MIMA’s Director, Alistair Hudson, talks art, ‘the elite’ & social change

By Lolita Gendler


The Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art sits a glistening safe house amongst the city’s crumbling town halls and abandoned shops. As an institution originally created with the sole purpose of bringing internationally acclaimed artists to the North, Erick van Egeraat Associated Architects made sure that it was worlds away from anything else in the area. Now MIMA faces a different challenge. Since 2014, director Alistair Hudson has refocused the museum’s focus. Instead of being a glossy edition to Middlesbrough’s Timeout to do list, MIMA has become an integral hydration pack to the community. The aim is to remind the ‘art world elite’ that art is an instrumental function to societies’ structure and to show the ‘art-phobic’ non-believers that art is for everyone.

Q: Can Art be multifaceted, or is there one road for art?

A: I describe it as an ecology, there is one system that we all operate in. Basically, there are different manifestations of what we call art within that system; according to different indices and criteria and forces at work. So, you have a system of art… and I use the word use of art very generally as well – everybody uses art, somehow. Even if it’s to reinforce this idea that art is useless, but that in itself is a purpose in order for a means to power and status or cultural recognition. So, that ecology would include in it; Raphael, your mother’s noodles, Botticelli, bad craft, the works… education… however you want to describe art. Equally I say a lot that we should stop thinking about whether something is art or not, but to think about to what degree it is art or has artistic competence.

Q: In an email correspondence in OnCurating you said that you “contest the conviction that art must be purely representational, a mirror of reality, and cannot ultimately operate beyond this.” What is it about this idea of Art as representation that troubles you?

A: If you look at the idea of representation itself, in a way this is a very old idea, this concept of representation comes in line with the picture frame. Again I argue now to say that even the picture frame itself is in operation in the world. So everything is not pure representation, you cannot have pure representation, everything is operation. Even a system of representation is something that is operated by people, and subject to forces at work and different ideas. I mean, actually, John Berger was talking a lot about this sort of thing in the 1970s; this is basically a materialist argument. So, it’s an extension of that in a way, and what we’re saying is that we need to move away from the idea of art being representation, it can be representative but it is not pure representation. It is always in operation.


Q: You believe that this integration already exists, that art is a part of society?

A: And has been for most of civilisation. So for about 40,000 years, art was part of ordinary life processes. Round about 170/180 years ago, the idea of art, in terms of how we think about it now, came into being; in terms of the western canon, as an autonomous thing. That’s quite a short period in the history of humanity.

Q: So really could you say that MIMA is not doing anything new, it’s just reminding people of an early understanding of art?

A: Yeah, I keep saying to people that it’s really old fashioned, it’s not avant-garde at all. Avant-garde itself is part of that modernist mind-set

Q: But bringing this realisation to the wider community is obviously, even though an old idea, quite a long-term goal, as changing people’s intuitions about things takes time. Not necessarily correctly, but there is a long-standing tradition of believing in the ‘pureness’ of autonomous art; believing in the richness of an experience which is in and of itself. Something that you may perhaps lose when you introduce a social function? 

A: Yes, but I would disagree with that, because I think, someone, for example, who might say; “well I come to the gallery to get away from society, I’m coming to have some sort of ‘out of body’ ‘esoteric’ ‘warm’ ‘fuzzy’ cultural experience”, is themselves using that museum as part of the social civic structure, it’s part of the whole framework. They’re not escaping from the world when they walk into a museum. They might be paying to see an exhibition so it’s part of the economy, they might be in a way gaining knowledge to use in wider discourse. They might be using that art to inform their behaviours and opinions outside the museum. The museum does not, equally as the art does not, exist separately from the world. The museum itself, MIMA, is subject to forces at work; Government funding, public opinion, pressures from the university, internal struggles within staff, you know whether the foods good or not, all of these things are in play. None of it is excluded.

Q: Given that, would you say it becomes even more difficult to pick artists and artworks to exhibit. Once you acknowledge the inescapable external pressures, i.e. being part of a wider institution such as Teesside University. Do you feel you should be ‘politically correct’? Can you take a stance and have social opinions? Is there a greater pressure now you have acknowledged the depth of your social function? 

