Building a user-generated museum: a conversation with Alistair Hudson

Credit: mima

Building a user-generated museum: a conversation with Alistair Hudson

Can the museum be reimagined as a place that actually works for its constituents, rather than for the art market? Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima) director Alistair Hudson seeks to create a ‘useful museum’ that is the true manifestation of its community.

I’ve long had an interest in the social function of art, particularly with nineteenth-century figures such as John Ruskin. Ruskin was primarily an economist – people primarily tend to think of him as an artist and an art critic, but I think of him as an economist. His famous book, Unto This Last, was really a treatise in opposition to Adam Smith, making a case for economy being about how you perform good housekeeping in a society, beyond pure fiscal operations. So it’s about art, it’s about food, ecology, a complete, holistic understanding of how the world works, and creating a system within that which allows for humanity, in effect. So I’ve been interested in that trajectory within the history of art, which is not the one we’re told – which has been defined by the market and by capital – and we should instead reclaim art as a much more all-encompassing, ordinary activity for everybody, rather than something for the elites or the 1% or for those that have, as opposed to those that don’t.

And of course in that system you still have, for example, museums and galleries who pertain to be for everyone, but ultimately they are operating in a language which is defined by the metropolitan, wealthy centres of the world. In a way, it’s a form of colonialism. It struck me that mima itself, all of its issues of not necessarily being accepted by its community, and not functioning for its community, were wrapped up in that ‘colonial’ history, that was manifest in what people perceived to be a spaceship landing from somewhere else – trying to convert people to the world of high-flying contemporary art. I suppose the objective in coming here was to say: well, could we remake the museum as a civic institution that actually works for its constituents? Rather than necessarily working primarily for the cultural capital of the art market. And so that’s, in a way, what we’ve been doing: reinventing how a place like this works – so it works for a much broader constituency of people.

And so where does mima sit between the market and the state, and indeed, between being a civic institution and taking part in civil society itself?

I have a problem with the idea of being ‘participatory’ because in the art world we often talk about ‘participatory art’, but for me that’s ‘museum 2.0’ where you get people to participate in someone else’s agenda. So the ambition – and this is why I talk about ‘usership’ and the useful museum – is that you create an institution that is created by and through its usership, so that the content and the function is increasingly less determined by those in power, but rather you redistribute authorship, you redistribute power, to make the institution the true manifestation of its community. Now that takes a long time, it’s not something you do overnight, and obviously we’re implicit in a market system still. So we buy works of art for our collection, we show artists who are represented by galleries and whichever way you look at that, it increases their cultural capital.

So for example at the moment one of our shows is by Steven Willats – now whilst it’s a project that is functioning the way we want it to work, which is working with and for community leaders who’ve developed mutually, ground-up sustainable projects within the town, equally, it’s reinforcing Steven’s potential within the market, in that he’s represented by Victoria Miro gallery, and his works sell for tens of thousands of pounds, and so on.

But I don’t think we should try to extract ourselves from that system, I don’t think necessarily the right thing to do is to operate outside of the art world bubble. I guess what we’re looking to do is to break that bubble, so that you begin to effect not only the social structures but also those private institutions themselves, so that you can kind of co-opt the systems that are available to you to press the advantage of a wider group of people, rather than ordinarily being operated to the best advantages of the few.

One of the principles is moving the museum from being an autonomous institution to one that operates within an ecology. I guess I’m talking about an ecological way of thinking. So if you’re in any ecology, you cannot dismiss anything as being outside that ecology. Because there’s always connectivity, and cause-and-effect within those systems. So in any kind of move forward in art, we have to include the market, we have to acknowledge it and have a relationship with it. But what we need to do is release the grip it has on the public’s understanding of art because if you talk to most people now, they understand art in market terminology. The individual author, the market value, the personality – everything is working towards supporting that system, and nothing is giving back to wider society. So we need to redress that balance, and it’s not a question of breaking all systems and starting another one. It’s a question of a redistribution within the framework.

So how have you begun to explore that redress in recent projects and shows?

