Launched in 1977, Liverpool’s Open Eye 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 emerged as part of an organisation called the Merseyside Visual Communications Unit (MCVU), which was established in 1973 with a mission 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”. In its early days Open Eye was a heady mix of art and activism, a DIY operation run on a shoestring by artists, volunteers and a tiny staff team.
In 1976 MCVU moved into the former Grapes Hotel, on the corner of Whitechapel and Hood Street, in central Liverpool. Open Eye Gallery followed soon after, occupying what had been the public bar. The building’s upper floors housed facilities for media training and production, including film and video editing suites, darkrooms and recording studios. Alongside its exhibitions programme Open Eye 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 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.
In 1989, due to the building’s increasing dilapidation, Open Eye 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.
In June 1995, grappling with funding, premises and organisational problems, Open Eye 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’s increasingly international programme combined work by emerging and established artists, frequently presenting UK debut exhibitions.
In mid-2009 Open Eye entered the main phase of a major capital relocation project, maintaining an interim programme of partnership exhibitions and pilot projects. In November 2011 the Gallery moved to new premises twice the size of our former Wood Street space. Located on the Liverpool Waterfront the Gallery is near the Museum of Liverpool, Tate Liverpool and Albert Dock – find out more.