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Tate Liverpool

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An interview with Tate Liverpool's Executive Director Andrea Nixon

Since Tate Liverpool opened its doors in 1988, it has been at the cutting-edge of the UK arts scene. It is a hub of creative activity in the north of England and attracts an international audience to its high-profile exhibitions of modern and contemporary art.

Andrea Nixon has been Tate Liverpool’s Executive Director since 2006. She joined Tate in 1992, and has fond memories of working with EY on Picasso: Sculptor/Painter in 1994, while she was Tate’s Corporate Sponsorship Manager. She talked to us about Tate Liverpool’s ongoing success and extensive education and outreach programs.

  • What makes Tate Liverpool unique?

    Andrea Nixon: Tate Liverpool is unique because it’s a national institution in the regions, and takes Tate outside London. When the gallery was first created, it was the only place beyond London where you could see the international modern art from the Tate collection. Tate Modern was not opened for another 12 years. Today, we bring projects of a world-class nature and scale to Liverpool.

    Another distinctive thing about Tate Liverpool is how it works within the north of England to complement other arts organizations. For example, Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery has European old masters and a good collection of British art, and we show things that are very different.

  • Since its foundation, education and community engagement have been top priorities for Tate Liverpool. What sort of schemes do you have in place at the moment?

    Andrea Nixon: We do a huge amount of work within the local community to encourage learning and participation and have often paved the way for how Tate works in London. For instance, Tate Liverpool has always had “visitor assistants”, rather than security guards. From the very beginning, our staff members have been in the galleries both to protect the artworks and to interact with visitors. This is the norm nowadays, right across the sector, but it was very unusual when we started it in Liverpool.

    We operate a number of partnerships with local organizations. One of our longest partnerships has been with Mersey Care, the mental health trust for the whole of Merseyside. We work with them on a project called In the Frame, which enables adults with various kinds of special needs to create their own programs. They design events at Tate Liverpool and then organize and run them. For example, in 2013 In the Frame put on a huge party to celebrate 25 years of Tate Liverpool.

    We also work in some of Mersey Care’s most secure units. We help long-stay patients to do artwork and to design physical spaces, particularly for their new hospital. So we’re using art in a therapeutic capacity.

    We have another program that works with children’s centers in deprived areas of Liverpool. This scheme is focused on child-centered learning – it’s as much about working with families and carers as it is about working with the children. We help the staff to feel really confident about how they can use art. The work takes place both in the children’s centers and in the galleries with our early-year specialists. Last summer we had an exhibition of the work that the children had done over a year of visits, including a film. The children also designed their own artistic play zone, which we then built in the studio.

    This work has really made a difference to people’s lives. Not just for the children, but for their families too – people who felt that they had no relationship with a gallery or that modern art had no relevance for them at all. Now I think they feel that they can use us and contribute to what we do – they have a sense of ownership.

  • Part of Tate Liverpool’s purpose was to contribute to the regeneration of the city center. Has the gallery fulfilled this expectation?

    Andrea Nixon: The development of Tate Liverpool was the first example of arts-led regeneration in the UK. We average about 600,000 visitors a year, and that makes us the most-visited modern art gallery outside London. We are a huge attractor for the local economy, particularly with our big summer exhibitions. People come specifically to Liverpool to see the gallery. Twenty percent of our audience is international and 30% come from outside the north of England. So visitors largely come to stay, and they then contribute to the local economy through spending in hotels, restaurants and elsewhere.

    In an average year we generate about £8m for the local economy from staying-visitor spend – and often it’s more. And then there’s employment: we have our own permanent staff and we also take on or bring in temporary staff for busy periods. In addition, we have a very active creative apprenticeship program and an internship scheme with universities.

  • How do you decide which exhibitions to put on?

    Andrea Nixon: We’ve always had a program that’s exhibited living artists, often at the point in their careers where they’ve had their first full UK retrospective. In fact, if you look at the list, you see that often artists have had their first major shows here, and then in another decade they have had exhibitions at Tate Modern.

