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

9 Responses to “Crisis At The Bluecoat”

  1. Good piece of investigative journalism this, Dave. I’ll look forward to reading the official response tomorrow.

    On a related note, when organisations like the bluecoat start to feel the pinch, you really fear for the indies – the likes of the royal standard, redwire, et al – it could be a tough couple of years.

  2. Interesting to see this out in the open, and unfortunate that we haven’t heard it from the Bluecoat themselves. Typical, actually.

    There’s a problem regarding funding for sure – but the Bluecoat got their standard offer from ACE. What we can ask is why do they need the ‘sustain’ grant?

    There are also some ideological decisions being made here – to sacrifice all live work in favor of putting all resources into visual art, and a ‘space for hire’ function.

    Was that the terms on which the building secured it’s funding?

    For sure, alongside the sales (bar) problems, there’s been a failure to support the performance and literature programmes at the Bluecoat with a decent audience engagement strategy – especially when it comes to niche work. They’ve never got it together to move away from posting a booklet out to an old mailing list – no email strategy, a website that you can’t search by act, no cohesive social media… it’s basic stuff!

    Basically, it seems like failures to make the most of the 2008 opportunity – management and operational issues – are falling on the creative team.

    Pretty nice sweetener that they can apply for another £100K to do some research though. That will look good on their fundraising portfolio!

  3. The elephant in the room is that there has been a severe disconnect between the board and the creative teams at the Bluecoat for years. I have been trying to report problems to the board for years, but never get a response. I sometimes wonder whether it registers with them. The Bluecoat has a lot to offer, and a lot of their current problems are nothing to do with funding at all. but vision and communication between all departments. It’s gutting.

  4. David your picture is far too kind, see here for the carbunculated reality


    Dont forget the way they have destroyed the historic feeling about the building

    We were always being led by spinners about the Bluecoat.
    I tried to save the Tyson Smith sculpure studio intact. What a missed opportunity its now a awful, in my opinion, gift shop.
    Every board of directors that Dr David Fleming seems to be on turns its assets into a dumb space and there can be nothing more dumb than turning a cultural icon, a grand old lady, into a cafe restaraunt with a perfoming space……instead of a performing space with a cafe resturaunt.
    I seem to recall this blog did another one of Flemings Follys the Maritime Dining Rooms.
    Was Capital of Culcha the worst thing that happened to Liverpool?

  5. The Bluecoat is too important to leave in the control of the bean counters. They couldn’t ever put an economic value on the really amazing things they do. Maura is right, the best things they do don’t cost much, so I fail to see that this is a funding problem, it’s obviously a priority thing, and it doesn’t sound like those with the purse strings have got their priorities right at all. Let’s hope common sense prevails.

  6. I look forward to hearing the director’s response. It’s sad to see the performance programme go but having been to many, many performances there that were under-attended, I wonder whether this is a necessary breather to look at how to make a live programme work for Liverpool. What is the cause of low performance numbers – was it bad programming on behalf of the programmers? Was it bad marketing on behalf of the marketeers? Or was it a case of Liverpool not having a large enough or dedicated enough population to sustain some of the experimental or distinct performance threads they had there? Whats clear is that by the audience numbers I saw, something wasn’t working – and I do think sometimes the best, though most painful, thing is to step back and look afresh, make a new plan and learn from the mistakes.

    Sometimes junior members of staff who aren’t privy to the conversations at senior management levels do miss out on the bigger picture conversations that are happening that spell these kinds of things out – though a failure to communicate these conversations effectively is a huge mistake on management’s part.

    Redundancies and reductions are never nice, and provoke incredibly strong emotions, but are sometimes necessary. If the redundancies were recent as this article suggests, I’d take these accounts with a grain of salt – at least until tomorrow’s installment.

  7. This is honestly such an unfortunate situation. I do appreciate budget constraints, we can’t conveniently pretend they don’t exist. Still, around the globe arts are the first thing cut. All the things that few will remember in a generation get higher priority, yet the arts which often define our culture for the ages are somehow disposable.

    PerformING Arts are also so frequently victimized. And the, if you will, intersection, PerformANCE Art is just so tragically vulnerable.

    There is no doubt that compelling work has been, is being, and will be done in all media, and I don’t want to engage in a this media vs that debate, still, I can think of no artform that explores who we are both as individuals and as a larger culture, more incisively and compellingly than performance art.

    For a long time painting has been about painting. It is an engaging dialog, but it is often rather self-referential. Also 2D work is frequently “helped” out by its much debated decorative function that endears so many collectors.

    Performance art doesn’t generally have this sort of access to marketplace commodification, and that is a strength!

    Whether you look at the previous generation of performance art superstars or the upcoming artists of the new generation, there is so much viscerally penetrating work, so much culturally overwhelming work, so many important, profound questions asked by the comparatively small amount of performance art our institutions are able to support.

    I respect the Bluecoat’s programming legacy and I appreciate their financial predicament, but for the Bluecoat to turn its back on such a compelling form that they have championed for so long is just devastating. I urge the Bluecoat to find another solution, one that insures both a home for performance art, and a continuation of the Bluecoat’s remarkable legacy.

  8. Anon x 2

    Anon (comment 3) and Sally have completely hit the nail on the head.

    Mike, I wouldn’t fear for the indies, without the bureaucracy present at these larger organisations, they will always find a way, without the need to prop up dead-wood you’d be surprised at how much you can get done at little cost (for the right reasons).

    I think trying to survive on the merits of legacy alone has been a large part of this.

    I really look forward to hearing Alastair’s response.

  9. Leonardo Van Klimt

    Ok. I feel the need to put a metaphorical spoke in the wheel (I know you folk like metaphors). I’m not on any boards. I speak as an outsider. Modern Art is a minority sport. I support the Bluecoat in essence but I’ve not been to an exhibition there in an age.

    If the Bluecoat wants expensive levels of public funding then it needs to be more inclusive in its programming. In a nutshell, the Bluecoat wants to be the centre of Liverpool’s art scene but wants to persist with pointless, peripheral drivel that will never appeal to the artistic and musical tastes of even Liverpool’s cultured types. Is that realistic?

    There’s a place for conceptual art and video installations etc. I’m just not sure that it deserves as much of the tax payers’ money as it thinks it does. Most people don’t like it.

    There’s plenty of noisy, experimental Liverpool bands making music right now. Do they demand funding to perform at the Echo Arena? No. They play to a devoted, like-minded crowd in small, obscure venues. That’s half the fun.

    There’s nothing wrong with being underground. Just don’t expect the tax payers to fund it. The Royal Opera House is regularly sold out. It may be elitist but no one doubts the quality of their work. That quality must be preserved at all costs.

    The very best art should enlighten and inspire the minds of the benighted population at large. Plenty of artists and bands have done it already. It IS possible to be both creatively relevent and widely popular. Stop baffling me and win me over!

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