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The term ‘summit’ connotes a significant gathering to address disputed or intractable issues with an urgent need for resolution and an attempt to bring various parties to a common position and a shared vision of the future. The term was well chosen for the assembly of artists, curators, administrators and academics drawn together for the weekend by their own notion of what Arte Util (Useful Art) is and may yet be.

Hosted at The Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima) by the Asociacion de Arte Util, the summit consisted of a series of talks, presentations, workshops, walking tours and Q&A sessions aimed at teasing out ‘provocations and dialogues on how artists, institutions and constituencies can effect social change through artistic actions and tactics.’At the core of the Asociacion is the Cuban artist (although she now wishes to drop the label artist) Tania Bruguera who appropriated the term Arte Util, Charles Esche and Annie Fletcher of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven who developed and hosted the first Museum of Arte Util in 2013, Alistair Hudson – Director of mima and the person largely responsible for ‘crowbarring’ (his own term) Assemble onto the Turner Prize nominations list last year and Stephen Wright, academic and developer of the usership theory explored within his Lexicon of Usership.

mima was one of the last local authority funded, ‘modern art in striking modern architecture’ edifices in the UK as Councils had been seeking to replicate the ‘Bilbao effect’. Having opened in 2007 on the cusp of the brave new post-crash world, it has not succeeded on these quickly out-dated terms to attract cultural tourists and engage the local populace. Alistair Hudson, taking his cue from the Museum 3.0 model within the Lexicon, is attempting to make the institution relevant and useful for the community by hosting fitness classes, creche facilities and cookery lessons and by supporting local refugee and asylum seeker community groups within the name of contemporary art. Over the weekend all the food was provided either by members of the Eritrean community or by the artist Luke Harding who is re-imagining the mima cafe as ‘a project to collaboratively and publicly build an artwork installation of a community cafe’- and very good it was too.

The range of presentations was wide and included curators, Kuba Szreder and Sebastian Cichocki from the Museum of Modern Art Warsaw fully detailing their exhibition Making Use: Post-artistic Practice, artist Nuria Guell showcasing her socially-engaged practice challenging notions of illegal/ legal migration, Michael Simon from Granby 4 Streets CLT and Emily Hesse & James Beighton of New Linthorpe Pottery who are resurrecting a 19th Century social enterprise to engage marginal communities in making pots. Key-note speeches were delivered by Stephen Wright – whose fast paced and thought provoking academic discourse was rendered a little more challenging by a stuttering Skype connection from California and Tania Bruguera, who at times seemed tired by, and slightly confused by the direction of the project that she had originally instigated. Saturday was billed as Toolkits for a Post-Artistic Society while Sunday would deliver Toolkits for a Post-Democratic Society, you couldn’t accuse the organisers of lacking ambition. However if – as stated, the intention of the summit was to refine the aims of the Arte Util movement (constellation/ cluster?), you couldn’t help thinking that a more focussed range of discussions would have been more ‘useful’.

Non-core or mima connected participants probably numbered around twenty five, which seemed slightly disappointing given the recent publicity and media discussion, but probably reflected a cosmopolitan bias toward the provincial location – there were more attendees from Spain than there were from London. It was also surprising that although mima is now part of Teesside University, that runs visual arts and sociology courses, not a single student or member of staff attended the summit. A cynical reading of the event would contend that the members of arts institutions were looking for strategies to stay relevant and hold on to their funding, academics were looking for a vehicle to further their University careers and artists were hoping for inspiration in ways to develop their practice and insights into institutional thinking. As one Arts Council England administrator confessed, ‘we’re waiting to see if it has any traction, or whether it’s just another fad’. My own overall impression is that the issues addressed are extremely pressing and that Arte Util offers a pretty big tent within which to discuss and take action regarding the impacts of our fast changing political context. However what and where the art is remains a slippery topic.

I’ve written an essay looking at a number of these issues in more detail, it can be found here.

Gathering at mima on Friday/ The Coffee House project

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