    We also have a history of looking at art from outside the European canon and bringing it into the UK for the first time. We’ve displayed art from Korea, Japan, Latin America, China and many other places.

    More recently, we’ve focused on bringing major exhibitions of world-class quality with international tours attached to them to Liverpool. These are unusual to see outside London, because unlike say, Germany, France or America, the arts scene in Britain is very skewed toward London. For Liverpool’s year as the European Capital of Culture in 2008 we had a major Gustav Klimt exhibition. That was the first time that Klimt had been shown in the UK. And 200,000 people beat their way to our doors to see that show.

    I think we have shown that there’s a real appetite to have high-profile exhibitions here in Liverpool. Since 2008, we’ve had Picasso (2010), Magritte (2011), Turner Monet Twombly (2012), and Chagall (2013). And in 2014 we’ve got Mondrian.

  • Which exhibitions have been your personal favorites?

    Andrea Nixon: One is the Turner Prize, which we brought to Tate Liverpool in autumn 2007 as a curtain-raiser for the Capital of Culture in 2008. At that point the Turner Prize had never been outside London. Nobody knew whether it would be a success or not and it was a brave decision to host it in Liverpool. We knew that we couldn't do the Turner Prize in the same way as it had been done at Tate Britain here at Tate Liverpool, because our spaces are completely different and much smaller. So rather than having a black-tie dinner at the awards ceremony, we had a huge party with Dennis Hopper giving the prize.

    I also thought that the “Taxi Project”, which we ran in the months before the Turner Prize, was very successful. Four taxi drivers volunteered to do a course on modern art so that they could talk authoritatively to their passengers. We then filmed them in their cabs, where visitors discussed their experience of the Turner Prize exhibition with the drivers. A huge range of people took part in this, from artists and trustees to local Liverpudlians. We also put a real taxi cab outside the Turner Prize gallery, which visitors could sit in and watch films of the conversations in the taxis – a lot of people thought it was a Turner Prize entry!

    Overall, I think the Turner Prize at Tate Liverpool was hugely successful. It was also liberating for the prize itself, because we had to be different. It gave everybody concerned the confidence that the Turner Prize could keep going out of London. It has continued to do this and has been very different everywhere it’s been: it was as different in Derry (2013) and the Baltic Gallery in Newcastle Gateshead (2011) as it was here in Liverpool.

  • What are the main challenges that you think Tate Liverpool and the arts sector as a whole faces today?

    Andrea Nixon: A big challenge in Liverpool, and in the north as a whole, is the fact that local government funding has been hit so badly. So we face a tough operating environment. The bigger challenge is the operating context for the city as a whole. Liverpool needs to continue to be pioneering and to ensure that its citizens have good quality cultural provision. Tate is part of a group of organizations working in partnership in Liverpool. We work directly with the city to ensure that we are supporting them and, where possible, we are finding innovative and collective solutions to problems such as funding. And we are working toward complementing each other even more effectively.

    Tate’s role particularly is to put a big spotlight on the city and to show that Liverpool is a great place to visit, study, invest or live. Collectively, we are working very hard to make sure that our funding goes as far as it can to benefit as many people as possible.

    A slightly more esoteric priority for Tate Liverpool is to champion art more broadly. This means supporting the creative arts in schools and universities, as well as in employment. And we need to keep championing creative experiences for as wide a group of the population as possible. This shouldn’t be limited to young people, but should extend to people of all ages, including in the work place. Visual literacy is something we are here to help ensure.

    I think that educational policy has not always been particularly favorable toward the arts as opposed to the STEM subjects [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]. One of our jobs is to ensure that the arts are seen as core subjects and that therefore the education sector talks about “STEAM” rather than STEM.

    More broadly, I think that art and culture are a critical part of a functioning, intelligent, outward-looking population. We need to be clear that we are not an add-on or a luxury extra, but that we are core. The arts sector is something that this country is very good at. Everybody overseas looks at what Britain does in this area with great interest and admiration – and it’s something that we feel very strongly about at Tate.