Decolonising the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art - Museums Association

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Decolonising the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

Black artists and the Middlesbrough Collection
Elinor Morgan and Anjalie Dalal-Clayton
In 1987, the Cleveland Gallery in Middlesbrough acquired Sonia Boyce’s self-portrait She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On: Some English Rose (1986), which became a cornerstone of what is now the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art’s (Mima) Middlesbrough Collection.

Thirty-two years later, Mima and Boyce collaborated through the University of the Arts London research project Black Artists & Modernism to support Mima reflecting on its collecting, conservation, interpretation and display practices in relation to issues of representation and decolonisation.

An audit of the Middlesbrough Collection revealed that Mima currently holds 66 artworks by 28 black British artists, representing only 2% of artists in the collection. This figure is typical of Black Artists & Modernism’s findings for UK public collections – across the 32 collections that were audited, works by black artists represented between 1% and 4% of the collections.

While the Middlesbrough Collection is grossly under-representative, these statistics do give the institution impetus to take considered steps for future approaches to acquisitions and displays that broaden and deepen the collection’s holdings of works by black artists.

As Black Artists & Modernism research unfolded it informed Mima’s annual collection display. Why Are We Here? (March 2019 – March 2020) includes pieces from 1870 to 2019, with well-known works sitting alongside those not seen since their acquisition.

The display makes visible some of the structures behind collections, sharing narratives in texts and public talks about how works have been collected and why some art histories have been neglected.

It asks, publicly, how the collection should be developed, used and shown in the future. This self-analysis – underpinned by the support of experts – begins to recognise and deconstruct some of the patriarchal and colonial frameworks that underpin the UK’s public collections.  

The collaboration involved detailed research on ceramic works by the artist Magdalene Odundo, involving close object-based readings and a comparison with a piece by Fiona Salazar.

This approach situates and compares each artist’s relationships with the complex narratives of art’s histories and the factors that have formed Mima’s collection.

The close readings aim to circumvent the exoticisation and othering of black artists through an overdetermination of their cultural identities. Taking a cue from Black Artists & Modernism’s approach, the interpretation in Why Are We Here? emphasises an object-based reading of the works, with makers’ identities forming part of the picture but not its entirety.

Part of Teesside University, Mima is a teaching and research environment as well as a collecting and commissioning arts organisation. Like all public and educational organisations, it has a responsibility to engage with and learn from decolonising discourses and to enact change.
Focusing on the collection and archive is an essential part of this, and the collaborative project with Black Artists & Modernism has supported the start of that process. After this initial focus on artists in Britain, the approach will expand to the wider international communities of artists in the collection over the coming months and years.

Elinor Morgan is the senior curator at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, and Anjalie Dalal-Clayton is an art historian

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