We remember when it opened. When Carl Andre’s bricks (Equivalent VIII) were plonked, teasingly, into the newly-opened gallery’s gorgeous, brick vaulted halls. We feel sure the Daily Mail (possibly even The Echo) obliged with the necessary ‘but is this art/my five year old could do that’ knee-jerk nonsense.
But Liverpool knew better – Andre’s piece is among the most popular exhibits ever shown in the city, according to those silent, ever-watchful gallery assistants. And you argue with them at your peril.
There was a rope, too, we seem to remember. A sinewy sculpture representing something dreadfully important – our guess is the River Styx, that’s gotta be worth a shot hasn’t it? – that, a friend of ours who worked at Tate told me, was routinely shuffled around by the Hoovers of the cleaners. We hope that’s true.
This weekend Tate celebrates its first quarter century with a series of events and exhibitions. Tate Gallery, as we know it today, exists thanks to Liverpool-born sugar magnate Sir Henry Tate. A philanthropic chap, Tate donated his collection of 65 contemporary paintings to the nation, helping to fund a new gallery – the National Gallery of British Art, now known as the Tate – which opened in 1897 in Pimlico.
Nothing symbolises the city’s reversal of fortunes more than those before and after pictures of the Albert Dock – and nothing symbolises the city’s surefooted stewardship of contemporary culture better than this handsome waterside huddle of city museums, maritime displays, and Andre’s bricks. A free family day out, with culture, fish and chips and Elvis’ fingerprints (whatever they are).
Over the years, we’ve been gladdened by the sight of sunny, super-sized Hockneys, walked through forests of paperbacks dangling from the ceiling, crawled through multi-coloured installations in the Summer of Love exhibition, and gasped at the golden fleeces of Klimt. And we never tire of that sudden, surprising view of the Mersey, glinting on the other side of those deep set windows. And we’ve done it all, just five minutes from the bacon butties of the San Francisco cabin.
And we’re seldom alone. We’ve been with 15 million others – the gallery’s the most visited modern and contemporary art collection outside London, in a city which has more galleries and museums per square mile than any UK city other than the capital.
What Tate shows – especially latterly, as its really got into its stride – is that you can curate Big Ideas with a lightness of touch, and that, by doing so, you really can join the dots between Twombly (who we’d never heard of) and Turner (who we had), and show that a good gallery isn’t constrained by its walls (even if they’re bloody thick ones, like they are down at the dock). A good gallery is one that relates to the world around it, and isn’t afraid to hang yellowing posters of Marc Bolan culled from The Sun (Glam!) next to original Lichtensteins. It hasn’t always got it right (Glam!), but isn’t it more fun to try?
In Liverpool, we don’t ring fence or segregate. We don’t kettle culture. We prod it and poke it, and take it somewhere new. So it’s great to shout about Tate being 25. Because it shows that the Daily Mail doesn’t have a mandate around here. And we love that Tate held its nerve when the Mail kicked off about Kerry Morrison’s Bird Sheet Music earlier this year. Even if we don’t particularly want to hear the sound of shitting seagulls again, too soon, we’re glad we were given the chance.
Arts institutions are buckling themselves up for a bumpy ride. We need Tate more than ever. And we still love the shock of the new. Keep it coming.
Tate is 25 – Birthday Events
The Tate Liverpool is 25 display is inviting visitors to find out more about the gallery’s history, with a timeline containing exhibition posters, gallery facts and memories and birthday wishes submitted by artists, staff and friends of the gallery. Tate Liverpool is also encouraging visitors to tweet their memories and birthday messages to @tateliverpool using #TL25 or on Facebook.
From Monday 27 May – Sunday 2 June families can create silvery sculptures from a selection of shiny materials in its Art Dock Studio with artist Fiona Smith.
Tate Liverpool’s activities form part of wider celebrations on the Albert Dock across the weekend of 31 May – 2 June: a weekend of free family fun and entertainment, with street theatre, choirs, face painting, live music and special “kids go free” offers across the restaurants and attractions.
(Twombly and Klimt pics: copyright Tate)