Alistair Hudson, the Director of the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery, sits with Ruby now as a part of her interview series, Inside the Gallery, which uncovers the amazing work that happens at the Whitworth and the fantastic individuals who make it. In this interview we cover Alistair’s beginnings in the art world and what it means to be a director of a gallery.
Ruby: I imagine most people reading this blog will know that you’re the director of the Whitworth and the Manchester Art Gallery, but they might not know what a director does, or what their roles are- so do you think you could talk a little bit about that?
Alistair Hudson: Yeah, it’s a curious role in some ways. I suppose I’m responsible for everything- that’s the job; there’s a certain amount of jeopardy involved in being a director- in the end it all comes to land on you, whatever happens. I kind of see the role of director is to set the strategic direction of the organisation. In a way it’s to sort of write the software, it’s to program the institution into a particular way of thinking, or a particular way of doing, and to do that to the advantage of the best number of people, because both galleries are public-facing institutions, and they have those responsibilities.
So, one of the goals is setting the strategic direction, but the second part of that is to do that in a way that is with social purpose; to do it for the benefit of the wider world and the people that live in it. If you just did it for your own entertainment, it might not be such a useful place.
Then obviously, you have managerial responsibilities for everybody who works at the Whitworth down the line, though obviously I don’t personally manage everybody, but there’s a kind of Christmas tree formation. So, I manage and keep an eye on all those processes, on the finances, on the programme, the care of the works of art in the collection, the health and safety of the people who inhabit the building.
And then another key part of the job is to advocate up and outward, so in a way I’m trying to fight the corner of the Whitworth and the Manchester Art Gallery to politicians, to the Arts Council and to stakeholders. The Whitworth is a part of the university, so I have to advocate for particular ways of doing things, create an environment for innovation, research and teaching and speak to our governance structures which are up there at the university. And also to make sure it’s plugged in to things in the world and is connected and networked and important and relevant to people too.
R: So, you’re the director of both the Whitworth and the Manchester Art Gallery; now, I know this isn’t the first time you’ve been a director of a gallery before, but it is the first time you’ve been a director of two at the same time. How do you see that role in terms of balancing those two institutions? Do you see it in terms of them being complementary? Or separate?
AH: I see them as being complementary and interlinked as well- they are both part of the Manchester Museums Partnership alongside the Manchester Museum that Esme [Ward] is in charge of. And we do have some shared staff and, in the end, when we report to Arts Council, our business plan is the business plan of the partnership of those institutions.
So, we are formally linked, and I do think they speak to one another, you know, obviously lots of different members of the teams collaborate and work with one another and we have shared projects. So, for example, as well as her exhibition here, Suzanne Lacy is a part of a project down the road at Manchester Art Gallery and working with University academics; all three museums also worked on the New North South Project together. What I quite like is that we’re the two civic art galleries in the city, they were both made in the 19th Century with a particular social purpose that’s very different from many other galleries in the country. So, in a way they’re sort of siblings, I suppose- or maybe half-siblings because they have different parents with the council and the university, but I definitely see them as being linked. I mean it’s a totally crazy idea in some ways, to try and be director of two institutions, and big ones at that, with large collections and large staff numbers, especially in such challenging times.
R: Is that what drew you to the role when you first came back to Manchester to be the head of these two institutions? Was it the challenge, or where it was or the history of those places?
AH: Yeah, I think the DNA, the history of the places was very much of interest to me, and also, a big part of it was that I grew up in and around Manchester up to the time I left to go to university, so all those things I moaned about, or complained about as a young person, I thought- oh now I get to change some of that! So, there was an element that these were galleries that have been quite dear to me all my life, really, and had a certain kind of attachment and affinity to. If the job was in Birmingham or Glasgow, I might have felt differently about it I think, but given my relationship with [Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth] over the years, I thought ‘oh yeah, I think I can do something there’!
R: So, you talked about growing up and I was wondering where the idea of working in the arts came from? Because didn’t you do a degree in it as well? So, was it quite an early passion?
AH: Yeah, yeah, I was always, I suppose…good at art [laughs], you know I think that’s where it starts; if you’re reasonably good at something and then you grow an interest in it. I come from a family of engineers, on the whole, but they always had an interest in art themselves. I think my father wanted to be an artist but couldn’t make the leap, so he became an engineering draftsman. And we were, you know, taken to galleries and things when I was young, we were encouraged to look at this stuff and take an interest in it. But yeah, I just sort of quite enjoyed doing art- in fact I’ll let you into a secret: when I was nine, I won a competition to design a mural for Wilmslow Swimming Baths.
