Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima), a showpiece glass-and-steel building in the centre of Middlesbrough, opened in 2007 and classifies itself as a mid-scale organisation: its turnover is roughly £1.5m, of which roughly half a million comes from Arts Council England, another half a million from Middlesbrough Council, roughly half a million is received in a combination of cash and in-kind support from Teesside University, and trusts, foundations and grants along with earned income build the rest in relation to specific projects. It has a staff of 23 with additional part-time project workers, and Alistair Hudson has been director since October 2014.
Mission: the Useful Museum
The conception of museums that Alistair Hudson has brought to mima is in direct contrast to much that has been written and thought about art at different times over the past 150 years, including: the idea that art is elitist, or accessory; the glamour of the market-driven modern art world; and the notion of the gallery as a safe-house for precious objects.
Hudson’s notion of the “useful museum” is rooted in his belief that: “Art is fundamentally a process of change.” It is one that functions as an “art school for everyone”, where: “all people learn together this role that art has in society of transformation. That includes cooking, gardening, politics, housing, healthcare, everything. Once you start to get that message embedded into people’s minds, that’s when you stop them saying we don’t need an art gallery any more, or we don’t need art, or we don’t need culture. Because actually you don’t choose whether you have culture or not, it’s just a question of what kind of culture you have.”
Another phrase Hudson uses to describe his thinking is “Museum 3.0”. In this technology-inspired characterisation: “Museum 1.0 is where people come along and see the precious artefacts and become better human beings for the experience. Version 2.0 is one of participation, people participating in art and participating in the museum, in education and community projects, but all these things work in support of that primary high-art agenda, it is participating in someone else’s agenda. 3.0 is the user-generated version: working with our constituents, working with our users, to create the programme and the reason for the organisation’s being.”
Museum 3.0/the Useful Museum doesn’t ask people to “join the art in the museum”, but asks the museum to “join in with what’s happening in the world, and demonstrating how art can contribute to some of the main social problems that we have”. That contribution involves thinking about all aspects of life in the area, from housing to civic planning, regeneration to healthcare, and building collections and exhibitions that support that activity.
Localism: an antidote to the blockbuster
Mima’s initial ambition was to present world-class, international art. Hudson’s first move was to curate an exhibition called Localism, inviting the local community through an open call to tell the history of the role of art in Middlesbrough from 1830, when the town started, to the present day. But the exhibition itself was only one strand: simultaneously the galleries were “activated as a community centre, as a space where you have public meetings, talks by local historians, people starting new pottery workshops, people making”. This relates to the concept of a Centre of Social Making, “where people come together to make workshops, but also to talk about how we make a society in more general terms: what do we do about low attainment of schoolchildren, what do we do about the issues of unstable communities, etc”.
Localism shaped the blueprint for how mima now programmes, working closely with community groups not only to create temporary exhibitions that “respond to current urgencies, and issues that are actually concerns of people on the ground”, but to develop sustainable resources for their daily use. Localism was followed by projects around the closure of the steelworks and around migration, the latter created in collaboration with the charity IPC (Investing in People and Cultures), who work with migrants and asylum seekers in Teesside. Building an exhibition with refugees led directly to a regular programme shaped with and for these constituent groups, offering a weekly free meal, a food bank, free internet access, bespoke ESOL classes, clubs including crafts, film and gardening, and more. In this way, the exhibition became a platform for advocacy and direct social action.
This methodology is now leading to the museum’s engagement in questions of housing provision, community cohesion and well-being, working with the local council, private housing providers, the NHS and charities, to develop new approaches in each of these areas. In North Ormesby, an area characterised by generations of unemployment or low-quality work and poor living conditions, in which UKIP is strong, mima is already working with community groups and organisations to reinvigorate local cultural and community provision. mima has also approached private housing provider Thirteen Group to work with them to develop new models of housing and community care for older people. And Hudson has evolved the relationship with Teesside University, beyond the conventional model of university, to open up avenues of research and learning across all disciplines, and use the museum and its social projects as a platform for mutual learning: in effect seeing the museum itself as a social project.
The opportunity that has emerged from these changes is genuine international interest in the work mima is doing, with visitors from across the globe – New York to the Netherlands to Korea – coming to learn from its approach.
“mima always pushed itself as being of international significance but while doing the same as everybody else. What’s nice now is that it is getting an international reputation mostly by being really local, and offering something more than what a place like this traditionally would offer.”
Hudson admits that the seeming unorthodoxy of his approach creates challenges:
1: Structural resistance
The very design of the mima building, and indeed all museums, creates “a hallowed, autonomous space in which ‘the precious things’ are detached from society”. This thinking, Hudson argues, “is deeply engrained in the museum culture, in its behaviours, and to shake that off is quite a big task”. It also perpetuates narrow expectations among “the traditional art-educated audience who expect art to be what they thought art was and isn’t necessarily, who quite liked exhibitions of great art in a white room with not very many people in it”.
2: But is it art?
These lingering conservative notions of what constitutes art affect everything from how mima is presented in the media to how it is understood by funders. “This way of working is not something that art commentators know how to write about: they’re used to writing about an exhibition or a genius artist. A lot of energy is spent on trying to show people what you’re actually talking about – but it’s a (much older) story of art that is understood by doing in everyday life, not just looking in privileged moments.”
Before coming to mima, Hudson spent ten years at Grizedale working with Adam Sutherland on its “evolution from a residency programme to getting the artists to do things that are useful”, in the process transforming the life of the village. But whereas Grizedale is a village of 600 inhabitants, Hudson hopes to achieve similar effects in an urban settlement with a population closer to 200,000.
Anything innovative in his approach, he argues, harks back to the political activism and social reform of Victorian artist and thinker John Ruskin. “I want us to be the agency that ensures that things are done with care and consideration and humanity and are generally successful for all sectors of the community: I think that’s the role that art in its broadest sense can do. What’s missing in a lot of public decision-making, whether it’s business or social care or welfare or health or housing, all these things have been drained of any artistic competence, and that usually makes them perform badly. I see it as the job of art or culture to reenergise and rehumanise all these processes in society. And the idea is not for us to be doing this on our own but for that idea of culture to be embedded in all walks of life, to the point where you really get the ecology of a place working fully for all people.”