Towards Civic Engagement

24 January 2018



Ellen Mara De Wachter reports from our latest Arts Council Collection Curators’ Day at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, Middlesbrough.


There are so many inspiring ideas and concrete examples to report from this thought-provoking and timely Arts Council Collection Curators’ Day. At a moment when the most visible instances of civic engagement seem to be those destined to divide society (votes for Brexit, Trump, etc.), this day proposed alternative ways of reaching people by asking what museums, galleries and collections can do to bring them together to effect positive change.

The day began with an introduction from Alistair Hudson, Director of Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. Hudson began by outlining the ethos he and his team have developed at the museum and its emphasis on social change. Under his directorship, he said, the museum has made a significant shift away from considering its audience as ‘other’ and towards seeing them as a ‘constituency of users’. For Hudson, the important question is ‘why are we here in the first place?’ – and the answer lies in taking seriously the museum’s remit to ‘make things in the region work better’. 


"A space for all..."

The first presentation of the day came from the museum’s Senior Curator, Miguel Amado. Amado took us through a series of ideas and examples of how the museum has been a tool for social change in Middlesbrough, a place that has been under strain for generations, beginning with the historical decline of the steel industry and more recently with a growing population of refugees and asylum seekers, sent to the town via the British government’s dispersal system. Given the unique conditions in Middlesbrough the museum has had to carefully consider what is relevant to a local constituency of users.

So, how has Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, which opened in 2007 as an amalgamation of three separate municipal galleries, been radically reforming the notion and practice of the museum? The first shift, as Amado explained, is towards considering it as ‘a space for all’, and privileging ‘art for a reason, not for its own sake’ – an opposition crystallised in the two philosophies of John Ruskin and Immanuel Kant.

The Arts Council Collection : Towards Civic Engagement

The museum runs a weekly community day every Thursday, which includes artist-led activities, workshops and classes for local groups and a free communal meal. In terms of exhibitions, the museum has pioneered a practice of co-creation through user-led content generation, for example by placing articles in newspapers asking readers to be part of the selection of works by expressing opinions on what should be shown. Amado explained that the museum is dedicated to commissioning local artists as much as international artists, researching topics that are pressing locally yet resonate globally, working with local charities, taking inspiration from initiatives such as the public library, and drawing ideas from the work of local and international activists.

In relation to their existing collection, which is, typically, dominated by works made by white, male, middle-class, able-bodied British artists, the museum’s new acquisition policy is socially engaged, non-medium specific, transhistorical, and committed to bridging gaps in representation.

Gestures towards the public ownership of the museum, particularly its collection, have included renaming it the ‘Middlesbrough Collection’ to indicate its connection to the town, shifting exhibition openings from Thursday evening to Saturday afternoon, so that more and different people can attend, and using non-gallery spaces in the building, such as the atrium, for activities. On a personal level, Amado explained that he has ‘stopped working from the office’ since perceiving that his work as a curator is more valuable as a form of direct contact with local groups, by working ‘on the streets’.

‘Begin with place and grow the unexpected...’

The Arts Council Collection : Towards Civic Engagement

Over lunch, the 40 curators representing organisations from around the country gathered in the museum’s atrium to discuss and share ideas. This was followed by three shorter presentations, the first from Claire Doherty, who recently took up her post as Director of Arnolfini in Bristol, after fifteen years at the head of Situations, an organisation that specialises in public art commissions. She offered a series of guiding thoughts, including ‘begin with place and grow the unexpected from there’ and ‘don’t be afraid to unsettle’. For Doherty, art doesn’t simply hold a mirror up to place, but offers the potential to reimagine the future. Her examples of Situations projects included Flatbread Society (2013), by Future Farmers, in Oslo, Norway, which doubled up as a way of protecting land from unscrupulous development; and Sanctum (2015), by Theaster Gates, a sound event over 24 days with 700 performers and an unannounced programme in Bristol. These unsettling works resulted in a positive production of community and unforeseen outcomes, as well as an improved sense of wellbeing for participants.

The Art of Collaboration

Emily Pethick, Director of The Showroom in London, spoke next, giving a brief history of her organisation, which was founded in 1993 as an independent space dedicated to commissioning new work. In 2009, The Showroom moved from the East End to an area of social deprivation in the West End of London. Her small team is constantly in conversation about the programme, and her approach is to work responsively and offer artists and communities somewhere to incubate ideas and projects. She offered the example of Lawrence Abu Hamdan, who developed Aural Contract (2010-12) over several years of collaboration with The Showroom, including a series of workshops with 14-year-old girls from the area. Pethick believes in building continuity with artists, and explained that it is not always necessary to bring in new groups. Since 2012, The Showroom has been working with the group Justice for Domestic Workers, who have collaborated on numberous projects, including Ciara Phillips’ project Workshop, for which she received a Turner Prize nomination. As a caution against predetermined outcomes, Pethick told the audience that ‘sometimes you don’t really know what the use is but you find it through the project.’

The Arts Council Collection : Towards Civic Engagement

"Be part of the world..."

The Arts Council Collection : Towards Civic Engagement

Finally, Helen Pheby, Senior Curator at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in Wakefield, spoke about using her platform to bring in communities and asked ‘how do we then empower people to go away and make change?’ Pheby spoke passionately about the need to wonder why all art isn’t already considered public, and why collections are not seen as public space. Poet Simon Armitage called Yorkshire Sculpture Park ‘a miracle of mischief’, referring to its transformation from a free arts education platform set up in 1977 in a rural estate s­urrounded by industry, to a destination of international repute. The organisation programmes holistically, but still faces challenges: Pheby spoke of the debates around how to represent modern Britain, and the importance of working with everyone, not just those whose views we might agree with. She mentioned the commission of Sophie Ernst’s Silent Empress (2012), a project that involved installing speakers on a statue of Queen Victoria in Wakefield, which had to be taken down 30 minutes after its launch because of public outcry at disrespect for royal heritage. Pheby’s last words summed up the day: ‘The best we can do is really be part of the world and not retreat behind our doors.’



Ellen Mara De Wachter is a writer and curator based in London. Her book ‘Co-Art: Artists on Creative Collaboration’ is published by Phaidon.



The Arts Council Collection is the UK's most widely seen collection of modern and contemporary art.

With more than 8,000 works by over 2,000 artists, it can be seen in exhibitions and public displays across the country and beyond. This website offers unprecedented access to the Collection, and information about each work can be found on this site.