R: No way! That’s amazing! I love it.
AH: It’s still there I think- I think it might have even been conserved at some point in its history [laughs].
R: So, what kind of art were you good at? What was your main interest?
AH: Oh, just drawing, painting, you know, right through school and I was in a sixth form where there was only three of us doing art, so I just hung out in the form room, which was the art block, doing painting, drawing, ceramics- there was a good ceramics department- and I just pottered away on a wheel and made things. Yeah, I really enjoyed it, but also in that process I got interested in the history of art as well.
R: Was there a particular artist opened that up for you? Or was it more of a general interest?
AH: No, it was kind of just the general mood music of art and, you know, I did quite like going to museums. I remember going to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art just after it had opened in Norwich and there was a [Alberto] Giacometti show on and I remember going ‘oh yeah, I could be in a place like this, this is the sort of a world I could inhabit’. So, there were moments, I think everybody has them, little switch moments along the route that hone you into the target so to speak. So, I had that interest and then I did a foundation course in Art and Design at the Mid-Cheshire School of Art in Northwich, I’m not sure if it’s still there or not, but it was a great independent art school and that’s where you work out what you want to do.
R: Whenever I talk to people who did an art foundation course, they’re always say ‘it was the best year of my life- it was great’ because they could just mess around, work out what they want to do, have that time.
AH: Yeah absolutely- it was a blast! It was totally carefree, you had no exams, no pressure- you just made stuff and mucked about. In fact, one of my sons has just started a foundation course, despite all my protestations!
R: So, you then did a degree in Art History and Studio Practice.
AH: That’s right, yeah.
R: That must have been quite an interesting dual degree because you’re learning about Art History and then you’re doing your own art at the same time.
AH: That’s because I couldn’t make my mind up about which one I wanted to do, basically, so I did both. But it was before curating courses existed, before that was really a phenomenon. I mean obviously you had traditional curating courses and museum courses, but the idea of the curator as a creative act or making shows, or so on, wasn’t fully formed yet. So, I suppose I was unknowingly heading in that direction, knowing I wanted to have creative capacity- I didn’t want to be a pen pusher.
But equally I was interested in the story of art, what it was and why it was such a weird, unusual thing, you know, what was this strange phenomenon that held such an attraction? So, in that museological, art historical, conceptual framework, I had a lot of interest, I didn’t want to shed that. And I had very good professors on both sides; I had this guy, John Thompson, who was quite a leading force in Goldsmiths, a very good tutor and artist. Then there was Sarat Maharaj, this quite radical professor of Art History, you know, we didn’t do the usual Art History, we did Post-Modernism and Richard Hamilton, post-structuralist theory, decolonisation, Third Text, and so on – you know, irreverent, anti-establishment stuff which was quite good fun.
R: So, would you say that that’s where you got that slightly anti-establishment approach to art from?
AH: Yeah, maybe, although I’m probably an art conservative really [laughs] but yeah, definitely, that whole idea of not just taking what was given as a given was really important. And also, at that time it was quite a cocky art school, you know, it was the YBA generation of Damian Hirst and all that.
R: So, late eighties/early nineties.
AH: Yeah, so there was definitely a ‘scene’ that you were a part of that was very kind of messy and experimental I suppose that was probably part of the DNA.
R: So, skipping quite massively, so Arté Util, which is a philosophy of art which you and Tania Bruguera started up in the early 2010’s was it?
AH: Yeah, 2013.
R: 2013, so that seems to me very, very different from that sort of YBA/early 90’s prevalent idea of what art was, in terms of that, arguably, it was quite aesthetically driven. And Arté Util is more about how the work can be used and how the public use it.
R: So, what kind of drew you to that, away from the more contemporary aspects of art, those priorities of aesthetic value?
AH: Yeah, I think it was always there, but I worked in a commercial gallery in London for quite a number of years. I wasn’t doing sales, I was exhibition-making. So, I was looking after the collection and organising all the exhibitions and things. Which was great fun and I got to work with amazing artists, but when you’re on the inside you realise how commercial the art world is. And you know, you don’t become cynical, but your eyes are opened to the reality of how this idea of art is constructed and how it’s maintained, ultimately for the benefit of quite a small number of people. And I think that probably…something in my Socialist family upbringing [laughs] something was tugging at me inside.
