An institution that works on visitors’ terms

Alistair Hudson, 01.06.2019
I write this article in Venice – the city where the Victorian critic John Ruskin charted the rise and fall of worthwhile art and, for many, the epicentre of the international art machine for a few days in early May. The Venice Biennale unveils itself to the art glitterati and art vermin of the planet, and its ripples are felt throughout the globe. 

Curators and collectors infest this ancient city for these few days, drawing up shopping lists for their museums, galleries and homes. Whether you despise it, or love it in equal measure, as I do, such convenings of the pack will determine the content of our public galleries for years to come.

It has been this way for a long time. Museums have evolved according to an operating system that was created in the 19th century and is complicit with individualism, free-market capitalism and technological advance. It spawned the rise of the art market and a dominant ideology of the artist as sovereign. Of course, this has been consistently challenged and subverted throughout the short history of modernity, but the upshot is that the same decision-makers hold power. 

Our art system has struggled and strived to deviate from this model, but it persists, as the gravitational pull of money and power hold fast. The public art museum system cannot escape this orbit. Its very architecture, physical and conceptual, is built on a version of autonomous art verified by consensus. 

As a result, the pattern is set of the artist-oriented exhibition at the centre, decided on by expert culture, translated by education and mediation for consumption by the wider world. Even the participation agenda of the past three decades has worked in service of this same machine – people participating in business as usual.

In the Venice hubbub, we met up with colleagues from Eindhoven’s Van Abbemuseum – a like-minded institution also trying to de-modernise as the world moves on. Venice is, after all, a big trade fair where you get to meet everyone, and plot and plan how we might do things differently. Working from the inside, to change things for the better. 

Together, our museums were recently awarded the Outset Partners Transformation Grant to radically rethink the art institution of the future. This unique and experimental initiative, which is genuinely open in ways that other grants aren’t, will support our project, The Constituent Museum and the Transformative Power of Arte Util. 

Using a methodology that sees art not as a set of objects, but a process and tool for social change, our museums will radically transform their core protocols by redrawing relationships with local constituent groups, creating an agency to inform the museums’ collecting, curating and presenting.

Our starting point was a question: “What if we put relationships at the heart of the museum?” 

We want to reuse our buildings as places to generate conversations between people about what we need to do and what we need to address. It’s a move away from considering an abstract audience that is somehow out there to be engaged, to an understanding of multiple constituents, who operate in multiple networks, and feel empowered to use and create the content of the museum with the museum. We want to build an institution that works for them on their terms, creating a truly democratic version of culture.

Our Outset-funded constituent curators will lead the development of these relationships and drive new projects that come from communal needs. The growing archive of hundreds of Arte Util projects will serve as a “how to” resource in using artistic strategies to make change happen – in ecology, economics, technology, education, law, politics and housing. We hope this will bring other, wider, forms of art into the mainstream and that we might become civic institutions of real social value. 

After all, the museum is not an isolation chamber but a place for all to commune with the muses.

Alistair Hudson is the director of Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth