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Biennial became the art of the city; Outgoing Liverpool Biennial chief executive Lewis Biggs sits down to chat with Laura Davis.

WE'VE marvelled at the Red House playing Abba music at the Pier Head, Derby Square's hotel-with-a-difference Villa Victoria and Ai Wei Wei's glittering spider's web hanging above Exchange Flags.

And there aren't many who haven't visited Antony Gormley's Another Place at Crosby Beach or watched mesmerised as Richard Wilson's Turning the Place Over (now sadly no longer rotating) turned the former Yates Wine Lodge inside out.

But now the man at the helm of the Liver pool Biennial - who turned it from "a bit of a joke" into one of the world's most respected - is to bid it goodbye.

This month, Lewis Biggs moves on to new adventures - about which he remains vague.

"I'm building new things," he laughs, when we meet to discuss his decade as chief executive in the Biennial's offices on Jordan Street.

"There are a number of opportunities out there, and I need a few months to test which ones of them are going to be able to support me and contribute something to visual arts in the north west and to the country as a whole.

"I'm looking overseas much more and looking to Liverpool's international connections."

Biggs was director of Tate Liverpool when Littlewoods millionaire James Moores first raised the idea of a city centre-wide contemporary arts festival.

If Venice and Sao Paulo had biennials, Moores reasoned, then why not Liverpool? And he was right, of course. In autumn 2010, around 628,000 visitors made 834,000 visits to Biennial exhibitions, spending pounds 27.2m.

Biggs sat on the board of trustees for the very first festival in 1999, r un by Australian curator Anthony Bond, then stepped in as the Biennial's chief executive in 2000.

A decade on and with four years of funding recently confirmed and the theme of "hospitality" decided for the 2012 festival, now is the right time to go, he says.

"I knew I'd be able to hand over to my successor with a sense of security," he explains. "And with a year and a few months still to run before the next festival opens it means the incoming person can still put their mark on the way the festival will feel and look."

Liverpool will not lose him entirely, however, as he plans to keep his Wavertree home despite travelling to London more frequently to see his partner.

"To be honest, it was a bit of a joke," says Biggs, of the art world's reaction to the idea of a Liverpool Biennial -the dismay in part due to curators feeling under pressure to visit every such festival across the globe.

"Of course, that doesn't last for long because people begin to choose which of the Biennials are worth going to rather than trying to see all of them.

"Quite quickly, by 2004-2006, Liverpool Biennial had established itself as one of those that people wanted to go to, not only because of the quality of work but because of our collaborative model."

It is this that sets Liverpool's event apart from those in other cities -all the major visual arts organisations work together to make it happen. And it is that way of working that Biggs introduced to the Biennial when he took over in 2000.

"The early years were extremely rocky -it was all done on a wish and a prayer and without any public support," he says.

"The trustees realised that an artistic director from Sydney, however brilliant, was not going to develop and grow the art infrastructure in Liverpool in a way we felt the Biennial could do."

Followers of Liverpool's Capital of Culture ups and downs will no doubt raise an eyebrow at that one.

"My job was really to restructure the way the Biennial worked from scratch, which wasn't difficult because I was the only person working for it," he adds.

Biggs has been invited by arts organisations in other countries to share his method of collaborative working, their interest piqued by the financial problems of the past three years.

"The kind of parachuted-in Biennial that grows no roots is really hard to sustain. It takes money, money, money because there's no good will involved," he explains.

Back at home, support for the Biennial increased as soon as Liverpool announced it would be bidding for Capital of Culture.

"When I was at the Tate (1987-2000), the support we had from elected members was negligible and suddenly to have the leader of the council and the chief executive saying 'we're going to put culture at the heart of the agenda for the next few years' was a tremendous boost to morale," recalls Biggs.

Challenges for the future include growing the City States strand, introduced last year, which invites places from across the world to showcase their a r tists.

"The key to everything is internationalism," says Biggs. "I've just come back from Asia and there's an absolute conviction there that culture is how countries are going to speak to each other in the future."

Expanding City States and other Biennial decisions will be a job for his successor, who is expected to be appointed shortly.

"We're not here to create employment, we're not here as a social work agency," adds Biggs.

"We're doing what we do because we love art. But the way in which we do it does have huge benefits for the city in ways that are unconnected to art and I'm equally proud of both those things."


REFLECTING: Lewis Biggs looks on at Sky Gazers and, right, the popular spider'sweb behind the town hall
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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