Why do most exhibitions in Liverpool seem to be of contemporary art?

Art Attending the Burne-Jones exhibition at the Lady Lever reminded me something which has been becoming increasingly frustrating over the past year or so and can only be said bluntly in the form of a question:

Why do most exhibitions in Liverpool seem to be of contemporary art?

Let’s just define that for a moment because “contemporary art” is an ever changing term because it has to be. Edward Burne-Jones was a contemporary artist at a certain point. I suppose what I mean, though I’m ashamed to say it, is living artists. A major proportion of the work is by living artists. Dead artists don’t often get a look in.

Every now and then I’ll glance wistfully south and that see that somewhere like the National Gallery is showing a selection of Vermeers or the Royal Academy is showing Manet and sigh knowing that such things will never appear in Liverpool or even (to some extent) Manchester.

Or I'll watch videos like this and cry:



Yes, I know it's the Met in New York, but damn, why can't that be us too?

Partly it’s because we don’t have an equipped venue.

Tate Liverpool has notably been veering closer to the turn of the last century or even earlier in its selections for major exhibitions, Chagall at the moment and Monet mixed in with Turner and Twombly previously. Mondrian coming soon. But it is still a “contemporary” art venue. It’s not within its remit to present a selection of Constables for example, unless it’s in the context of some wider contemporary art exhibition, as happened with some London Pre-Raphaelites turned up in the Alice in Wonderland show.

The Bluecoat, FACT, the Open Eye are all contemporary art venues. The Victoria Gallery has the odd thing from their collection, but generally they choose to support living artists.

The Walker has a massive, much acclaimed permanent display which rivals some of the national venues for quality.  But it's relatively static just as permanent displays are supposed to be.  Much as I love it, I'd also like to see something new.  


In 2008, the Walker offered the amazing Art in the Age of Steam, but since then exhibitions have generally preferring instead to foster new work and present acquisitions and more contemporary items from the collection. Plus there's the John Moores exhibition too. Again this is all fine. The venue has a vast collection of its own much of which can’t be displayed plus blockbusters like Art in the Age of Steam are hugely expensive.

Which is, I understand, part of the problem. The reason the real treats are in London is because those huge galleries have the infrastructure and sponsorship to be able to afford them.

But for an art lover, especially an art lover who is interested as much in Bosch and Bruegel and the Impressionists, London feels as close as Paris in terms of accessibility and it’s in the same country. A minimum of £65 to see something like this on a regular basis is a real shame. We’re being penalised by geography. Again.


Except doesn't need to be a "blockbuster" exhibition.  I'd love to see the work of lesser known artists.  When was the last Arthur Hughes retrospective?  Or John Collier?

What can be done?

As it stands, not much. 


The pipe dream idea would be for the national galleries to have outreach programmes in which touring samples of their collections, and not just the odd painting as has occurred in the past, travel slowly across the country spending a quarter in a venue before moving on, Tate Britain vacating a space to make way for the V&A before the National Gallery moves in and perhaps the British Museum or whoever and even running concurrently.

One problem is the space. In Liverpool, at present, we don’t have one. Which means an older building would have to refurbished and pressed back into service for these galleries of national museums stuff turning up on Merseyside to move into. The old Post Office building would have been perfect but that’s being turned into lecture theatre and the like at the moment by JMU.

The other problem is paying for all. There’s no money. At all. At this point it seems unlikely Tate Liverpool would open up under present conditions. Thank goodness it’s already here.

But again that’s also wrong, because we’re paying for these national galleries even though most of us never get to see them more than once or twice in our lives other than on The Culture Show or BBC Four. Usually information packed, but not the same and also just slightly depressing.

Yes, I know, it’s all sound and fury and I should be grateful for what we do get and that we have something like the Biennial which happens every couple of years and brings great art to the city by living artists. 


 It would just be nice if we could commemorate more of the dead ones too.

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