Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

Engaging local people as users rather than spectators
Localism was an exhibition, events programme and workshop series that collected and presented a story of art and politics in Teesside.

It was conceived as the first major project under the new vision for Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima) as a "museum 3.0" or "useful museum", a civic institution based on usership rather than spectatorship.

It enabled conversations about the relationship between visual culture and society and introduced a broader definition of art, to include design, architecture, engineering, craft, sign writing and many other practices.

Localism was pointedly "local" in its outlook, both a critique of the blockbuster mentality and a way to reconnect a modern art gallery with its context and constituents.

Vitally it was an exhibition with crowd-sourced content; with ideas, narratives, artworks, artefacts, archival documentation and personal memorabilia suggested by the institutions and people of Teesside, while offering a curatorial approach that would have international relevance.

Through various public meetings we discussed themes and issues such as migration and the lesser-known industries of the region, and made a collective timeline of Teesside’s artistic and social history.

The local newspaper, The Gazette, featured a weekly Localism column from June to October 2015, covering topics relating to the project.

This was a crucial platform for our call-out for involvement, and as we had hoped, we met many people who had not previously visited or engaged with mima.

We organised the exhibition around these suggestions and each label credited the person who had proposed, loaned or selected the artefact or artwork on display.

This allowed us to move away from using an authoritative, institutional voice in both content and interpretation.

Localism was structured around four rooms, each of which proposed a function of the contemporary museum: The Local, a presentation of social history; The Forum, a place for reading, meeting and discussing; The Family Tree, a salon-style presentation of art; and The Workshop, an area for learning through making, with facilitated sessions led by residents.

Within these spaces, key displays gave the show focus, including the "timeline" and the "family tree" diagram. The latter was devised with researcher James Beighton and hand-drawn by a local signwriter, depicting the region’s art history in a more connective, less linear manner (and functioned as a send-up of Alfred Barr’s famous depiction of cubism and abstract art).

Works by New Boosbeck Industries and New Linthorpe explored making traditions and cultural regeneration informed by Teesside’s artistic history, offering moments of considered reflection and new production.

Among others, works from the 1950s - 1980s by the much-loved local artist Glynn Porteous sat alongside Transformer Middlesbrough, created by Stephen Willats during a residency in Middlesbrough in 1997, as well as a piece by Joanna Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan (O’Sullivan grew up in Teesside and cites its culture and politics as important for his practice).

The momentum of the call out continued; even at the opening of the exhibition people arrived with artworks and proposals for artefacts that should be displayed. To accommodate this and maintain a fluid approach, we devised a group of rotating displays, organised by local artists and interested parties, and took suggestions for additions to the "timeline" and the "family tree" diagram.

Over 1,000 people came to the Saturday launch and throughout the exhibition the galleries were busy and events popular. Localism functioned as a listening device for mima, and was a tool through which we could begin to better understand and reflect the needs and concerns of some of the local constituents. The project operated as action research and many of the dialogues developed through it continue to feed and create our programme into the future.

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