The UK’s oldest arts centre – fittingly housed in one of Liverpool’s oldest buildings – is drawing its 300-year birthday celebrations to a close with a very special exhibition. In the Peaceful Dome takes a look back over Bluecoat’s long and evolving history; from a charity school founded in 1717 (providing a ‘peaceful dome’ to the ‘helpless orphans’ referred to in William Roscoe’s poem Mount Pleasant) to the home of a pioneering group of artists called the Sandon Studios Society in the 1910s. Bluecoat then opened as a public gallery in 1927, and has been running an ambitious programme of critically engaged art ever since – as the exhibition chronicles.
Yet, In the Peaceful Dome is not simply a nostalgic look backward, but instead raises a number of searching questions about the role of galleries within wider society. Is there a dichotomy to be resolved around art institutions as accessible, welcoming places, that also seek to challenge and problematise? What should be the future function and civic role of arts centres? And how should contemporary exhibition-making respond to its relationship with time, place and history?
Among the highlights, Jacob Epstein’s monumental sculpture Genesis will return to Bluecoat for the first time since it was originally exhibited there in 1931, when it drew crowds of almost 50,000 visitors who paid sixpence each to see the controversial work. A crowdfunding campaign has been launched to help cover the cost of transporting Genesis from the Whitworth in Manchester, creating further dialogue around Bluecoat’s history of arts patronage.
Rarely seen Modernist pieces, including Will C Penn’s 1920s/30s painted portraits of black men in Liverpool and Julia Carter Preston’s distinctive s’graffito ceramics, will give an insight into the Sandon Studios Society’s activities. While, in a turn towards more recent times, Jo Stockham will revisit a powerful series of sculptures and prints tackling themes of war and nuclear proliferation through a feminist lens, which she first exhibited at Bluecoat in 1990. New work by Joanne Masding will continue her ongoing critique of the museum and notions of cultural certainty. And a series of short films by Uriel Orlow and Grace Ndiritu will serve as a reminder of Bluecoat’s philanthropic origins, rooted in Liverpool’s troubled history of maritime trade.
Overall, In the Peaceful Dome looks set to provide an interesting example of an art institution reflecting inwards upon itself, thus encouraging us all to remain mindful of the role of galleries as mediators, rather than simply ‘containers’, of culture.