A: I think in general we try to be more transparent about it, because the tradition is that a museum is neutral, and they’re not, they never have been. They are created by their users, now what we might describe as the ‘elitist, intellectual, autonomous model’ – the users of that museum are people like rich art collectors, and self-important curators, and ‘the friends group’ [Those who are members or sponsors of galleries] The nice polite middle class people etc. etc. That’s one particular set of users of a museum, what we’re talking about with MIMA is expanding that range of users, which might include refugees, schools, children, and actually being honest and seeing their importance, rather than just saying we’ll allow this to happen, fully integrating it in. And I think also in that situation you are very clear and open about the fact that the museum is run by those who have interest in it, who have a stake in it. You can grow and learn to have a stake in it if you haven’t had one before, but clearly at any one time who controls the museum, to varying degrees, is kind of a subjective thing. And that’s not a bad thing, so I guess I’ve been quite open. Like I was openly pro remain in the referendum, and wrote stuff online, articles, did stuff in the building; we did and do projects that work to support our refugees and asylum seekers. We had a banner up in the atrium saying ‘welcome refugees’, which some people found quite problematic. So yeah, I think the institution should be subjective and boisterous, it should be human!

Q: So, it’s quite liberating. 

A: Yeah, it’s actually more fun, more creative and artists respond better to it, and I think people respond better to it.

Q: So some of your practice is based on the essay ‘lexicon of usership’, this idea of the importance of terminology in the museum culture. I just wonder if you truly believe that language has the credence this article implies, if we adjust our language will change really follow or is this an academics fantasy of reinforcement? 

A: I think the language of the museum is really important, that’s why we’re doing this rebrand with Kellenberger-White. It’s not just about the logo and the aesthetics of the institution its about that language we employ. So, I constantly on press releases avoid or delete language which would be normal art world language, like ‘questioning notions of’ , and erm ‘to do with’, and all of this slightly lazy language that goes under the pretence of being academic and intellectual. And actually, things like the lexicon are quite interesting, because it’s not really academic language, a lot of the words are things like ‘hacking’ and ‘piggy backing’ or ‘1:1 scale’. They can become academic, and you can intellectualize them, but essentially, it’s about getting the language right or reclaiming words, or repurposing words through use that do a better job than the existing language.

Q: So, looking in a very Wittgensteinian sense at the usership of language… 

A: Yeah and I would then extend that to art and to museums, I think, again, rather than asking what art means, this is, in a way, the trap that the 200-year-old Modern period has created, where everyone goes ‘well I don’t understand what it means’. But meaning comes from use in a Wittgensteinian sense.

So, you shouldn’t ask what a work of art means, you should ask how you use it

How do I myself use this thing in front of me, or how do we collectively use this thing, or how does everybody use this object. Then the meaning will come from understanding that.

Q: So the understanding of aesthetics that MIMA is grounded in is the polar opposite to a modernist, Kantian aesthetic, with that in mind if I put the seemingly simple question to you of what is beauty, would you see function as integrated in that? 

A: Yeah, 100 per cent, which we kind of already know, because we know that… the 8th criteria of Art Utíl is about rethinking aesthetics and actually what it is. You know I refer to Kant in a lot of talks as the ‘software engineer’ who made this happen. Again, this Kantian model seems restrictive, aesthetics is much broader than that, it’s much more interesting as well. To think of Putin taking his top off as part of an aesthetic regime, as is why some particular flowers look a particular way they do for quite functional reasons. None the less we describe them as being beautiful. Actually, I think a lot of the time when we say beauty we mean something that works really well.

Q: Is it quite difficult to find the right place for MIMA in its wider community, as a lot of your aims are focused on a society that doesn’t quite see the value of art but at the same time an art world that doesn’t quite see the value of having a social function. So it must be quite difficult, as you almost sit outside both of these worlds that don’t quite accept you even though you seem to be building a bridge between the two. Do you find these hurdles come up a lot, is it quite restrictive for you? Do you find people want to engage and open up to the debate? 

