Crisis At The Bluecoat
It's dark days down School Lane, with the axe about to fall on the Bluecoat's programme of performance and literature events. In the first of a two-part exclusive, David Lloyd looks at the reasons for and against this scene-changing proposal.
A scant three years after re-opening following its £20million refit, the Bluecoat is set to cancel its live performance and literature programming (save for those supplied by external groups) because of a shortfall of just £100,000 of funding.
Spiritually, historically and physically, the Bluecoat is the North Star around which the city’s culture revolves. The building’s survived the Luftwaffe and the town planner’s wrecking ball, its galleries and performance spaces have tenaciously continued to chronicle our story and stoke our creative fires through riots, recession, happenings and Hatton.
The city’s geography might have shifted over the past half century, but the Bluecoat has always been where it’s at. Uniquely in Liverpool, it’s been the place were art intersects with performance – artist with actor, photographer with poet, dancer with musician.
£100,000 isn’t the sort of cash SevenStreets can easily prise from the back of our sofa – but is the Bluecoat’s hub of creativity really so disposable that it has to be first in the firing line when times are tight?
After all, take away the Bluecoat’s remit as a cross-cultural arts centre and what’s left to differentiate its offering from other galleries? This is what SevenStreets understands: changes in the way the Arts Council England award their funding mean that, on top of their recession-cushioning ‘sustain’ grants, from 2012 -they move from RFO (‘regularly funded organisations’) to NPO (‘National Portfolio Organisations’). The Bluecoat’s NPO funding is held at £484,082 in 2010/11 and 11/12. But in real terms, that’s considered to be an 11% drop.
As a booster to this, the Bluecoat had banked on a one-off payment for 10/11 of around £100k, to support their live programming. It’s this bolt-on booster that, apparently, was the thread on which the Bluecoat’s status as a cross-cultural hub hung. And, according to the Bluecoat board, this means they’ve no option but to remove four key curatorial and technical members of staff, and mothball their live performance programme. There is, they say, not a penny spare for performance.
On delivering their grants, ACE described the Bluecoat (it’s still there, on its website) as a ‘Combined Arts’ venue: “The oldest visual arts centre in Liverpool and a key venue for national and international visual arts, live art and performing arts. It also runs an outreach and education programme.”
Take away the in-house ‘live and performing arts’ strand and the Arts Council is funding an altogether different beast.
Until her recent redundancy, Vanessa Bartlett was the Bluecoat’s acting Performance Programmer, curating a year round programme of events, festivals and live art productions and continuing the Bluecoat’s tradition of excellence and innovation which saw Yoko Ono invite her audience to “fly” from a stepladder in 1967, and return to the venue for its Now Then launch show in 2008 (‘performing at the Bluecoat is something I’ve never forgotten,” she said on returning).
“I was called into a meeting and told that, because the extra uplift money was not forthcoming, my role was to be made redundant,” Bartlett tells SevenStreets.
Bartlett, understandably, is reluctant to say too much about the process, but she is clear on one thing:
“The problem is, in a city like Liverpool, the Bluecoat is the backbone to the performance community, and its audience. To take away core staff who are responsible for nurturing artists and audiences will be deeply detrimental”
Bartlett, who was part of a team that introduced the If Only events: those hot-house evenings which saw the city’s emerging talent meet, mutate and create new connections and a great evening’s entertainment, believes it was this commitment to Liverpool’s ground-up creative spirit that made The Bluecoat unique; “There’s nowhere else like it in the North,” she says.
“Part of our remit is to support interesting, esoteric and fringe culture – from the all female brass bands who took part in a recent If Only to the Above The Beaten Track festival which will be the final performance event programmed by the Bluecoat to take place this year.” Bartlett continues, “We’ve built up an enviably strong network of collaborative connections. My fear is that if we stop that we lose momentum, and we may never get it back.”
With her role currently ‘under consultation’, the Bluecoat’s Literature Programmer Maura Kennedy shares Bartlett’s concerns.
“Our performance schedule, and especially our live literature events really aren’t that expensive to programme,” Kennedy tells SevenStreets. “They’re not high cost, but they are high impact. They can reach so many people – not just audiences, but local groups, students, partners – they’re the glue that holds us all together.
“The Arts Council haven’t criticized our literature programme, nor singled out performance. Yes, we constantly need to build audiences, but how we do that without a curated programme of events?”
This year, thanks to a one-off Grants for the Arts (GfA) award, the Chapter and Verse Literature Festival (which saw Radio 4’s book programme broadcast from the Bluecoat last year, amid a fascinatingly varied roster of authors) will go ahead. After that, it’s proposed, Kennedy’s post will close.
“My fear is that the programme, which in literature terms encompassed everyone from Vic Reeves to Jan Morris, and engaged with audiences across all our communities, was a big part of our contribution to the city. If there’s no space in Liverpool for the beating heart that the Bluecoat provides, how can this remit be fulfilled?”
How too can it continue to invest in our cultural pacemakers of the future?
For their part, ACE have suggested the Bluecoat apply for a £100k grant to research how best to provide a programme of performance. But, as far as Bartlett and Kennedy understand, it’s never been a case of either/or. They believe that, to keep its mandate as a cultural hub, the Bluecoat has a duty to keep at least a slimmed down programme afloat throughout these tough times.
“Earlier in the year, we had to reduce costs, including staff costs, which was very painful. These additional cuts are equally so, and have long term consequences,” Kennedy says.
However you measure it, 08 was a great success, putting us on the map, and showing the world we were a city resurgent – that there was more to us than the unrelentingly grim and cynical Echo headlines, the WAGs and the Beatles.
“People who were never previously invited to Liverpool grasped the opportunity when we approached them, and the Bluecoat isn’t an organisation that parachutes in people, plonks them in the building, and lets them go. We’ve always built relationships, which is why we’ve always attracted such a vibrant mix of performers, some who even waive their fee, just to enjoy the interaction they can only get with a Liverpool audience.”
Few cities get the opportunity Liverpool had to shine a spotlight on our culture and our character – and few enjoyed such a resoundingly positive response when they did. And the Bluecoat was central to this, as Bluecoat CEO Alastair Upton (blogging last October) knows only too well.
“With this vibrant atmosphere it is not perhaps surprising that the Bluecoat’s visitor numbers rise and rise. With the Bluecoat being a formal and informal home for different arts and cultural groups, the range of people using the Bluecoat for their events the variety of people coming and going is wonderfully diverse,” he said.
He was right then. Whether the same will hold true if these proposals go ahead is anyone’s guess. We’ll be speaking to Alastair Upton tomorrow to get the official response from the Bluecoat, and, of course, we’d like to hear your thoughts too.
It’s a tough time for the arts. But if we really value them, now’s the time to fight for their survival in our city.
Pics: Imran Ali, Mark McNulty
Vic Reeves Pic: Minako Jackson