As leaving presents go, it’s not a bad one – the chance to curate your own show to celebrate the birthday of one of the country’s most important art galleries.
But in actual fact, the idea for Ken’s Show: Exploring the Unseen, named after Tate Liverpool’s recently retired art handling manager, pre-dates the eponymous Ken’s departure and the Albert Dock gallery’s 30th anniversary celebrations all together.
It turns out Ken Simons was first asked to come up with a few works for a section of the Tate’s semi-permanent Constellations exhibition some two years ago.
“My main interest has always been in sculpture,” he explains over a cuppa in the gallery’s dockside café, “and I’m very much interested and excited by the practicalities of big complex sculptures and complex installations.
“So one of the first things I chose is by Phillip King, which is quite a large piece. I had a few weeks just to think about this piece and a number of others I wanted to include in this section of the display. And it became clear that I didn’t have enough space!”
Feeling ‘deflated’ that his ambition had outstripped the room available, Ken went back and admitted as much to the then artistic director Francesco Manacorda.
“He came back a few days later with this brilliant idea of me doing the 30th birthday celebration here on the ground floor, in a bigger gallery, which is an amazing opportunity.”
Ken Simons and the Phillip King sculpture Within
After 43 years working within the Tate organisation, with 30 of those at Tate Liverpool, it was an ideal choice. Ken has handled thousands of pieces and worked with many artists to bring exhibitions to the public over five decades.
It’s a far cry from his first job on leaving school however – in the steel industry of his native Scunthorpe.
“I worked there for three-and-a-half years, but it was never really me,” he admits. “I did try to get in to art college from the steel works. I got a place at Lincoln but it was very difficult to get money as grants.”
Instead of Lincoln, the self-confessed ‘young hippy’ headed for the bright lights of London instead, and in 1972 saw a job advertised working at the Tate, joining three or four other young technicians and a whole lot more of the old guard who helped to build and install exhibitions.
It was the era of Sir Norman Reid, who shook up the old Tate by introducing the idea of sponsored exhibitions and displays of international works, and, Ken says, it was an exciting time of change, as well as the odd controversy, like the installation of Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII rectangle of bricks.
Ken coveted the work for his Liverpool show, but was unable to persuade Tate Modern to temporarily loan it to its northern sister gallery.
By the time Tate Liverpool started being talked about, the technical team had burgeoned to around 30, and Ken was technical manager. But the London he had made home in the early 70s had changed, and in his words “I was harking for the hills”.
“It was the excitement of being involved, setting up right from the word go, completely new,” he says. “That’s what swung it for me really. And it was incredibly hard work, that first year.
“For the first 10 years I suppose I was keeping my eye on the art world jobs’ market, as one does. You’re always trying to prove yourself.
“I think I probably would have left if change hadn’t continued to happen. But there’s always change, and that always bring lots of different challenges.”
Over the decades, Ken has worked with many artists, not simply installing their work but also in some cases helping to create it.
One was Antony Gormley, the man behind Angel of the North and, of course, Another Place with its iron men standing on Crosby Beach.
“Some of his pieces are incredibly heavy,” says Ken. “There’s a piece called Testing the World View which is five or six cast iron figures which are in different poses, which he likes to hang on the walls, on the ceilings.
JMW Turner, Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth © Tate 2017
Above: Rodin's The Kiss arrives at Tate Liverpool.
“I remember working very very late with Antony, in fact I think we worked all night before the opening, getting this piece up properly. He was hands on with us.
“Quite often we’re also working with artists creating pieces. When the Turner Prize was here, Mike Nelson (one of the shortlisted artists) worked with us for two or three weeks within our workshops building a piece for that show.”
There isn’t a Nelson in Ken’s Show, but there is a work by Mark Wallinger who won the Turner Prize in 2007 when it was staged at Tate Liverpool.
He is joined by the Phillip King piece that inspired Ken in the first place, along with works by Mark Rothko, Barbara Hepworth, JMW Turner, Piet Mondrian and an artwork by Graham Sutherland which is Ken’s favourite painting in the Tate collection.
The theme developed slowly, as Ken began to realise the works he was picking out “were kind of linked in exploring something we can’t see. And it might be space, emotions, some kind of light and colour and all sorts of things there.
“I began to realise that was the core theme for the show and began to build it around that.”
Along with the exhibition, Ken will do a curator’s tour, and between April 2 and 8 he and some former colleagues will be ‘in residence’ at Tate Exchange to chat about his 30 years at the Albert Dock gallery.
Ken’s Show: Exploring the Unseen is at Tate Liverpool from March 30 to June 17 and is free.