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On useful art: Alistair Hudson at Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth

Posted February 4th, 2018


For some strange reason the directors of Manchester's two main public art galleries are one and the same person. Manchester Art Gallery, established in 1820, is under Manchester City Council and the Whitworth Art Gallery, which goes back to 1889 as The Whitworth Institute and Park, has been under the University of Manchester since 1958. In 2011 they were brought together in a partnership which the leader of the City Council assured Mancunians will "not only safeguard, but significantly enhance the city's cultural reputation."

As from 2018 this one person is Alistair Hudson, formerly director of Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) and who believes that (i) art galleries would be more useful if their collections were secondary to their cafes and shops and that (ii) while artists may have particular skills to offer society they should be replaced by 'initiators' to prevent them from controlling their own projects. The artist as an independent creative genius is apparently a thing of the past. Art galleries, he says, are essentially remote 'bubbles' which extract art from day to day living and make it less useful to society than if it was an embellishment of what people already do. And that's why - so his argument goes - things need to change, and it all begins with the useful things such as gallery cafes and shops which people already like. Just flip everything around, so for example, what if the gallery gets involved in healthcare or housing? Let's do away with the idea of whether something is art or not - is it art? Is it not art? Who cares? Art is just part of the broad ecology of things that go on in the world: a way of doing things rather than a thing in itself. Think about the art of gardening or the art of cooking, so the gallery cafe can then be a place where people learn to cook or where artists do projects - the cafe becomes the art. For the shop, use the art collection as a way to teach people to make products that can be sold in the shop so they get the revenue themselves, or for example scanning a Victorian teapot and using it to make the teapot in something else for selling online. By adopting these methods art galleries will become much more useful than, say, a museum full of useless old Rembrandts and Botticellis. Hudson made a quick start at Manchester Art Gallery when in January 2018 the curators ceremonially removed from its walls a pre-Raphaelite 'masterpiece' by John William Waterhouse, and to drive the point home, it wasn't just the painting itself that was taken out but the postcards and posters of it in the gallery shop, expunging the picture altogether.

Mr Hudson hasn't thought this up just by himself. Useful Art has its own association - the Useful Art Association - which, according to the Tate, "promotes the idea of art as a process that should have real effect in society as part of everyday life, rather than a rarefied spectator experience." Viewers are transformed into activated users, shifting the role of art from the passive realm of aesthetics to one of action and activism. So if you are a painter you will be judged not by art critics or your fellow painters looking at your work on an exhibition wall but by groups of leftists at the local community centre, or in the case of Waterhouse, a 'take-over' of Manchester Art Gallery's public spaces by performance artists and Sonia Boyce, a political artist from London.

It is not difficult to imagine how Mr Hudson might have persuaded Manchester City Council and the University of Manchester to appoint him to run their public art galleries. The idea of public money being wasted on rooms full of pictures by people no-one has heard of and which you need an art degree to make sense of is not good politics in this day and age. Bring it all out to the community in the cafe or shop which they'd rather be in anyway than a stuffy old gallery, or even better, out of the institution completely where it can be more useful to society generally - it seems like a vote-winner, so why not give this a try? After all, that's how things were before the word 'art' even existed, before the mid-19th century when the art market took hold and "cemented the idea that art is useless and just hung on walls for contemplation."

If Alistair Hudson does what he did at Middlesbrough, Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth will "move forward with a civic agenda, to reconnect art with its social function and promote art as a tool for changing the world around us" and "replace artists with initiators and spectators with users." Forget about art for art's sake and think of art as a tool or device with "practical, beneficial outcomes for its users." If you are a Scottish 'user' those beneficial outcomes include an independent Scotland because the Scottish Culture Secretary believes artists "have to have a common understanding of what the country wants ... as a way of helping ambition for the country". There is nothing to stop independent artists creating whatever they want without the oversight of 'initiators' and 'users' and holding their own public exhibitions or putting their paintings in art shops but there are many who rely on grants and other public subsidies and if they become subjugated to 'what the country wants' then never mind community control - this is state control. It does not mean Alistair Hudson is an agent of the state; it is just the theory's logical conclusion and there is never a shortage of followers to let this happen.

I don't mind him trying out his ideas in Manchester. Community involvement in art to help make it more meaningful and interesting ought to be good for it as long as this 'community' isn't just people with time on their hands for making mischief and actually controlling what artists do. In any case, it's one thing to have theories and another thing altogether putting them into practice, even for a director, especially when the gallery - or galleries in the case of Manchester - is a respected public institution going back to the 19th century. Presumably Mr Hudson is not a fool and is just as able as anyone else to appreciate art by contemplation only. If he has been to the National Gallery in London and followed the crowds to the great paintings it has he must know there is a place in the world for independent creative genius.

But watch out. At Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art where he was director until 2017, and which is part of Teesside University, the 'civic agenda' includes a "season of exhibitions and projects that contribute to the urgent debate around the future of housing" and "community-focused initiatives exploring education, activism and making, and reaching out to multiple constituencies" - there is no place there for art for art's sake. It seems questionable whether Universities should be let loose as so-called public art institutions and taking over public collections when they aren't subject to the same scrutiny as democratically elected local authorities like Manchester City Council, though even there the Art Galleries Committee meets just once a year and only involves itself in 'major decisions'. If you were a wealthy benefactor it does not seem an obvious place these days to bequeath to posterity your fine collection of masterpieces. They would be asking: "What use is this? What has it got to do with our agenda, our urgent themes, our social functions: healthcare, housing, migration, inequality, regeneration?"

If Manchester wants to stay a great city it must have at least one great art gallery in the common understanding of what art is and what artists are and it must not concern itself over whether its paintings and sculptures are useful in the opinion of a bunch of community activists. Art must be free to speak for itself without social accompaniment. I'm not suggesting 'useful' art is no good. Most of the paintings in the National Portrait Gallery were useful at one time: to the Lords and Ladies, to celebrate a military victory, to trample down the unruly masses, or whatever. There is hardly one painting from the Renaissance that was useless, purely for the fun of it. But they are useless now. Venus and Mars, Virgin on the Rocks, Arnolfini Portrait - you name it - all totally useless. It's why so many people gather in front of them just gazing, contemplating, imagining.

Page last modified: February 10, 2018

Patrick Elsewhere

The art of Françoise Taylor:
paintings & drawings by my mother, vécue 1920-2007