John Moores 22
The first John Moores exhibition was held in 1957, six years after Walker Art Gallery re-opened after World War II. The Liverpool Autumn Exhibitions, which up till 1939 had acted as the gallery's main showcase for new British art, had come to an end. The gallery's only regular shows of contemporary art were those of the local Liverpool Academy.
The suggestion that Walker Art Gallery mount "an exhibition of painting embracing …the best and most vital work being done today throughout the country" (as the catalogue of the 1957 exhibition put it) came from John Moores, founder of the Littlewoods company based in Liverpool. A man of fierce local pride - and a keen amateur painter - he was concerned at London's increasing domination of the national arts scene. He established the event as a competition open to anyone and sponsored the prizes.
The first John Moores was intended as a one-off, but its great success led to it becoming a biennial event. By the early sixties, the exhibition was regarded as the UK’s leading showcase for avant-garde painting. Many of the prizewinning works were purchased by John Moores and presented to Walker Art Gallery for its permanent collection. Among them were classic paintings by Jack Smith, William Scott, Roger Hilton and David Hockney. These and other purchases from the exhibition ensured that Walker Art Gallery's representation of post-war British art was the equal of any other collection in the UK, the Tate only excepted.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, as newer media challenged painting and the range of exhibiting opportunities for cutting-edge artists grew, the John Moores lost some of its unique status. During this period, Walker Art Gallery did not always acquire the first prizewinner and the show was occasionally subjected to fierce criticism. However, it always retained its reputation as the UK's leading painting biennale and its first prize has continued to be one of the largest of any of this country’s art competitions.
Since 1980, Walker Art Gallery has automatically added the first prize-winning work to its collection as part of the terms of the award; and by this means has acquired outstanding works by John Hoyland, Bruce McLean, Lisa Milroy, Peter Doig and Michael Raedecker, among others. The great tradition of the John Moores was cited as one of the reasons for the Tate's decision to establish its first outpost in Liverpool, in 1988. Since 1999 the exhibition has also been one of the centrepieces of the Liverpool Biennial of contemporary art.