Tate Liverpool is 25 today! To celebrate, the gallery’s former director, Lewis Biggs, remembers the gallery that opened in 1988

  • Lewis Biggs in front of the Liverpool skyline

    Lewis Biggs in front of the Liverpool skyline. Can you spot Tate Liverpool?

    Photo:
    © Elisabeth-Scheder-Bieschin

It is hard to remember now, but Tate Liverpool opened just after the Clore wing at Millbank and because of the deserved, huge media coverage it had, the Tate brand was indelibly associated in everybody’s mind with Turner and Constable. So the business of trying to recover people’s expectations and redirect them towards a museum of modern and contemporary art was actually very hard work. Particularly since at that time Tate Liverpool was the only museum of modern art in England.

So we made an exhibition of contemporary British sculpture as it was then – artists such as Richard Deacon, Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor. It was named after a work from the Tate collection, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Starlit Waters. I just love it, it’s a wonderfully poetic piece. Finlay often managed to combine a huge sense of poetry with something quite visually simple. Simple and, in this case, uncrafted. There’s nothing intrinsically valuable about it, it’s just the use of fishing netting to suggest starlight on the surface of water. We displayed it almost on a window sill so you could look through and see the water of the Mersey behind it.

We had 75,000 people through the building on the first two days and it’s not a big building. So there was a huge crush of people. The reaction was I guess surprise, but also curiosity and respect. People were expecting to see Turners and Constables so it was a bit of shock, but actually they were very, very excited, so there was a huge buzz about it.

Another work that was in our opening displays was Equivalent VIII, the Carl Andre ‘bricks’ piece. The then-director of the gallery, Richard Francis, thought that by reviving the huge controversy that there had been in the 1970s, which many people still remembered in the 80s, he could make the point most forcibly that this was a museum for modern and contemporary art. It was very effective. It’s a piece that allows for talking – it’s necessary to debate and to describe how Andre came to make a sculpture like that.

 We have always had an extremely active education programme at Tate Liverpool and we found it very useful to have that work there. The Rothko room was also an opening display at Liverpool. And that was extraordinary because we recreated the space they were conceived for at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. So many people saw it that, throughout the 13 years I was at Tate Liverpool, people would always remember that room being hugely important in their introduction to modern art. Sometimes, it has to be said, very negatively. They said what a dreary room it was, and that has to be taken on board. But other people discovered something about themselves by simply being there. I remember a young adolescent, 15 or 16, who was clearly skiving from school to come in everyday and just sit in that room. What a brilliant reason for playing truant that is!