As custodian of a significant chunk of the nation’s art collection (nearly 70,000 works and growing), how does Tate navigate the space between artworks and their owners, the great British public? In the institution’s own words, everything it does is focused towards ‘promot[ing] public understanding and enjoyment of British, modern and contemporary art’. Tate Liverpool is taking a lead on attempting to foster this ‘emotional’ as well as legal ownership for its visitors, as Artistic Director Francesco Manacorda explained.
Tate Liverpool’s permanent collection galleries received a major overhaul last year to mark the gallery’s 25th birthday. 2013 also saw Tate Britain rearrange its collection into a rigidly chronological hang with pared back interpretation, indicating a keenness at Tate to challenge both itself and its audiences. Constellations at Tate Liverpool uses artworks in the collection to offer a crash course in art history and theory, using devices familiar from social media. Works are grouped around a central artwork into ‘constellations’, connected by similarities in form and content. ‘Word clouds’ are created for each constellation, and each artwork is ‘tagged’ with appropriate words. It is a novel way of actually showing, rather than just telling, how seemingly disparate can artworks relate, and how artists influence each other.
The layout of Constellations also encourages an active role from the audience, with the constellation created around Henri Matisse’s The Inattentive Reader, for example, displayed as a ‘forest’ of paintings. Artworks are suspended in innovative ladder-like frames so that as the visitor weaves throughout them, new juxtapositions between works are constantly created. There is also the added bonus in this installation of what Manacorda amusingly referred to as ‘art historical pornography’, in which the painting backs complete with installation notes are revealed to the public.
Tate Liverpool is also actively prompting questioning from its audiences in its temporary exhibitions programme. Art Turning Left was a recent exhibition examining how left-wing values have affected artists’ practices and art production. As with Constellations, interpretation and layout were key to this approach. Wall texts were shorter than usual, often posing direct questions such as ‘How can art infiltrate everyday life?’ and ‘Does participation necessarily deliver equality?’ Visitors were encouraged to form their own responses to these questions, in a departure from the purely instructive text panel. The Office of Useful Art was positioned in the galleries as an open space for public activity and debate around the themes of the exhibition.
The current show on display, Keywords, is based around the 1976 book of the same name by Raymond Williams, a kind of dictionary of short essays about words pivotal to our understanding of culture and society. On the gallery walls, in place of interpretive text panels, keywords such as ‘violence’, ‘theory’ and ‘unconscious’ are painted in a looping script and, similarly to the word clouds in Constellations, visitors are left to make their own connections between these and the adjacent artworks. It is an invitation that might seem intimidating to some visitors, particularly in an exhibition with such an academic bent, and Manacorda stressed the importance of the gallery’s Visitor Assistants in engaging visitors. Tate Liverpool is clearly keen to both actively challenge and empower the public to co-create knowledge, and through its experimentation to create a viable alternative to the didactic art museum.