AI Profile: Adventure in Liverpool

Francesco Manacorda, artistic director, Tate Liverpool


Francesco Manacorda is intelligent, erudite and a passionate advocate of bringing art out of the closeted world of the gallery and into the streets. Italian-born Manacorda in his stylish, crisp, white shirt and slightly accented English is one of the new breed of pan European curators equally at home in one of the major centres of the visual arts, say London, Turin or Venice.

But right now, he is in the streets of Liverpool, where as artistic director of the Tate, he is co-ordinating the city’s Biennal art show, an essential feature of the city’s cultural calendar. Manacorda can be found helping to direct operations not only in the Tate’s har- bourside HQ, but also in unexpected sites such as the city’s historic Cains Brewery and the counter of a Chinese supermarket.

He expresses a little surprise at finding himself here, with co-director Sally Tallant, presiding over a show encompassing new works by 44 international artists as well as 10 locals from the north of England. Manacorda had no particular interest in the arts until he reached university where he studied Humanities at the University of Turin. However, he does remember the family home being used as “a kind of warehouse for unsold artworks” – the leftovers from a gallery once owned by an uncle.

On graduating and not entirely sure what to do next, he landed a part time job as an assistant to an art collector. The experience of sorting and assessing the collector’s vast library was transformative. “It became like a second university for me” says Mana- corda, but crucially also showed him that it was possible to have a career in the visual arts.

He came to the UK in 2001, to study for an MA at the Royal College of Art, largely because he had fallen in love with London. “No other city then was so saturated with the visual arts. The opening of Tate Modern, the YBA, Saatchi also opened up so many avenues” he recalls. The young postgraduate went to every gallery, every talk, met as many people in the contemporary arts world as possible and soaked up the excitement of a visual arts scene that was becoming world-renowned.

After a short internship in New York, he became a freelance curator. To help pay the bills, he also worked at the Royal Society of Arts, where he collaborated with then head of art Michaela Crimmin on the RSA’s pioneering Art and Ecology Centre.

His first independently curated ex- hibition was the Mythological Machine at Warwick Arts Centre, where artists looked at media representations of the trauma of 9/11. It was a sign that this young Italian was not going to shy away from controversy or fail to look at an issue from a different angle.

Between 2007 and 2009, Manacorda was curator at Barbican Art Gallery, London, where he was responsible for two of the gallery’s cutting edge exhibitions - the Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art (2008) and Radical Nature (2009). Both sought to challenge conventional narratives of contemporary art. The first imagined what art might tell a visting Martian about our society and featured works inspired by our planet, including land art, environmental activism, experimental architecture and utopianism. And with Radical Nature, he first explored the idea of an “inside out” exhibition taking works of art to unlikely places in east London. It was here that the young curator learned about large scale exhibitions – a chal- lenge which is both “daunting and re- warding” he says.

A phone call from Turin brought him back to Italy for a two year stint as director of Artissima where he was given free rein to work on exhibitions that blurred the boundaries between various art forms, from cinema to architecture. “In Italian, we use the word ‘contaminare’ – to contaminate. But there it also means cross-pollination” he explains. “I use the word at lot!” He also found time to curate the Slovenian Pavilion at the Venice Biennial in 2007 and the New Zealand Pavilion in 2009;  and he is also a writer, his byline appearing regularly in top rank critical journals such as Domus or Art Review and has penned artists’ monographs 

and exhibition catalogues. For an art curator, Manacorda is keen on the power of written texts to assist the public in their understanding of art- ists’ work. He is keen to “increase the cooperation with the public, finding ways of writing—or designing—ex- hibitions that allow, stimulate, and encourage their readers/viewers to contribute”.

Tate Liverpool, where he has been since 2011, offered him the opportunity to work with an institution that was willing to experiment with new ways of engaging with the public, not just those who are already arts aficionados. Exhibitions like the current one on Francis Bacon, which combines more than thirty powerful paintings with the work of the lesser known Maria Lassing is a case in point, he says. “It creates a bridge and opens up opportunities to people to say if you like Bacon, then you will like this”.

The Biennal is “a great adventure” he says. Designed in episodes which map a number of the city’s narratives, such as Ancient Greece or Chinatown, and explore neighbourhoods like Toxteth, he believes that visitors can learn much about Liverpool’s diverse histories. “The art acts as a storyteller”.

For the future, Manacorda wants to strengthen even further the relation- ship between the Tate Liverpool and its host city. “I think the future of the museum or the art gallery is in trans- lating visitors into stakeholders so that what is a legal ownership by the city becomes an emotional ownership”.

But there are risks too. Just a few weeks ago, an incident in a bar reminded him that the bridge he had built between Italy and England was not a permanent structure. Noting his foreign accent, a drunk told him to ‘Go home’. Manacorda says, “He was drunk. It wasn’t serious, but Brexit will make the interchange between the UK and the rest of Europe more difficult.”


Curriculum vitae

1974 Born, Turin, italy
2000 Graduated with degree in humanities from the University of Turin 2001-3 ma in Curating Contemporary art from the royal College of art, london

2006-10 visiting lecturer, Royal College of Art
2007 Curates Slovenian pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale
2007-09 Curator at Barbican Art Gallery
2009 Curates New Zealand pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale
2010-12 Director of Artissima, Turin
2011- Artistic director, Tate Liverpool
2013 -  Member of the international jury for the 55th Venice Biennale

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