Opened to the public in 2007 after a three year construction project, the £14.2 million Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, or MIMA to those in the know, gave the local community unprecedented access to the arts. Spaces dedicated to exhibitions, education and events, a conservation studio, café, shop, garden and roof terrace were instantly added to Middlesbrough’s cultural map.
After an initial bounce in public interest – as is so often associated with a gallery’s first year – and forging a path through a frightfully tricky decade of austerity for all arts organisations, 2018 saw MIMA seek new stewardship in order to embark on a fresh chapter.
Laura Sillars is certainly no stranger to driving arts institutions forward, particularly those located in the north of England. She spent the best part of a decade in both Liverpool and Sheffield, working for the likes of Tate Liverpool and Site Gallery. Roles on the boards of organisations such as Engage and the Arts and Humanities Research Council further endorse the MIMA director as the perfect person to help the Tees Valley embrace its collective artistic offering.
It was after a seven-and-a-half year stint as artistic director of Sheffield’s Site Gallery, at which Sillars oversaw an ambitious expansion programme, that the opportunity came up to move on. Despite a board member’s advice that “once you’ve done the building you can sit back and relax for a minute,” Sillars never contemplated resting on her laurels. “That’s just not me,” she explained. As such, the interview for MIMA director took place the day after hand over from builders and architects in Sheffield.
“It [MIMA] brought together everything I’d been working on. Lots of community led work, social agenda, social mission,” she noted. “I was on the board of AHRC at that point and so I was really interested in the way the civic agenda of universities integrates with the social agenda of the arts. It was just the perfect combination.”
There is a poetic sense of a homecoming to Sillars’ appointment as MIMA director. Having grown up in the north east – albeit not in the Tees Valley, but on the outskirts of Durham – she told Advisor that she offers a “great combination of authenticity, which I bring having grown up around here, and being able to contribute something back”.
Location, location, location
“The North is a big place,” Sillars notes, adding that within the vast region Middlesbrough and the Tees Valley are “unique”. While the location doesn’t always make it easy to attract huge numbers of visitors, the MIMA director sees a wealth of positives. “It’s a bit distant from the north end of ‘The North’, and it’s not in Yorkshire anymore. It has a port. It’s always looking outwards, with a different perspective on its role in the world.”
While her faith in the area is evident, she also remains a realist about some visitors’ attitudes. “If you’ve never been to Middlesbrough, and I completely understand if you haven’t, it hasn’t previously been seen as a tourist destination. It’s always been somewhere you visit if you need to go.”
Sillars believes the area is very much “misunderstood” and that it has “quite a different spirit” to nearby places such as Newcastle and Gateshead, which have consistently been able to attract higher numbers of tourists.
Middlesbrough and the surrounding Tees Valley have, like many northern conurbations, been hard hit by a decade of austerity. The city is ranked 59th (out of 63 across the UK) for employment levels, with 31% of the population without work, and 9th highest for people reliant on Jobseekers’ Allowance. Middlesbrough is also in the bottom ten UK cities for number of businesses and the launch rates for start-ups.
Such statistics, Sillars believes, don’t begin to tell the whole story of a vibrant and diverse community. “One of the misnomers about the area,” she continued, “is that it’s a sort of hotbed for post-industrial decline. It is, in the sense that industry used to employ vast amounts of people and now it doesn’t, but there are still large amounts of industry and creative work going on.”
The MIMA director’s love for the Tees Valley shines through at regular intervals when speaking with her. “If you look at it as an industrial sublime, it’s a fascinating study; both in terms of art and landscape,” she enthusiastically states.
Transforming the Tees
The gallery’s civic duty is a huge part of its standing in the local area. This does not, however, mean Sillars and her colleagues see it as their role to dictate how things should be done in the wider community. “I’m not a politician,” she exclaimed, despite being far more eloquent than many of the nation’s elected officials. “I don’t see it as my responsibility to be saying to the area: right, this is what you should be doing.
“The role of an art gallery is to be more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We propose ways of being and upgrading creatively in the world and we hope, by doing those things really well, to inspire different ways of thinking.”
The struggles faced by Middlesbrough at present, she believes, can easily be “extrapolated into the context of the wider UK”. The nation, she continued, “is having to do some quite serious rethinking about what a good life looks like. It’s a time that’s really challenging for lots of different communities”.
Rather than overthinking these challenges, Sillars says MIMA is determined to “focus on the great assets rather than the deficiencies…how do we contribute and make this environment better? We concentrate on what we do have rather than what we have not.”
So far, it seems to be working. In the last twelve months, the gallery has been nominated by VisitEngland as one of the UK’s best places to visit, helped refugees who have found themselves isolated in a new nation, and supported members of the community through sessions for under 3s all the way through to dementia friendly events. None of this work, Sillars knows, would be achievable alone.
MIMA has already firmly established itself as an integral part of the region’s community network. Collaborations with Middlesbrough Football Club, Tees Valley Nature Partnership, along with housing associations North Star and Thirteen have further embedded the gallery within local people’s lives. MIMA’s spaces are open for a wide range of community purposes which stretch far beyond engaging with the arts.
Perhaps the most substantial partnership to date has, however, been with Teeside University – within which MIMA is embedded. This relationship has already seen the first graduation of students from the MIMA School of Art, and Sillars says she has been “blown away” by the institution. World leading for courses such as Games Design and Animation, she believes that, very much like the area as a whole, the institution doesn’t “resonate with the cultural community” simply because it isn’t specialising in opera or the theatre. “They’re lower down the hierarchy of cultural value,” she noted.
Given that galleries in Liverpool and Sheffield were home to Sillars for almost a combined total of two decades, if she is to remain with MIMA for anywhere near as long it is clear that her mission is barely even under way.
Looking ahead to the future, Sillars says she hopes MIMA will become “an international centre for research; in arts and culture and the ways that connects to wider society. It’s not just about the impact we will have had in our immediate area but also how we are able to think about our work and think about it.”
When discussing Middlesbrough’s artistic pull, Sillars referenced Marina Abramović having chosen to station a piece of performance art there in the mid-90s. Based on its current trajectory, similar conversations will not need to happen in future. If asked whether the Tees Valley can attract world-class artists, the response will be simple: visit MIMA.