Thursday, 14 March 2019

Organisational Development: North East Group Visit, MIMA

On the 15 and 16 February, members of AirSpace Gallery (Glen Stoker, Anna Francis, Rebecca Davies and Selina Oakes) travelled to the North East of England to visit arts organisations as part of an ongoing Organisational Development and Research Period. Key venues included Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA), The Newbridge Project and Baltic 39. Our goals for the North East visit were a) to find out about how specific organisations are run and supported b) to connect with like-minded organisations c) to conduct some team-building and co-writing for AirSpace's future Mission and Vision statement.

MIMA, Exhibitions and Collections

Our first stop was MIMA, where we met with Olivia Heron, Assistant Curator, and Kate Densham, Public Programmes and Events Assistant Curator. Olivia greeted us and introduced us to MIMA's temporary projects and collection. Outside, Joanne Tatham and Tom O'Sullivan's monolithic sculpture provides an additional archway into the building. Brimming with psychedelic colours, the piece, A Proposal to Ask Where Does a Threshold Begin and End, mimics the Tees Transporter Bridge while connecting the gallery's interior space with the exterior plaza. Though only temporary, Olivia informs us that it has already remained standing long-after its initial 'expiry' date – something which illustrates an element of flexibility in the organisation's programming side.

Upstairs, Liquid Crystal Display is being installed – a show which is touring from Site Gallery in Sheffield (and co-curated by former Site Gallery Director, now MIMA Director, Laura Sillars). We're shown into the Collections room, where Olivia explains some of the working relationships which MIMA builds with artists. She reflects upon cyclical processes and the establishment of familiarity between artists and the gallery. For example, MIMA typically enters into talks with an artist over a year – first showing their work as part of a group exhibition, then solo, then perhaps a purchase for the collection. She speaks about how MIMA has shifted its focus and has a more balanced approach to the Exhibitions and Education programmes.

With this, cuts to the curatorial budget have not affected their collection or programme too severely: Olivia remarks that they are resourceful and search for cost-effective methods such as printing things in-house and commissioning artists to make the work onsite. MIMA also goes directly to the artist – and not through auction houses – when looking for new acquisitions: Keith Piper's Four Horsemen, for example, was rolled up in his attic until MIMA showed an interest in some of his not-so-known works. There's a sense of resourcefulness but also support for artists, which isn't always the case in larger institutions.

Visiting MIMA we explored the building, and had a chance to look at the permanent collection, to get a sense of the importance of this within the building, but that the way the space was organised was really interesting. In addition, the types of works commissioned and bought set the collection apart from other Art Galleries.” - Anna Francis

MIMA Public Programme and Education

Later, Kate Densham met with us to chat about MIMA's Public Programme (PP) – its Community Days and Gardening Days (supported by Middlesbrough Environment City) which are advertised as “safe spaces” where “everyone is welcome.” Kate speaks about the PP's aim to have a different use for the building, to connect, and to dispel barriers. The communal lunch space downstairs invites members of the public to have a free vegetarian meal with MIMA staff – it's a “soft introduction” to MIMA.

Anna reflects on MIMA's Public Programme and outreach initiatives: A key part of the MIMA offer seems to be the weekly lunch, which happens on a Thursday. Thursday is Community Day at MIMA, and as well as a lunch slot, where food is freely available to those that want it, the galleries and spaces around the building are occupied by a wide range of projects and activity. There is a gardening group, who look after the little garden/allotment at the side of the gallery, there is a sewing group, and a singing group, and all sorts of other people regularly or irregularly using the spaces. Some of that activity is very self-organised by the groups themselves, and via the partnerships that MIMA has, and other activity is more looked after by the gallery staff.”
The Community lunch is vegetarian, and is delivered by The Other Perspective CIC – a food based group. The crockery currently used is throwaway, but Kate from MIMA tells us that this is potential for a project in future – this interests me a lot, as it is in line with the work we are doing on Portland Street.

We ask about how the community can connect in to the Community Day, and Kate tells us that basically, “We say 'yes' a lot.” People come and ask if they can do something, there is something communicated out into the community that there is space here and when people ask, the answer is yes. (Something we could consider at AirSpace – where are the points of entry, how can our resources be shared out a bit more?) We delve into this a bit more, how is it possible, how is this managed? What rules are in place? Who does the washing up?
Kate tells us, all the staff are trained in conflict management, which sounds very helpful (given our experience in Portland St and is perhaps something we should think about). There are clear guidelines that everyone knows about (I should have asked where these are accessed): no swearing, no alcohol, there are boundaries and they are communicated i.e. staff cannot sign letters of support for asylum claims. At the moment, as everything is throwaway, there is no washing up, bit who does it once there is some, will be dealt with then.
The programme does inform the community activity, but community activity is also informed by external activity i.e. International Women’s Day etc. Kate works on a lot of the public projects, and tells us about one, which she works on one and a half days a week. It is a Great Places project for North Ormesby, looking at local examples to think about social activism and cohesion. The project takes the approach of ‘joining in with people’s lives’ first and then later introducing creative activity. So far, the project has started with something universal – ‘How We Eat’ – creating space to eat, meet and make together as a community, in order to then understand how else we want to be and work together. This sounds so much like the Community Maker project which AirSpace has partnered on since 2015, and which has developed into The Portland Inn Project.

MIMA Reflections
The resources of MIMA are much greater than AirSpace, but what it tells me is that a lot of the activity which we have been doing now for years on scant resources, feeling our way, have been good and developmental activity both for us as an arts organisation, but also, in contributing to
a) Professional development support for artists (this we want to continue to do, and considering access points into the building and the programme could really help – it can’t be a case that we just create more for ourselves to do, it needs to be about developing space for others.
b) The understanding and value of artists in social contexts within our city (this part needs much more work, because we have identified a discernible gap between how people view the work we do in the city, and the gallery programme. In particular, the work which Rebecca and Selina are doing in relation to the public programme aims to understand more about this gap, and increase the esteem felt towards the gallery by the local audiences. This feels like such a positive for the future of the project.”
Throughout our meeting, Kate speaks about the programme seeks to be “reactive” and tries to listen and act in response to audience needs. She also mentions the personal relationships forged between MIMA staff and members of the public – and that an element of trust in each other is vital.

We drive from Middlesbrough to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and arrive in time for the BALTIC Artists' Award opening night with work by the 2019 nominees Aaron Hughes, Kang Jungsuck and Ingrid Pollard.

In the morning, we regroup to discuss AirSpace's Mission and Vision statement. We reflect upon the organisation's core values, its goals and objectives – what they were, what they currently are, and what we wish them to be. A line from MIMA's own mission resonated with us - “We are an organisation with a social function.” We mind-mapped words like respond, invite, trust, support, permeability, flexible, mobilise, visualise, nurture, growth and sustainability (to name a few!) and began formulating a short statement of intent – with words like champion, artists, artist-led, collaborative and cross-disciplinary.

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