Launched in 1977, Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery was one of the UK’s first dedicated photography galleries. Excluded from the programmes of art galleries, photographers and others with an interest in the medium established their own network of galleries in the 1970s and ‘80s, drawing on newly-available funds from the Arts Council and a growing sense of photography’s artistic, social and political potential.
Open Eye Gallery emerged as part of an organisation called the Merseyside Visual Communications Unit (MCVU), whose mission was to “make more people aware of the many positive ways in which film, photography, video and sound recording can be used in a social, cultural and educative context”. Whilst MCVU was located in the former Grapes Hotel, on the corner of Whitechapel and Hood Street in central Liverpool, Open Eye Gallery occupied what had been the public bar from 1977-1988. The building’s upper floors housed facilities for media training and production, including film and video editing suites, darkrooms and recording studios.
Founded by Colin Wilkinson, Open Eye Gallery’s early days were a heady mix of art and activism. Alongside its exhibitions programme Open Eye Gallery published a magazine, ran workshops and training courses, hired out equipment, screened films, commissioned photographic, performance and moving image works, and organised campaigns and community projects.
Based in its Whitechapel location until 1988, Open Eye Gallery was one of the city’s creative and social hubs. It had the city’s main bus station on its doorstep, a popular cafe next door and the radical bookshop News From Nowhere (now on Bold Street) as a close neighbour. The gallery exhibited national touring exhibitions by established photographers and showcased the work of up-and-coming photographers based in the region. The emphasis was on UK artists with regular shows by European and American photographers. Independent documentary and art photography appeared alongside community projects and exhibitions that explored photography’s role in contemporary culture.
Bold Street: 1989-1995
In 1989, due to the building’s increasing dilapidation, Open Eye Gallery moved to 110-112 Bold Street, forming an umbrella organisation with the Women’s Independent Cinema House (WICH), Community Productions Merseyside (CPM) and the Community Arts Trust (CAT). Open Eye Gallery remained on Bold Street until 1995, placing greater emphasis in its programmes on documentary work and local artists.
Wood Street: 1996-2011
In June 1995, grappling with funding, premises and organisational problems, Open Eye Gallery left Bold Street and moved to the developing Concert Square area of Liverpool’s Ropewalks. In November 1996 the Gallery was re-launched in an architect-designed space on Wood Street as ‘Open Eye Photographic and Media Arts’. A stronger element of moving image work was introduced into exhibitions, but a diverse photography-based programme was maintained. From 2004 Open Eye Gallery’s increasingly international programme combined work by emerging and established artists, frequently presenting UK debut exhibitions. In mid-2009 Open Eye Gallery entered the main phase of a major capital relocation project, maintaining an interim programme of partnership exhibitions and pilot projects.
Mann Island: 2011-Present
In November 2011 the Gallery moved to new premises in Mann Island. A step change in audience focused exhibitions and growing relationships with local, national and international partners has ensured by 2016, the gallery attracted a 500% increase in visitors as compared to the former Wood Street gallery. Located on the Liverpool Waterfront the Gallery is near RIBA North, the Museum of Liverpool, Tate Liverpool and the Albert Dock.