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Francesco Manacorda, Artistic Director at Tate Liverpool

Turin is a very interesting city in relation to art and culture because it's the home of the Arte Povera which dates from mid-sixties to the beginning of the seventies and it was what really revolutionised contemporary art in Italy.

—Francesco Manacorda, Artistic Director of Tate Liverpool

In December 2011, Tate Liverpool appointed Italian art expert Francesco Manacorda as artistic director following the departure of Christoph Grunenberg to the Kunsthalle Bremen gallery in Germany. Turin-born Manacorda has previously directed Artissima, Italy’s most important contemporary art fair since 2010 and prior to Artissima, Manacorda held the position of curator at London's Barbican Art Gallery and has presided over various pavilions at the Venice Biennale.

Growing up in Turin Manacorda consistently found himself surrounded by art, music and culture in the family home. An Aunt and Uncle ran an art gallery that focused on figurativism and so exposed Manacorda to an abundance of paintings and sculptures that circulated the art gallery, thus heavily influencing his creative visions and stirring his artistic passions.

It was while studying Humanities at University of Turin Manacorda decided to devote his interests to the sphere of contemporary art. Parallel to his academic schedule he was working for a well-respected collector in the city; initially putting his library in order, Manacorda eventually found himself acting as registrar for the loans of the collector, which he managed until finishing university. Following university Manacorda moved to the UK to undertake an MA in Curating Contemporary Art at London's Royal College of Art.

A decade on, Manacorda's impressive portfolio includes curating numerous group shows such as Subcontingent: The Indian Subcontinent in Contemporary Art; The Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art; Radical Nature and solo exhibitions with artists including Clemens Von Wedemeyer, Hans Schabus and Tobias Putrih.

Manacorda's appointment as Artistic Director at the prestigious Tate Liverpool in late 2011 started a new chapter in the Albert Dock gallery's history. Under his discerning vision Tate Liverpool has continued its legacy of making modern and contemporary art accessible to a wider audience outside of London. An important aspect to all the Tate Liverpool programmes, since Manacorda's arrival, has been to curate, mould and present the exhibitions on a wholly penetrating level. Manacorda views the museum and art gallery as a space for learning. The environment developed by the Italian provides visitors with a range of edifying experiences where reflection and the enjoyment art are the prime objectives.

Manacorda has strived to involve artists, both international and local, to reinvent how we look at history and culture at one of the most prestigious art institutions in the world. The introduction of 'Compass' an in-house publication devised by Manacorda and the Tate Liverpool team serves as an instrument of navigation for readers exploring the Tate's seasonal programme of exhibitions. This ‘magazine principle’ offers a new approach to how the gallery can relate to its audience, allowing different, seemingly unrelated exhibitions and public programmes to communicate with each other in an almost symbiotic manner.

We had the pleasure of meeting with Francesco Manacorda to discuss how he's found his role at Tate Liverpool so far:

LF: At what age did you begin to consider art as to career path? Was this an obvious choice?

FM: I started thinking about art when I was at university because I was doing a degree which was based around humanities, philosophy, education and psychology.

I started working for a collector in Turin. Somehow I started ordering his library and then looking after his collection which I completed alongside University. I learnt a lot from the collector who was from the sixties and had worked with three generations of Italian artists. This played a pivotal role in bringing contemporary art into the Turin art scene.

By borrowing books from his library and having conversations with him I decided I was interested in contemporary art and it's most advanced experimental aspects.

LF: You were born in Turin? What was it like growing up there?

FM: Turin is a very interesting city in relation to art and culture because it's the home of the Arte Povera which dates from mid-sixties to the beginning of the seventies and it was what really revolutionised contemporary art in Italy. It was the only movement which had an international aspect after the 1950-60s. Therefore, it was that element, along with a reciprocal ideal, that allowed art to be exported through galleries, museums and single artists. This also brought back a lot of Avant-Garde to Turin from the likes of Paris, New York and Germany. Turin was very much attuned to the contemporary art scene being played out internationally and was open to the possibilities of experimentation; there was a solid interest in tradition and history, so I was exposed to both aspects of culture which was really quite amazing.

LF: Your Aunt & Uncle had an art gallery? Was this a source of inspiration to you?

It was and it wasn't. They had an art gallery, as much as I can remember, that dealt with figurative art. I think the source of my inspiration was rooted in the fact that there was a lot of art circulating around our house; we'd used it as a sort of deposit and storage space. There would be things rotating which would respond to the exhibition programme. The most interesting part of that gallery, which was called Documenta, was that my uncle founded it with his uncle, Luigi Calucha, who was an important critic in Italy at the time. He was a very influential force the collector that I grew up with and was responsible for setting up the Contemporary Art Society in Turin. He introduced a lot of exhibitions including the landmark 'Fighting for an Image' exhibition in the 1970s which explored the relationship and the wall between photography and paintings.

LF: Can you describe your role at Tate Liverpool?

FM: My role is the Artistic Director and, as such, I look after the artistic programme and also research the learning programme whereby I manage publicly offered activities. I'm also responsible for overseeing exhibitions, workshops, talks, research projects and publications. Essentially, I supervise all of the gallery's output and maintain the main mission to promote the understanding and enjoyment of modern and contemporary art.

