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Why art museums must promote social justice

Middlesbrough is one of Britain’s most deprived cities. Which is why its cultural sector must join the battle for societal change.

Alistair Hudson
13 October 2016
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Community Day at mima. Photo courtesy of mima.Art is too easily dismissed. Phrases like “it’s not for us” or “art for art’s sake” frequently find their way into everyday conversation. This idea of culture as somehow detached from the ordinary flows of life, a luxury extra even, is rooted in a nineteenth-century conception of art based upon individual expression, the art market and a romantic philosophy founded in critical detachment.

But there is a longer story of art, embedded as a process at the heart of civilization, that takes its form across all human activity: in politics, religion, architecture, music, horticulture, food and so on. It is an idea of art that speaks of a way of doing things, not a set of things in the world designated as art – a democratic understanding of creativity, that goes back to the ancient Greek understanding of art as “human activity”.

One key advocate of this version of art was the Victorian writer, artist, educator and social reformer John Ruskin. Much maligned and marginalised in the history of art, Ruskin campaigned vigorously and tirelessly throughout his life for art, not just as a way to see the world, but also as a tool to enable social change, an ethical imperative to resist the dehumanising effects of industrialisation and capitalism. His most important works expand artistic thinking to profoundly infiltrate the world of economics, education and ethics, with a far-reaching influence that includes the conservation movement, socialism, feminism and education for all.

Underpinning this worldview was the belief that art should not be considered on its own terms, but as a useful tool in the drive to better society for all. We could say that this alternative view has lain dormant or suppressed ever since. In effect, Ruskin lost the argument and free market capitalism subsequently ran riot until the crash of 2007. Negotiating present uncertainties and insecurities, Ruskin’s voice feels evermore important. A world of haves and have nots, environmental catastrophe, digitised warfare, a retraction of society to the selfie, prompts us to seek an alternate more ecological path that reconnects and re-humanizes us.

In this mix there has been a concerted effort from groups of artists, activists and culture workers to employ art and art-related activities away from the market dominated, attention economy of the “art world”. One manifestation of this is the Arte Útil (art as a tool) movement, with which I have been involved for the last four years. Since its initiation by ‘activist’ Tania Bruguera in 2011 the movement of Arte Útil has grown to advocate the use of art in practical, local circumstances to enable social change. Through an expanding network of allegiances, partnerships and platforms this is providing a serious and real challenge to the orthodoxies of contemporary art – notable, for example, in last year’s Turner Prize, which was won by the collective Assemble, for its work with the Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust.

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Alistair Hudson. Photo courtesy of mima It was through the development of Arte Útil and its philosophy of art as process for social change, which inspired me to take on the challenge of applying this methodology to an established museum. Taking on the Directorship of Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima) in late 2014, the question was, could we repurpose a museum moulded in the inherited behaviours of the nineteenth century to work more effectively for its communities and constituents in the twenty-first? Could we make a Useful Museum, one that is valued by its publics for what it does for them, not what it represents?

This work is now two years underway and still far from complete. Turning around an institution like this does make you feel like the captain of the proverbial ship. In stormy waters.

Underlying the change in direction is a vision founded on usership and social change; how we use art to imagine and implement real change in society. Middlesbrough represents an acute manifestation of the world’s ills – with some of the lowest indices of deprivation in the UK, a decimated steel industry and the highest proportion of migrants per capita in the country. So the challenge is to develop strategies through the Institute that utilise artistic or artful strategies to provide solutions where all else has failed.

This has meant what I refer to as “reversing the polarities” of the museum. The traditional mind-set of the gallery is to offer the spectator the experience of exhibitions and collections as the first site of activity, as part of a wider civic agency, with education, community programmes, café, shop, outreach and so on supporting this central mission – in the tradition of bringing great art to the people.

At mima we are attempting to switch this around, moving to position our public programmes as the principle activity, to address urgent social issues (education, housing, wellbeing, economics) with exhibitions and collections working to support this aim. Also in this light, the museum shifts from being a neutral space, exemplified by the white cube, to a subjective place of opinion, closer to the public plaza or town hall than the monastery. Musuems need to be in play in the world, as active agencies, not seen as some sort of safe zone out of the cut and thrust of daily life.

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mima’s If All Relationships Were to Reach Equilibrium Then This Building Would Dissolve. Photo courtesy of mima Our most recent exhibition themes this year exemplify this new strategy: a response to the closure of the steel works, a response to Brexit, a response to the migrant crisis – all conceived not as ‘shows’ but as tools and platforms for a wider endeavour to be involved in these issues and to instigate real world projects that offer creative answers to stubborn problems. A migration project, with the willfully overlong title "If All Relations Were to Reach Equilibrium This Building Would Dissolve” worked with a local refugee and asylum seeker charity Investing in People and Culture, to develop the exhibition as a platform to convey the truth of migratory conditions, whilst developing support services for these constituents, such as a food bank, a weekly community day with free lunch, gardening, discussions and so on. This is now evolving into the project with the charity to provide better living conditions for this community. The fact that this work takes place in the museum elevates the status of this constituency; the simple psychological turn is that this precarious group are enabled to contribute and construct mainstream culture and tell their story. They have a place.

Visual representation, control over our environment, the right and ability to speak and make the world on our terms are essential facets of art, at the core of which is the need for people to have the permission to create, to contribute. This power is currently in the hands of a few; it is the mission of mima to enable this for everyone.

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