We need to rethink what a museum can be

Alistair Hudson, Issue 115/10, p14, 01.10.2015
‘This proposal is for art that works in the world’
The idea to propose the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (Mima) as a “useful museum” seems rather urgent.

Our institution, like most, is facing a reduction of traditional public funding and some people have even called its very existence into question.

Why, when we need core services such as hospitals and schools, do we need an art gallery?

Ultimately, this is a result of the arts being seen as part of a culture industry and an attention economy, rather than central to the formation of a fully functioning society.

We need to change this, to show that the arts, museums and culture are fundamental and practicable in the development of a healthy society, not just in Middlesbrough, but everywhere. If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere.

How we got to this precarious position goes back a long way, to the beginnings of industrialised society and the romantic philosophies that carved up the world and set art apart as an autonomous field that has increasingly removed itself from direct action and interest.

This concept has proved impossible to shake, to the point that we can hardly conceive of another approach. All attempts to break away from the idea of art and culture as separate from “real life” have, on the whole, been recaptured by the market or dismissed as “not art”.

Our museum and gallery buildings are still constructed according to a 19th-century mindset, physically and conceptually, with the exhibitions and collections occupying a central position in isolated conditions.

The support activities of education, community, cafe and so on operate as a constellation of support around the main event.

At Mima, we feel it is the right time to attempt to reverse this and to create something more akin to the Mechanics’ Institutes of the early 1800s.

Recently, the security and associated systems of the market have started to show signs of fragility or even collapse, and alternatives are beginning to emerge that offer more to wider sections of society.

The movement of Arte Útil roughly translates as “useful art”, but goes further, suggesting
art as a tool or device.

It is one that comes out of a convergence of thinking and collaboration between artists, writers and institutions including Tania Bruguera, Stephen Wright, New York’s Queens Museum, Eindhoven’s Van Abbemuseum, Grizedale Arts, where I used to work, and Mima.

It also reconnects art with a narrative embedded in social ritual and design. Incorporating the Asociación de Arte Útil, the movement convenes a growing international network of people with the ambition to reintegrate art back into society.

The idea is to move away from an artist-centred, market- oriented model, to an effective manifestation of creative collectivity.

This is a proposal for art that goes beyond representation; for art that actually works in the world, doing specific tasks as part of civic society, as part of the world, on a one-to-one scale. This, as Bruguera states, is art as a verb, not as an object.

The challenge emerging is to apply the software of Arte Útil to the hardware of the museum and to develop a model for what we call the Museum 3.0 – an institution whose meanings and functions are created by the actions of its users.

Whereas the Museum 2.0 could be seen to be founded on participation in the arts, we must now look to build an institute based on learning through making and doing, co-creating a programme that offers solutions to social concerns.

As the prosumer replaces the consumer, this alternative points to a rethink of the museum that offers a range of resources and people to learn and make together, in public, and to see collections and exhibitions not as the end, but the starting point for a way of applying art in everyday life.

Alistair Hudson
is the director of theMiddlesbrough Institute of Modern Art