I suppose the first time we tested this methodology was with the first exhibition I initiated, which was called “Localism”. It was kind of a piss-take of Conservative policy of the 1990s and noughties, and we billed it as the antidote to the international blockbuster. So whereas previously mima had shown the great and good from the art world – Louise Bourgeois, Gerhard Richter – we basically proposed the exhibition as a history of art in Middlesbrough, from when Middlesbrough started in around 1830 to now. And with the idea that we should not tell the story as singular curators, but we should open up the narrative to the communities around us – so we basically did an open call and in effect crowd-sourced the exhibition. It was this mayhem of artworks suggested and contributed by people, artists, non-artists and archives from the environment around us. The exhibition was made by the civic structure as its own version of the history of art, as opposed to one handed over to it. And we continued to accumulate works over the show. That was the shot across the bows, as how in reality we were going to make a user-generated museum.

Another example might be a show we did last year called “If all relations were to reach equilibrium, this building would dissolve”, a title taken from a project I did with Liam Gillick and a text actually originally proposed for the front of the new Home Office building, but which was refused. The idea was that all our shows should be responses to current urgencies. So this was a response to the urgency around migration – we’d just had the national press headlines about the ‘red door crisis’ in Middlesbrough, so we constructed a response to that, to tell real stories about migration and asylum seekers, and their conditions, and the circumstances around it. On the one hand it was an exhibition, and we had artworks by artists who had some kind of migratory status in the world, but also we showed works by migrants and asylum seekers here. And we also constructed the format of the exhibition as a resource centre for those people as well. What this meant was that the exhibition was no longer representative in the traditional sense – that you go along and look at something – but this time it was designed that you go along and use it. In the structure was a food bank, free internet access with computers, discussion forums and a film commissioned from a local Portuguese artist made with a local group of refugees and asylum seekers to tell the real story about the ‘red door’ situation, and throughout the show we developed a programme of what we call ‘community days’ where everybody came together to the museum, to reinforce their status and identity on equal terms.

Always the ambition was that this would not be a singular exhibition but a tool in developing this as a continual strategy as we went along. So every Thursday we have a community day for these groups: a free lunch, a whole day of activities, these groups are developing our garden as a community garden, and we’re running English classes, craft and design and technology workshops. Right now we have an artist downstairs, an asylum seeker, who’s in a show we’re doing with Daniela Ortiz, called “An ABC of racist Europe”, which again reiterates these themes – and the project we’ve done with him has enabled him as an individual and within the community. It’s about seeding an ongoing programme that is what the museum does, and what it does with these constituents.

You’ve hinted that this institution has had a troubled relationship with its community, Middlesbrough – why had it failed there, and how have you seen public attitudes shift?

Middlesbrough is in the north-east of England. It’s what you might call a post-industrial town. It was a small farm, and then they discovered iron ore and coal in around 1830 and then it just exploded like an American frontier town. So it’s a town of migrants by origin, and has been reliant essentially on the iron and steel industry, which has been in decline since post-war. And as a consequence of that, it’s always been a place which has had difficult socio-economic circumstances, and now it’s probably in a position where it comes top of the table in most surveys of places in Britain in terms of disenfranchised communities, and high indices of deprivation. And then the steel works closing the year before last, from a psychological point of view, is almost the end of the very reason the town exists. So historically it has been a troubled place, but it has huge potential and lots of positives. But it naturally makes it a place where there are a lot of intense versions of all the problems we see in British post-industrial, post-colonial society. So it’s not one that’s necessarily receptive to the idea of an art gallery.

So obviously building mima ten years ago was part of a regeneration strategy which was to ensure mima was a player on a global stage. You had that ‘Bilbao effect’ and everything that’s required in order to drive yourself forward in a precarious economy, and I guess at the beginning it sort of worked, and had a splash. But it’s always had resistance from all the usual things like, you know, ‘we don’t need an art gallery, we need schools and hospitals’, ‘we don’t need contemporary art, we don’t understand it, it’s not for us, why would we be interested in it’ – all those kinds of dialogues. In a way it’s an institution under fire – if you can make it work in Middlesbrough, you can make it work anywhere. But it’s the most extreme polarity in play – of a post-working class community, the heart of Brexit-land, in a community that is suffering from enormous inequalities both nationally and internationally. The relevance of contemporary art as we know it – well, it’s completely irrelevant. At best it’s a kind of escape, for those who know how to use that material – for which you need to be educated. And so it becomes a kind of brainwashing exercise: ‘learn to like contemporary art and you’ll be okay, a better person’. This is the old language of the museum.