A: Yeah, I mean how you’ve put it is kind of perfect really, but you know it’s a slow process to make this stuff happen because it’s about behavioural change. And actually what you find is kind of the people who think they know what art is and have a particular set idea of what art is are the people who struggle with it the most. Whereas Bini [refugee and local community leader], IPC, the guys that come to MIMAs workshops,

They know what’s going on, they can see it, they can feel it, you know it’s working in an operational way for them

So, that sort of works and I think when you explain it to people it’s quite straightforward. So actually if I do a talk about Art Utíl to a local community group in the church hall, they tend to go “oh yeah this is great, this is exactly what art should be.” It kind of demystifies the whole thing, because you know the business of art has been broiled in mystification for a long time. So, it’s actually quite a relief for a lot of people. Who it’s not a relief to are people who have a vested interest in that mystified type of art. Of course, now what is happening is everyone’s starting to come to grips with the changing world they’ve suddenly realised that their backs are against the wall. Particularly after the economic crash and everything that’s happened with Trump and Brexit and all that sort of thing, they’ve kind of gone ‘oh yeah maybe there is a bit of truth in all that stuff after all’. So, it’s very interesting now, in art terms there’s a lot of currency in what MIMA’s doing. You know we have conversations all the time around the museum with European partners, with Chicago, china, this is the live debate where all the interesting stuff is happening. The art world will catch up at some point.

Q: More internally speaking, your first aim on your manifesto is a “unified team”. Obviously, MIMA’s initial plan was to bring big international artists to raise the art profile of the north and people will have joined MIMA with that intention in mind. Now it is going through a transition is there any internal resistance. 

A: Yeah partly, some people found it quite hard to see, you need to grow through it, it takes some convincing. Like with all these things you have to do it to really understand it, so there’s the initial words, and then there’s the ‘well what does that mean, what does that look like, what does that taste like, will we get recognition? But even when I came for my interview I said, you know, there’s no point just going for big names. If you want to put MIMA on the map, there’s no point in showing the same old big names that everyone else is showing, because who are you trying to impress. You can go and see Louis Bourgeois at pretty much every gallery in the UK. So, let’s do something else. And equally the names we do show are not unknown.

Q: No, I just mean that the focus has shifted. It’s not all your doing. 

A: Yeah I mean basically we’re not doing the Glitzy famous artists that are propped up by the one per cent.

Q: The Hollywood Blockbuster exhibition?

A: Yeah …[Pause].. Although that doesn’t rule it out, we might do it at one point.

Q: What’s interesting about MIMA and the way its talked about is that there is a newsroom mentality to what goes on here, being current being on the ground and having these live discussions, so if a blockbuster show was what you needed to do you have the flexibility to be able to do it. So, in a way the transition that’s being talked about has no definite end point, there isn’t a single goal you’re aiming for, that once reached will be the finished product. 

A: Yeah, see that would be a bad idea to have that end point, because once you do that and you’ve planned it and decided what it is you’ve ruled everything else out.

Q: So, it’s a continuum, the transition is itself the aim then? 

A: Yeah, which in itself is quite hard to do in an institution because in most places like this they operate by all the curators going around all the biennales in the world with a notepad. Saying “oh well, that’d be nice, that’d be good, is it okay to like this person, have we got some consensus on whether they’re cool. Okay, well we’ll show them then,” and then they plan out their list of shows, that will be approved by the art world.

Q:.When asked about the hoops needed to be jumped by being a public institution Alistair replied simply… 

A: It’s a bloody nightmare, we should just show some watercolours on the wall.

Q: In a previous interview you said: “It’s not whether we choose to have culture or not, but what kind of culture we want”. What kind of culture do you want? 

A: Me personally, well, varied, tolerant, emphatic, humane, but equally slightly feisty. It should be a good mix. Everyone’s subject to their conditioning, so I was brought up with, you know, watching lots of TV and going to the la hacienda nightclub. That was like my art education, watching John Berger and la hacienda. So, you know somewhere amongst that… with a nice country walk in between.

Q: And to some degree, you would like that reflected in what you do here at MIMA. 

A: Well, yeah absolutely, I mean that’s the crazy thing, there was an idea that places like this were to enhance the culture of a place but of course all these places have great cultures already, it’s just not always identified as that. And it’s probably a question of highlighting the positive aspects of culture as opposed to the negative, damaging ones. For example, kids driving modified cars, doing doughnuts in a way is a really great thing, but then equally is viewed as a bad thing by some people. So somewhere in that… and I think it’s a question of teasing out the positive elements of those aspects of culture.

Alistair reminds us all that the currency of Art handles higher stakes than the blue-chip auction houses would have you believe. Everything is in operation in an enormous and ever-fluctuating context. Art is no different. If we misunderstand its breadth and influence by taking it off the curriculum, by starving its budget, restricting it to the ‘elite’; if we try to remove it with our ignorant tweezer… Well, I hope you like flashing red lights and the sound of a buzzer because this is one game of operation we aren’t going to win.

Photograph: @creativecommonflikr @paulHudson

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