Blackpool beach. From The Pleasure Principle, 1989 © Chris Steele-Perkins.
“For me, the story starts in 2004 when I arrived at Open Eye Gallery,” says director Patrick Henry. “One thing that immediately became apparent was our premises on Wood Street limited us in what we could show and the audiences we could reach. We tried a lot of things to gain new audiences, but we found we had reached a ceiling of 12,000 to 13,000 visitors a year.”
The gallery’s lease was coming to an end so Henry began looking for a base that would allow them to attract a greater footfall. “We wanted to move to a new location that would allow us to do what we do but share it with more people,” he explains. They have ended up moving into a new building on Liverpool’s redeveloped waterfront designed by architects RCKA.
“We researched a number of locations, but felt the waterfront was an attractive place,” says Henry. “In the past few years, the waterfront has become the main focus in Liverpool and we were keen to be part of that. We think that, with this new location, we’ll be able to quadruple our audience. It’s such a vibrant location.”
Open Eye and its architects aimed to fit into the overall scheme chosen by the waterfront’s developers but also make their own mark, and the result is a large angular and reflective building, which doubles the gallery’s floor space. “The new building will allow us to show larger images,” says Henry. “In recent years there’s been a trend toward larger prints in contemporary photography.”
Mitch Epstein’s American Power series is a good example of the trend, and it’s the centrepiece of the gallery’s opening programme – the first time the photographer has had a solo show in the UK. “American Power won the Prix Pictet prize [read BJP's report], so we think it’s a great starting point for us,” says Karen Newman, the gallery’s curator.
Amos Coal Power Plant, Raymond City, West Virginia 2004 © Mitch Epstein. Courtesy of Thomas Zander Galerie, Cologne.
Examining the role of energy in the United States, the series is made up of large prints that the gallery would not have been able to hang in its old premises, adds Henry. “His work will be shown on the ground floor of the gallery, which is divided into two spaces – one with a double-height ceiling (six metres).”
The first floor will be dedicated to “Liverpool’s best-kept secret”, as Newman calls it: the gallery’s archives. Since 1980, Open Eye has been collecting photographers’ work and has accumulated more than 1600 pieces. “Until now, we’ve been unable to show this collection so, when we decided to move to new premises, it made sense for us to share that collection with our audiences, to bring it to the forefront.”
At its launch, the archive will be showing Chris Steele-Perkins’ The Pleasure Principle, which Newman describes as “a powerful and searching photographic portrait of England in the 1980s”.
“When Steele-Perkins came back to the UK after travelling the Third World, he found that it had dramatically changed,” she adds. “Using ideas of pleasure, he explores public rituals that cut across class and location.”
The main goal of this space will be to create a dialogue between contemporary work and images that date back to the early 1980s. “We will be juxtaposing our archives with recent work to create a commentary on the current state of the photographic practice,” says Newman. For example, the gallery’s third round of exhibitions, starting on 30 March 2012, will bring together the work of Richard Mosse [read BJP's interview], who shot the war in Congo using infra-red film, with Simon Norfolk’s aftermath war photography. “It’s a strong show that sparks a debate on how we use photography to represent war.”
To lighten the mood, and bring a new kind of audience to the gallery, Newman has added the Richard & Famous exhibition, which will go on show from January 2012. Guest-curated by Martin Parr, Richard & Famous is an exploration of celebrity and fandom, which includes work by Richard Simpkin – an Australian photographer that has been taking portraits of himself with celebrities since 1990. Also featured will be work by Simone Lueck, a Los Angeles-based photographer that has been inviting, via Craigslist, old women to pose as movie stars.
“The shows explore today’s celebrity culture; its rapid growth and how we engage with it,” says Newman. “We’ll also be running a competition with a national newspaper before the launch of the exhibition, inviting the public to submit images of themselves with celebrities. Martin will select 20 shots that will be shown at the gallery. It’s a fun way to get the public involved, while raising the question of how we engage with photography and social media.”
The gallery hopes that its increased footprint and new programme of innovative exhibitions will help raise the institution’s profile both nationally and internationally, says Henry. “All of us – Impression, The Photographers’ Gallery, and other institutions across the UK – are working really hard to do more for photography with the limited resources we have,” he explains.
Patrick Henry, director at Open Eye © Mark McNulty
Over the next three years, Open Eye will receive almost £600,000 from Arts Council England (ACE), a figure based on previous visitor numbers. “We tried, at the last funding round, to make the argument that we would attract more visitors than we did before, but we’ve had limited success.”
ACE increased its contributions by 15.4 percent but, Henry says, the increase is mitigated by the rate of inflation. “Now we have a big gap to fill between our main sources of funding and the increased cost of maintaining much bigger premises,” he tells BJP. “We’re launching a number of operations to bring income in – after-hours renting of our galleries, donations from visitors, trading from our shop.”
The gallery is confident the move has been a success and Newman, who took up the curator’s post last October, says it was the perfect time to join. “Now, I’m putting together a new programme of exhibitions. It’s very exciting.”
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