And also, I think that the training I had, particularly with Sarat, who was involved in artists who are now coming to full bloom, like Rasheed Areen and as I said, Third Text and so on, which is about the idea that there is another art world, that there are other art worlds that get suppressed or pushed aside or ignored. So, I was conscious of that. Also the commercial art world is extremely demanding or was then. You basically worked 24 hours a day and sell your soul for the sake of a big sale. I mean it’s quite funny, when you think about how long it takes to turn over a show at the Whitworth, with weeks for installation, when in the commercial world we used to do them overnight just because a big collector was flying over from the States and we wanted to sell a Gerhart Richter painting for a million dollars- you’d just take down the show, rehang the gallery just for them, and then put it all back again. So, yeah it was fairly intense.
So, on the back of that I thought it was about time I needed to spread my wings. Then I worked at the Government Art Collection for about four years, which was about putting art to use in the world. It was about putting art in government buildings and embassies and consulates, in political situations where it does a job, which is about representing Britain or sending certain messages or positioning Britain as a culture. Lots of soft power operations in play. But for the most part I worked for that time on a commission for the new Home Office building which was being built and I curated the public art strategy for that with Liam Gillick, who was quite a formative artist for me who was a tangential part of that YBA crowd, but he was much more of a conceptualist, a writer and interested in the way art operates in the world. Yeah, that was a four-year project working with Liam to make that building, and we were thinking part of that was about using the art, integrating it with the architecture the processes of the Home Office to see how you could get them to think about certain decisions in different ways. We even constructed the news camera points as part of the sculptural elements – so when you see that shot of the building on the news with the reporter now, even that was part of the art strategy.
After that I had ten years in Grizedale, which again, was extremely formative, where you’re basically working in a context where pretty much nobody is interested in art. All those things you thought were very important and famous, nobody had ever heard of, and then you realise most of the world is actually like that- most people are completely unaware of the world of contemporary art and don’t care about it.
R: So, Grizedale is a very interesting place and has quite major connections with John Ruskin, who is almost like the prototype for Useful Art, in the sense of his writings, his philosophies and the projects that he did, and you often cite him as a major influence – at least in terms of his writing. And the first show that was led by you at the Whitworth was Joy For Ever which was based on a Ruskin text. So, when you were creating that show, was it almost like ‘this is me, this is what I want to do with this gallery, and this is my mission; take it or leave it’?
AH: Yeah, I suppose it was, because the show was designed as a kind of essay or an irreverent lecture- John Ruskin is a problematic character.
R: Just a bit!
AH: I’m sure he would have been an absolutely awful person to have to tolerate if you knew him, although he was very interesting and productive and had lots of interesting ideas. So, it was more to say, he’s not my hero at all, but he’s an important figure in the conception of art and society as we currently know it, or what it might have been or could be. And obviously he would talk about the use value of art and society, I thought it was interesting that someone who was an artist had such an impact on shaping the world outside of art. I think that’s what’s quite notable about him, but absolutely I thought it’d be interesting to propose an exhibition that was like a preface to what was to come, to set your stall out- and to have some fun with it and make it quite playful if possible and do something a bit different.
I was also conscious, I think I said it in my interview actually, that the Whitworth was a place you could make statement shows. People have seemed to stop making statement shows; in the eighties and even in the nineties, there were exhibitions at the Hayward that would put out an idea, and there were curators such as Rudi Fuchs, Germano Celant, you know these heavy weight European museum directors who would every now and then do a show that took stock of the world or would make a conceptual proposition. And it seemed like everybody stopped doing that in the UK, they’d all started just doing solo presentations of artists, maybe because of the influence of the art market- so I thought that the Whitworth was this place with a huge potential, with its collection and its academic and social context that you could actually do shows that were about stuff and had a point to them and had something to say. So, yeah, I kind of saw that as an opportunity to create a USP for the gallery.
R: I was talking earlier on about how the YBA movement was potentially more about the aesthetic value of art, that may be so, but Joy For Ever was a very beautiful exhibition, it wasn’t just about it being like ‘this is a message, here’s some art’! It genuinely felt like it was quite beautiful and aesthetically very pleasing in the way it was curated, the artwork that was chosen and I loved honest shop as well, which was from the Coniston Institute which was very involved in Grizedale if I’m right?
AH: Yeah, it was a project with Grizedale and the village of Coniston.
R: So, was it quite nice to not only go ‘this is what I want to do, but this is what I have already done’?
AH: Yeah, well also to show your working, like how my maths teacher always used to tell me, it was a demonstration of how this has worked, or it does work, in the world.
To be continued in part 2.