Campus close-up: Teesside University

The decision to welcome Middlesbrough’s Mima art gallery into the university’s fold is expected to benefit both parties

November 13, 2014

“We were keen to make the university a hub for culture in the Tees Valley,” says Graham Henderson, vice-chancellor of Teesside University. As a complement to its well-established Art on Campus programme designed to attract town as well as gown, the university decided to take over one of the region’s leading exhibition spaces, the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (Mima).

A decade ago, as Henderson tells it, “the mayor of Middlesbrough took the brave decision to launch a modern art gallery here in the town”. It opened its doors in 2007 and brought together the Middlesbrough Art Gallery, the Cleveland Gallery – long responsible for a biennial international drawing competition (1973-96) – and the Cleveland Craft Centre. The last of these started with Middlesbrough’s pottery heritage and went on to develop major collections of 20th-century British studio ceramics and contemporary jewellery.

Mima’s main strengths lie in these two areas and in post-war drawing from the UK and the Americas. As time went on, however, pressures on local authority resources made Mima’s future look increasingly insecure. Options such as an independent trust were considered, but eventually Henderson and his team determined that “the best model would be if Mima were incorporated into the university”, predicting “many synergies if the two teams became one”.

The institute offers “a venue for business engagement and outward-facing activities” as well as for conferences and events linked to exhibitions. There are also plans to build courses around the collection in areas such as fashion and conservation. The School of Arts and Media has already doubled in size under its current dean, Gerda Roper, so there is plenty of scope for further expansion.

Mima officially became part of Teesside in September. It has long had an ambitious programme of temporary exhibitions in two separate galleries. Those currently on display focus on the designer Wendy Ramshaw and (in collaboration with Tate St Ives) on Modern Art and St Ives. Coming up in December is an exhibition of fine art by the film and television director David Lynch first seen in Los Angeles.

Last month the first permanent exhibition space opened, with the support of almost £300,000 from Arts Council England. This has allowed Mima to bring out of storage its complete collection of bold, eye-catching, witty and sometimes “pervy” contemporary jewellery. One of Kepa Karmona’s necklaces is made of concrete and shards of green glass. Caroline Broadhead’s bracelets look like spiderwebs into which one inserts a wrist. Sigurd Bronger’s brooches feature balloons, sponges and bars of soap. Other jewellery on display was created from plastic, Perspex or “found objects” an artist came across in the corridor outside her studio.

Last month also marked the arrival of Alistair Hudson, formerly deputy director of Grizedale Arts in Cumbria, as the new director of Mima. He welcomes the tie to the university, he says, not only because “it brings in a whole new user group” but also for “its research capacity and the backbone that allows us to be a little bit braver or more experimental”.

At the core of his vision is rethinking the balance between cutting-edge design, the international art circuit and the needs of local communities and the university. He hopes to return to “the early ambitions of modern art, which are about making art useful, art having a function in society, rather than just taking great art to people and saying: ‘This is good for you to understand’,” he says.

“Art is a very fundamental component to being creative generally, in business and in society,” Hudson adds. “Art is a mechanism that allows you to evolve and change.” Furthermore, companies such as Apple and Volkswagen owe much of their success to their aesthetic sense and “artful thinking”, so he is keen for Mima to keep exploring “what art can do in daily lives – for industry, for business, for well-being agendas, healthcare and education”.

In July 2014, the Arts Council announced funding of just over £500,000 for each of the next three financial years, giving Mima a firm footing from which to take such ideas forward.

Hudson says he is determined “to be involved with the university in rethinking aesthetics as being fundamental in how we reshape society. These are very big questions that somewhere like Mima should be addressing and advocating for.”

In numbers

£500,000 funding for Mima from the Arts Council for each of the next three years

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