Five years since The Bluecoat’s re-opening, Laura Davis speaks to its artistic director BRYAN BIGGS
UNLIKE most New Year resolutions, Bryan Biggs’ plan to complete a drawing every day is still going strong.
“Just little ones,” insists the artistic director of The Bluecoat – both a vibrant arts centre and Liverpool’s oldest city centre building.
He joined the organisation as an admin assistant in 1975 after graduating from a fine art degree at Liverpool Polytechnic, to which he applied because the tutors on his North London art foundation course suggested his work was suited to the city.
“I was painting but also doing bits of collage, photomontage, ceramics, printmaking – essentially rooted in the politics of that time such as the Cold War and the rise of the National Front,” he says, sitting behind his desk in the early-18th century building, where a wall is decorated with black and white invitations to exhibition private views.
“In a city like Liverpool, a lot of those things were at the fore. It was a relatively good time coming out of the sixties but even then factories were closing and you could see the decimation of Merseyside beginning to happen.”
Able to see a “captivating city” beneath its social problems, Barnet-born Biggs decided to stay, to the surprise of some of his friends.
“When I would go back home people said ‘what are you doing in Liverpool, there’s nothing for you there’,” recalls the 60-year-old.
“They just thought it was an industrial town up north, but when you’ve been here for a bit you get to see all the riches in terms of its architecture, its history and, it’s very clichéd, the humour.
“It was very different from where I’d come from in suburban North London. I didn’t go to the theatre until I came to Liverpool.”
A year after joining The Bluecoat, Biggs was appointed as gallery director – “we didn’t call it curating in those days, you organised exhibitions” – a role he held for 15 years before taking over as director of the entire arts centre.
At that time it tended to put on exhibitions for selling work by small groups of local artists and, while open to the public, retained the atmosphere of a private club.
The Sandon Studios Society, which took over the former school in 1907 and held the influential Post-Impressionism show of 1911, featuring work by Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso and Gauguin alongside that of their own members, was still based at the Bluecoat but was beginning to fade due to its members aging.
Biggs was keen to start showing work by exciting young, emerging artists in a range of disciplines and to make the building more welcoming to the general public.
There was already a community of working artists based there, which continues today.
“I think over time I developed a Bluecoat distinctiveness,” he says.
“Because there weren’t many galleries doing contemporary art by young, emerging artists we had to cover a lot of ground.
“When I look back I think, ‘how did we do it?’ because the shows used to last three to four weeks, whereas now they last for eight to 10. We do five shows now, then we did between eight and 10 shows a year.
“The Bluecoat already had a reputation for doing unusual things, if you go back to the 60s when Yoko Ono performed here.”