LF: How do you find the art/cultural scene in Liverpool?

FM: I think Liverpool has a very interesting cultural scene which is similar to the character of the city. It's independent with a variety of niche interests but well cultivated and driven by a shared passion between small communities of good taste, whether it's music, art or comedy; whichever aspect. The role of culture in Liverpool is really driven by the people. Liverpool has to compete culturally and artistically with the attraction of London to retain artists, so inviting artists to so things here is difficult. However, there are very interesting aspects in the locations and activities of local artistic collaboratives such as the Royal Standard and Cactus, plus studios that operate on the grass root level are really driving what can be done and talked about in Liverpool.

LF: How do you approach curating a programming for an institution such as the Tate Liverpool?

FM: It is very important for me to start programming an institution as a mediator between the public, the art and the artists. In that sense I think the secret of how to programme Tate Liverpool is in its name, we have to combine Tate, its mission and what that represents both locally and internationally. With the expectations people have of the quality and ability of the art and artists, Tate has to bring art to a wide audience in Liverpool and make them desire, aspire and be curious about what we do and represent as an institution. The role of an institution such as Tate Liverpool is to combine these two aspects together and through this combination create a mix that is not just interesting to a local audience but uphold a specific flavour that can be interesting, attractive and rewarding to an audience that come from further afield.

LF: How much of the programme is set in stone? Is room left for adaptation?

FM: This is a difficult question to answer but the most complex programme is the one that focuses on artists that are very famous or household names; what we call "blockbuster" exhibitions. For example we're about to open a Francis Bacon exhibition which we needed to work on at least 2/3 years in advance in order to secure the loans, visualise the exhibition and create the related publications. We must also be aware of any competing projects that are to do with the same artist; that is the extreme however. Between this and the more spontaneous projects there's a variety of variables that impact on the complexity of an exhibition. For example the type of projects we do with the Wolfson Gallery on the ground-floor with young artists can be decided and developed in as little as a year. Tate Liverpool isn't just driven by programmed activities and a programmed way of working, there's much more to do with the entire Tate machine through promotion, speaking to press and collaborating with other departments. The most spontaneous is the upcoming project called 'Tate Exchange' which is to do with working in a different ways with the public. There's one room in the gallery which will be dedicated to much more spontaneous projects and not just those generated by Tate and it's staff but with partners also.

LF: In 2014 you introduced a 'magazine principle' to communicate/inform all of Tate Liverpool’s activities, how has this changed the user experience/visit?

The 'metaphor magazine principle' that I introduced features all the activities which are directed at the public and they usually have a connecting theme. These connections are not necessarily set in stone or spelt out for the reader but the variety of articles and features are all unified by a prevailing idea. We are trying to come out with simultaneous activities that are somehow connected; for example next season we have Francis Bacon and Maria Lassnig on the top floor, two painters who look at how to depict the body and subjects in a state of heightened awareness, anxiety or emotional tension. On the ground floor we have the work of young American artist Ella Kruglyanskaya who depicts subjects and portraits in a particular way, only women and in a surreal style.

Similarly, we have a little in-house magazine called Compass which has a selection of articles and aims to guide people through different programmes so that it provides a route into one artist from another. The reason we use this as a principle is to help the public to explore areas which might be less comfortable, allowing then to discover artists unknown to them based on ones they already relate to.

LF: Tate Liverpool has a blossoming relationship with the Liverpool Biennial, how important is the Liverpool Biennial in the calendar?

FM: Liverpool Biennial is a key element in securing international exposure to the visual arts; not just contemporary art in the Liverpool calendar. In particular, the contemporary one is when Liverpool commissions young artists who may not have previously been exposed the public, delivering new work across the city. It's important for Tate Liverpool because it brings in an additional international audience and it also highlights our activity of bringing in top quality international art production.

LF: What has been your personal favourite curation so far in your career?

There is a variety but in general I'm interested in exhibitions that deliver narratives that people get involved with in a literary sense. Probably the one I cherish the most is one I did at the Barbican called ' The Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art' in which we set up a fictional scenario where a martian anthropologist visited earth and collected contemporary art to take back to Mars to explain to fellow Martians what art was. As you can imagine we had tremendous fun doing this activity and it was quite a challenge to seduce and convince visitors that once stepping into the exhibition they have in fact stepped onto Mars.

LF: What advice do you have for people who are interested in becoming an art curator?

FM: My advice would be to consider the definition of art curator as opposed to art educator. The professional boundaries are becoming more and more porous, I think the most interesting and forward thinking way of getting involved contemporary art is not to discard those boundaries. Curators aren't necessarily more interesting than educators for example. Secondly I'd advise to expose yourself to as much art as possible. For me the only way of defining judgement and understanding contemporary art is to look at as much as possible.

Be sure to visit the Tate Liverpool's upcoming exhibition 'Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms' which runs from Wednesday 18th May until Sunday 18th September 2016.

Michael and I would like to thank Francesco and the Tate Liverpool team for taking part in our 'In Conversation' Series.