So the project here is to rescue the ideology of art from itself. The local newspaper, the Gazette, was very negative in its press towards mima. But since “Localism”, it’s been very positive. The diversity we get visiting the museum has increased – today we had about 60 people round for lunch, from the most diverse range of people: families, children, homeless people, refugees. The atmosphere has changed, and it no longer feels like an alien institution. There’s still a long way to go, because these things are changed through habitual behaviour. Museums like this are built on a spectator economy and an attention economy which does not require habitual behaviour: you come along and you see a show and event as an experience, and then you move on. One of the tasks we need to do is to integrate these buildings into ordinary daily, weekly behaviour. Rather than thinking of an audience, you think of having any number of constituencies who know how to use the museum on a regular basis as part of their ordinary living. So that’s the transition we’re working on.

And what’s been the biggest challenge to that shift over the last few years, and indeed looking ahead?

The big challenge is the objective, which is for mima to become a genuinely civic, or civil or indeed municipal institution that is effecting change across society. The ambition is to get to a point where, instead of people saying ‘why do we need an art gallery? We need a hospital’, we get people saying ‘we need an art gallery as well as a hospital. We see the value of art in our ordinary living, and the value that an institution like mima has in rebuilding this town.’ What this means is that we have to make a shift from the spectator model to a user model, and to wean people off this idea that you go to an art gallery as a spectator, and that instead the role of an institution like this is an educational and developmental one, about how you employ art across all the processes of society so that you would effectively have an art component in housing, in healthcare, in city-planning, in social reform, in politics, in business, and in private enterprise.

You’ve talked about traditional institutions being incapable of responding to things like austerity and migration. When you think about mima within a broader ecology, where else can we look to for institutions doing similar work?

Part of the idea with our new vision plan was to make mima a radical institution on the map which would provoke other institutions. And that we could in a way test out ideas here which other people could use as a tool to understand how you might do things differently. We are now getting a lot of visits and research from other institutions in the UK and elsewhere, in terms of using us as a case study or a laboratory. So it functions on a national and international perspective. And certainly mima’s USP now is very much along these lines: that it offers another kind of way of doing an institution, whether you agree with it or not. It is a provocation within that system. A lot of museums and galleries do this kind of work, but they do it as a sideline, they do it in support of the main agenda which is producing exhibitions and collections: a core agenda which is based around a market system. So of course everyone has an education programme, and an outreach programme, and they work with communities, but they never put it front of house. But we are saying that we want to get to a place where our public programmes are what we do, that’s our main objective. And the collections and exhibitions serve that agenda. So you’re basically reversing the polarity. I used to work at Grizedale Arts in the Lake District where we developed the ideas behind mima – people said it would work in a small village of 600 people but we could never do it in a city or a town. So part of me doing this was saying, well, maybe you can.

Our core funding comes from: one third from the Arts Council, one third from Middlesbrough Council, and another third from Teeside university. And we supplement this by other incomes, which is the biggest challenge, as that normally comes from private philanthropy – but in reality places in the north don’t see much action from that kind of private giving, as they’re not in or in proximity to London, where those people who ‘get’ contemporary art live and are willing to give money. In a way, you can’t chase the money that southern museums chase in the same way – and even the successful ones in the north still do so on a kind of glamour ticket, that people buy into the glamour of the art world, and that’s their payback: they get to meet artists and see market-oriented work come to fruition. So if we’re not operating in that system, the way I see it working is that if we get the model right, we get the benefits of philanthropy, but for real social ambition, rather than becoming a glamorous art institution. This is what Middlesbrough needs. The challenge is to make the case for an art institution working in a genuinely socially effective way, which will then gain public support for that value.

5th May 2017

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