to try and do something outside the studio, and… energy is a big thing,” especially if you’re already making the body of work. Despite the strong overall feeling that artists need more support, there seems no obvious answer to where this will come from.
In the best tradition of these events, The Refractive Pool symposium raises as many questions as it answers. There are clearly reasons to feel positive; Liverpool comes across as an exciting place in which to paint, home to a community that is cherished and valued. But success is predicated on more than enthusiastic production – there must also be an audience, and the access to space and support that creates visibility. The Refractive Pool has made a thoughtful start to setting an agenda for sustainability, and organisers Jenkins and Lyons are certainly pleased with the passionate responses to the event. “We were especially pleased at how the panel discussion was taken up by the audience; so many people had so many great questions and thoughtful points to make,” says Lyons, “which made for a stimulating debate and gave us valuable material for our research.” It will be fascinating to follow how they uncover more about the city’s painting scene, and what ideas emerge to ensure its future flourishing.