MIMA, the Teesside University-powered museum, puts the community at heart

Laura Sillars tells us how Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, ran by Teesside University, is vital to the wider community

MIMA, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, is a modern and contemporary art museum with a civic mission.

The vision for MIMA – its iconic statement architecture and ambitious development of international exhibitions and collections – was carried on the same fair wind of cultural optimism that generated investment for new artistic projects across the UK; from Gateshead to Margate, Walsall to Eastbourne, and Colchester to Liverpool. With varying degrees of success, all have weathered the financial climate change of the early 2000s. All have developed business models based on a mix of public and private funds, plus earned income.

Critically, all continue to build the cultural infrastructure of the places and people they serve. MIMA’s trajectory, from public hands to higher education ownership, has brought extraordinary results. A member of Plus Tate network and L’Internationale confederation of European museums, MIMA is a sector leader in socially engaged practice.

In 2019, MIMA is powered by Teesside University, which took over from the local authority at a crunch point for councils across the country. Teesside University has a mission to transform lives and economies, a long history of civic engagement, and strong relationships across our region. Because of the depth of MIMA’s community reach, the university and MIMA were naturally aligned from the beginning. We have a common language – we are both committed to building opportunities and creativity for the people we serve.

Teesside University has a mission to transform lives and economies, a long history of civic engagement, and strong relationships across our region

The energy between MIMA and the university drew me to the role of director here, just over a year ago. The questions that drove my first year were, ‘what is real here?’ and ‘what makes this tick?’ through to ‘what is this magic made of?’

I have found the answer to be that MIMA puts art into action. Nothing is static here. Even the most abstract Modernist artworks are put to work. Art creates debate. Artworks and artists sculpt social space. Over 100,000 people visit each year. The gallery is bustling with schools, students and older people’s groups. While a large proportion are families, it is significant that over 20% visit alone and 19% are from BAME backgrounds. A community leader recently explained this to me: “people feel safe at MIMA”.

 

Each month, MIMA hosts delegations of arts professionals from national museums and European galleries, plus regional, local and university galleries seeking insight into the MIMA model. They often ask how we balance being an internationally-focused gallery with being a hyper-locally connected museum. The answer is both simple and complex. We place communities of interest (the groups we describe as constituents) at the centre of our work.

Our creative processes are always collaborative, creatively consultative, and shaped with constituents and their agendas. We work with internationally-known artists to connect meaningfully with our place. And we invest in social space to enable conversations. Each week we sit down with constituents and eat lunch together. Lunch is free, and all are welcome.

Living beyond limits

An example of art in action in the past year is our Living Beyond Limits exhibition. We worked with LGBTQIA+ communities to re-hang our collection according to their readings of identity and politics. Previously un-presented works were shown, and famous Modernist pieces appreciated from new angles. On International Transgender Day of Remembrance, constituents lit the candles of a sculpture by Chiara Camoni to remember others who struggle for rights and recognition. MIMA became a site of global connection.

Right now – at the time of writing – our galleries are filled with artworks addressing issues of climate change, in our exhibition Fragile Earth. The opening event brought together local and national environmental activists, policy-makers, politicians and third sector agencies, to build coalition and alliance. MIMA has generated a progressive space to forge new relationships, new understandings and new visions for the future.

The MIMA School of Art was launched this Spring, and brings the University’s Fine Art provision into MIMA’s creative leadership. With a new BA and MA and a community of PhDs, the move is energising an academic team and enabling our research, learning and teaching to draw on the MIMA model. MIMA becomes a platform, supporting students to become artists and to connect to the wider world of art.

On International Transgender Day of Remembrance, constituents lit the candles of a sculpture by Chiara Camoni to remember others who struggle for rights and recognition

When I am called by galleries or consultants brokering new partnerships between HE and cultural institutions, I am often struck by the mismatch in expectations. The university partners often hope to exhibit their work, and the cultural partners hope for bigger budgets.

The MIMA model has been made to fly within Teesside University because MIMA has been given creative space and curatorial autonomy, and because we have worked together to build understanding. MIMA connects researchers to each other across disciplines as well as to new public discourse, but we are not a vanity publishing project. Every exhibition or event is filtered through the same curatorial critique. Five years of careful, funded, transitioning have generated mutual respect, shared values and aligned direction.

Drawing on the varied strengths of the University, MIMA has successfully led a coalition to build a movement for cultural engagement in Redcar and Cleveland and Middlesbrough. A major artistic collaboration begins this Autumn, supported by the Arts Council and based on environmental themes.

As the third decade of the second millennium dawns, both universities and museums are busy re-thinking what and who they are for. The MIMA model has begun to scope some answers to that question.


Laura Sillars is director of MIMA – Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

 

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