VISUAL ARTS mima's metamorphosis
Middlesbrough’s contemporary art gallery is undergoing some radical changes, discovers Patrick Kelly
The café at mima, Middlesbrough’s pioneering contemporary art gallery, is closed for refurbishment. Another redundant revamp to bring lattes and organic flapjacks to the Northern masses? Not at all, says mima’s director Alastair Hudson. The new café will be part of the programme, “a stage set” reflecting the art on display in the galleries. Indeed, mima has commissioned artist Luke Harding, who runs an award-winning restaurant in near- by Stockton, to design what will be a food kitchen, learning space and arts venue in its own right.
“There’s a tendency,” says Hudson, “to see cafés in galleries as an add-on, something to bring in a bit of revenue, but we are creating a space that is just as much a part of mima as the gallery rooms.
“This is why we were eager to com-mission Luke’s Harding’s proposals for a cafe artwork. After all there is a very extensive history of art as food and food as art, if we don’t tell this story we are missing a trick.”
No artistic stones will remain un- turned in the mima garden, shop, atrium or reception area either. All are currently undergoing a revamp, with teams led by artists and including members of Middlesbrough’s various communities, from migrants to ex-coal miners. For example, new furniture for mima is being made by young unemployed people under the baton of maker and designer Adam Clarke.
The inspiration for all this change lies in the city’s own history, says Hud- son, who arrived at mima 18 months ago from the pioneering sculpture park at Grizedale. Back in the 1930s, the Boosbeck Industries were established by the Pennyman family to tackle unemployment in the region. British designer and former Bauhaus student Wilfred Franks taught furniture making to workers – particularly miners from North Skelton, Boosbeck – who soon became skilled craftsmen. The settlement also brought in com- poser Michael Tippett, who wrote an opera based on the legend of Robin Hood.
Hudson wants to recreate the spirit of the settlement, which as well as providing jobs and practical skills, sought to celebrate working class culture in music, art and dance. Plans for a New Boosbeck Industries, led by Clarke, are underway. “We are revisiting Ruskin in essence,” says Hudson.
Hudson, who started in the art world as an assistant to Anthony
D’Offay, is an unabashed devotee of the Arte Util movement, which pro- motes the idea of ‘useful art’, and is profoundly critical of the established art world dominated by galleries, salesrooms and the concept of ‘great art’ , as defined by market forces.
“There is a responsibility for us to show forms of art that are outside that system,” he declares.
Hudson’s radical approach to ex- hibition-making became apparent at mima almost immediately, with Local- ism. Describing it as “the antidote to the international blockbuster exhibi- tion,” he asked the public via an ap- peal in the local newspaper, to suggest the art that was important to them and their town. Ideas for paintings, ceram- ics, photographs, films, objects and records flooded in. So the final line-up included design, engineering, pottery and many other practices usually considered "minor" alongside works by Wilfred Franks, L. S. Lowry and Glynn Porteous, as well as commissioned artists Stephen Gill, Adam Clarke, Emily Hesse and James Beighton.
“Localism was about what happens when the big ideas of art hit a very particular place like this, how a town built on making uses art to grow and define itself.” says Hudson. He believes that there is a danger that a publicly owned gallery can find itself trapped by the exigencies of sustaining the building and the collection. Galleries should be part of a civic agenda rather than act as a tourist spectacle, he says, and the art within should be judged on whether it can “contribute to social change”.
He cites the examples of mima’s current exhibitions – one of which ex- plains the history and context of the steel industry’s relationship with Middlesbrough in an almost "traditional" museum style before inviting artists to respond to the closure of the iconic steelworks. Upstairs, a second show, titled If All Relations Were to Reach Equilibrium, Then This Building Would Dis- solve, explores the world of migrants in a town which has one of the highest refugee populations in the UK. Feedback for the new approach has been very positive, Hudson says. A recent project which involved traditional African sculpture rendered in chocolate was an immediate hit with the Congo- lese community, who had never seen their own cultural roots reflected in an English setting.
Before Hudson’s arrival, mima had been having something of a crisis. Under fire for failing to meet visitor targets and facing opening hours cuts from a cash-strapped council, a deal was eventually made to transfer it to the management of neighbours Teeside University. The council will continue as the gallery’s main funder alongside Arts Council England, and will also retain ownership of mima’s art, jewellery and ceramics collection.
That collection will still be an im- portant part of mima’s offer, says Hudson and Middlesbrough will not be deprived of the opportunity to see the likes of Louise Bourgeois or Ger- hard Richter. Hudson’s plan, which he says may take seven years to re- alise, is to place the art gallery at the heart of what the city does, and how it sees itself, rather than as a kind of iconic architectural showpiece. He has plans for an art-based gymnasium, the crowdsourcing of more exhibitions and a joint project with artists in Mid- dlesbrough’s twin town in Germany.
“Our job is to reclaim art for a wid- er group of people than is currently the case. The use of an institution like this one is to be a place where those people can learn about the role of art in society.
“It’s a big ambition,” he admits, “but if we’re going to test it, then Middlesbrough would be the place”. Despite being a large industrial town, Middlesbrough is still quite villagey. I can pop in a talk to the vice-chancellor or have a coffee with the mayor.” he says. “It’s a shared agenda. We all want to improve things in the town for the benefit of the people who live here.”
The new menu at mima will be just the start.