Is there a better time to be in Liverpool than every other September? We think not. Our streets, galleries, warehouses and bars are stuffed with more temporary art and artifacts than a Michael Jackson-rented condo. Only, we’re hazarding a guess, the quality count is a notch or two higher. Mostly.

Talking of which, any thoughts that the Independents Festival is a support act to the main event can be banished from your deluded little head. This is no poor relation – the Independents is one of the largest and most exciting contemporary visual arts festivals in the UK.

And while you might not have heard of many of the 500 artists, the event’s scored more hits than misses in previous years, and still exists to showcase young blood and emerging new talent alongside established international artists.

Unlike the Biennial, the Independents doesn’t require its artists to muster together under a theme. As such, its a journey into the unknown, and the art itself… well, whoever said that quality control was the only way to discover art that sticks around, anyway?

We spoke to Mark Willcox, Chair of the independents Board.

John Hoyland: Life and Love (View Two)

The Independents is an ‘open access’ event. Does that mean we can have a go?

Open Access means many things. The Independents is non-curated by the organising committee (although individual shows in the programme are curated independently). And, yes, we’re open to any artists launching their careers, emerging talent and students as well as to mid-career and internationally established artists. There are no criteria for involvement.

That must, obviously, lead to a wildly fluctuating standard of work?

Yes. It can sometimes mean a variance in quality. But the vast majority of artists are well respected and are undertaking serious endeavours. This has always been the case. The website and events guide for 2010 bears this out.

It must have been a blow when the Arts Council refused to support you this year?

Like many arts organisations in the UK we have to bid for funding with every new festival. This year our bid was rejected, in spite of our providing more information than in our bids for the previous three Independents Festivals. We have been invited by the Arts Council to appeal the decision and intend to do so.

Did their decision put your festival in danger?

We always had a contingency plan as we thought that in a climate of Government cuts and with more competition for less money there was a greater chance of our not achieving funding. Our contingency was to introduce an administrative charge to register as an individual artist, artist group or venue. It’s standard practice for other festivals. It was a step in the dark for us but the willingness to participate on this basis by artists and galleries exceeded our expectations and they definitely saved the day.

Did you meet the shortfall completely, or have you had to scale back?

We’ve had less money, but we’ve managed. We’ve been able to set up a website, a high quality printed events guide (although not with as high a print run if we had won funding) and people and suppliers have bent over backwards to help us – particularly Alexander MacGregor, the Liverpool design consultancy, without whom we would not have such a well designed event guide. But we’ll definitely need Arts Council funding next time.

There is no theme. Is this a comment on the fact that the Biennial has a theme?

There has never been a theme for the Independents – artists have always engaged and produced work on their own terms and will continue to do so in future – but it’s not a comment on the Biennial. The Biennial can create a theme because they are a curatorial body. We’re not resourced at Board level to manage a curatorial process. Although the SOUP Collective (Tate employees participating in the event) and Up and Coming (Domino Gallery) are both listed in the Touched programme with the Biennial and also listed in the Independents programme.

The Edinburgh Fringe has become more popular than the festival it sprung from. Do you have such grand ambitions?

The Biennial is a major asset, is extremely successful and I admire what their team does. We only came into existence because of the Biennial and we benefit from the visitors it attracts to Liverpool as well as generating our own. We’re a voluntary group made up of artists and industry professionals, we don’t have the resources for grand ambitions. Our aspiration is that the existence of the Independents festival provides opportunities for future creative collaborations between artists and groups.

How closely do you work with the Biennial?

We have our own communications plans and programmes but we do reference the Biennial on our website and in our printed events guide and they reciprocate. We are also invited to the Biennial’s press briefing meetings. I would like to develop a closer dialogue with the Biennial team during my tenure. I’m a strong supporter of what they do, having launched the 2002 Biennial with Lewis Biggs at Lime Street Station.

Shouldn’t you both just work under the same banner?

No. The difference between us matters because without the Independents there would be no catalyst or banner under which many high achieving local artists could have their work shown and promoted at precisely the time when there are thousands of ‘culture’ visitors in Liverpool. In my view there is artistic endeavour within the Independents programme of equal quality to the Biennial – Terry Duffy’s ‘Monuments’ in Independents 2008 was exquisite. But we should remain separate entities, with the Biennial being curated and ours open to all.

What should we most look forward to about this year’s event?

It’s an eclectic mix as ever. This year I’m looking forward personally to Martin Greenland’s show, ‘New Fiction’ at the Cornerstone Gallery, ‘A Life Not Sweet Anymore’ by the Pommefritz Crew at Calderstones Park Coach House Gallery and ‘Album’, at Wolstenholme Creative Space, created by 17 students from the renowned Photography MA Course at the Royal College of Art.

For a full list of artists, events and venues, check out their website, link below:

Independents Liverpool Biennial
18 September – 28 November
Across the city

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