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Wanted: Biennial boss

For 10 years Lewis Biggs led the city's biggest arts jamboree. Who will fill the gap?

Written by . Published on May 24th 2011.

Wanted: Biennial boss

WHATEVER box you’re using to measure success, over the past ten years Liverpool Biennial has surely ticked several on the list of even the most hardened cynic.

Culturally relevant? Well, it had a public sculpture by Ai WeiWei before the Beijing Olympic stadium was unveiled. Apichatpong Weerasethakul featured in 2006, way before he won a gong at Cannes. Banksy, Alison Jackson, Mark Lewis, Lisa Oppenheim.

'He knew it was a rough place with
a terrible reputation but he also knew
it was a great place with great opportunities'

The list of artists who have pitched their tent and been part of the Biennial, either at the peak or as their careers were just starting to shine, is as long as it’s famous trail through the city. And that’s before we talk about Yoko Ono’s bits on show down Church Street.

Make any cash? Well 628,000 visited in 2010, bringing around £30 million into the city’s economy, according to the stats. And a lot of visitors came more than once, so they must be going away happy.

lewis-biggs-534357337.jpgAt the helm steering that journey has been Chief Executive and Artistic Director Lewis Biggs (right). The story, broken  first  on these very pages last week, that he is to receive a city honour for his role, shows just how big those shoes are that need to be filled now that he has announced he’s leaving.

The recruitment process comes at a time when there’s a lot of background noise about the arts. In the cuts this spring, the Biennial, on the face of it, got a good deal but, although it receives an increase in Arts Council funding, with the rise in inflation it will represent a much smaller splash in real terms.

There’s funding promised from Liverpool City Council but, in reality, the team will be working with a smaller pot. With national headlines like “Liverpool will bear the brunt of the cuts” , does it make it harder to attract top talent to the city?

The job ad has had 30 applications and the recruitment will be managed by the board, led by Paula Ridley, former chairman of the V&A Museum and Tate Liverpool. It also includes a smattering of familiar names from the city’s commercial sector including Jim Gill, former Liverpool Vision boss, Tony Wilson, from Hill Dickinson solicitors, and John Shield from JST Lawyers.

Despite the funding woe, are we still feeling enough of a 08 bounce to attract big names? Paul Smith, executive director of Liverpool Biennial says yes.

“Culture has become ingrained in Liverpool. In the run up to 2008 and during the year people got used to and accepted culture. All that work being done out there in different communities, connecting different offers, Liverpool residents along with visitors to the city got used to culture in a different way. There was a definite shift in attitude and I think I still perceive that.”

Richard-Wilson-Liverpool-Biennial460.jpgArts headhunter Heather Newill has placed the chief executive of the Royal Opera House and Urbis, the Artistic Director for the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Nottingham and much of the senior team at English National Opera. Oh, and Robyn Archer.

She is currently working to fill a senior post with the Liverpool Philharmonic. She thinks Liverpool is still a great draw. “Liverpool is an exciting place to be and Liverpool Biennial is a great organisation, I’m sure they’ll have a lot of interest."

A lot of interest?  But can it attract the top names who will be able to wheel and deal as comfortably in the gallery space to entice top artists as they will in boardrooms to persuade funders and sponsors to part with their cash.

The artistic director of another cultural event on Merseyside told me that at £60,000 it’s an attractive wage but if you’re working in the public sector you get a 12pc pension. Liverpool Biennial does not operate a company pension scheme, although they do have access to a designated stakeholder scheme and they match contributions up to 5 percent.

Getting a steer on how far it is an attractive package financially can prove tricky. Neither TMP or Marketing Manchester were available for comment. A request for information on how much Alex Poots, head of the biennial Manchester International Festival makes, was not forthcoming.

Heather Newill, however, is more forthright. “”£60k is attractive to a UK candidate, but it’s less attractive to anyone in Europe and the US. I would imagine they’re looking internationally for a role as (the Biennial) has a fantastic reputation, but the UK has a reputation for not paying very high levels.

“They want to be seen to be putting as much of the money as possible into the art itself.”

Is this just us being mercenary though? Academic research suggests the attraction of jobs in the arts is about aesthetic worth rather than financial gain. The Biennial is well regarded, it gets good coverage, makes a splash in London. It’s not on the scale of Venice or Berlin in terms of stature, yet, but, Paul Smith argues, that’s what’s part of the challenge.

“Anyone who wants to come here does so because they’re excited about what the Biennial offers. That’s what drove Lewis, he understood the challenges. He’s been in Liverpool 20 years, 10 years at the Biennial, 10 years at the Tate. He knew it was a rough place with a terrible reputation but he also knew it was a great place with great opportunities."

TheBlade-Factory.jpgThe cuts have also had other ramifications; less gallery space. A Foundation, which hosted the New Contemporaries strand of the festival, has closed. It might mean a shift in the centre of gravity for the Biennial, with main exhibitions on the waterfront, focusing more on the city centre.

At the moment, Paul Smith is “keeping his fingers crossed” about who might fill the role.  An academic who has written about cultural policy in Liverpool, but who did not want to be named, says, “The post needs someone with a grasp of the contemporary arts scene, but also with a commitment to Liverpool.

“The real success of the Biennial is the way they are integrated into the city, with a range of programmes which go on in between each festival and the awareness of using the city space. A candidate who takes Liverpool, rather than just the Biennial, seriously, will be able to carry forward Lewis' legacy of a well-respected art festival and essential component of Liverpool life”.

No pressure there then.


Permanent joy...

moving-trees.jpgThe Biennial’s Paul Smith revealed to Liverpool Confidential they are seeking to find a new partner to make their “spinning trees” a permanent exhibition. ‘Arbores Laetae’ or ‘Joyful Trees’ were designed by New York architects Diller, Scofidio and Renfro for the 2008 Liverpool Biennial.

Installed on the corner between Great George Street and Parliament Street, the work included 17 hornbeam trees, three of which were mechanically designed and planted to revolve. Smith says they plan to make it permanent.

“I was there the other day and it still works. We need someone who will take responsibility for the artwork to release the ground. The (local) authority wants whoever takes it over to be someone who will make it available to the public and they need to have confidence in whoever it is who will take it on.  I hope it works.” 

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