Liverpool Biennial’s Sally Tallant on art

Arts in the UK have undergone dramatic changes in the last twenty years or so, with the emergence of the the internet and all that comes with it, followed more recently by cuts to public funding. The Liverpool Biennial is among the organizations that has continued to receive funding and its CEO and artistic director Sally Tallant has been involved in the industry for long enough to view the changes within context.

I met Sally at the Liverpool Biennial offices in the Baltic Triangle, an area that was left gutted by the city’s decline in the late 1900s. It has since seen rapid regeneration in recent years as creative and entrepreneurial companies have moved in, catalysed by the Baltic Creative community interest company (CIC), which provides affordable office and studio spaces for companies in the creative industries and of which the Biennial is a tenant.

Having spent 10 year working at the Serpentine Gallery in London before moving north to head up the Biennial and its programme of education, research and art commissions, Sally is keenly aware of the differences between the two cities: one a working class enclave still recovering from the loss of its industries, the other a global powerhouse and melting pot of cultures.

“The art market is in London and we’re working in a city that has a very small, in any, art market. That means that the questions that are asked around the value of art and what it means in people’s everyday lives … are different.”

In addition to the programming for a different audience, the move from the Serpentine Gallery to the Liverpool Biennial required that Sally adapt to a change in format. She went, as she puts it “from working in a gallery into London, to working with a whole city into a gallery.”

The Biennial, of course, also exists on a bigger scale than the Serpentine, with up to perhaps 40 productions ongoing at one time, but its rhythm is also different. In retains the original two-yearly festival, but now has a year-round programme of structured of works, discussions and artist visits. This evolution was an attempt to “take the audience on the journey between the festivals,” and to avoid the sense of the festival crashing into the city every 24 months, only to then disappear without trace 14 weeks later.

Reflecting on the changes she has seen during her time in the industry, Sally talks of the internet and the associated “collapse of geography” as having made it easier for us access art. She cites political and social changes too, though, as having made art more accessible.

I was interested to hear whether she felt that the cuts to arts funding might impact that. It was illuminating that, rather than beat the drum for a reversal in cuts, she pointed out that we’re lucky to have any public funding in this country, as many do not, and, while more funding would be preferable, from her perspective a pragmatic approach of doing more with the resources available is what is required first and foremost.

Sally confides that her biggest concern on the funding front is for individual artists for whom there are now fewer small pots of funding to access. Beyond that, she expressed a greater worry about university tuition fees and whether or not the promising young artists of today would have the stomach to pay for further education in the arts, which they previously would not have had to do. Time will tell about the impact of that on the arts industry.

This year is a Biennial year in Liverpool and Sally explains that there have been a group of curators involved in its programming, which led to a round-table style of working similar to that of writers for a TV show. Inspired by this and the “binge viewing” culture of Netflix and suchlike, the festival will take an episodic format and is split into five different episodes or themes around Liverpool. It all kicks off on July 9th and runs through to October 16th.


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