Charlotte Burns: Hello, and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask.
I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and today we’re in Central London, joined by Bernadine Bröcker Wieder and Alistair Hudson.
Alistair Hudson: You’re never going to escape the system. Never, ever, ever.
Bernadine is the CEO and co-founder of Vastari Group, which is an online platform connecting private collectors, curators, and museums for exhibition tours and loans. Bernadine has featured on Apollo Magazine’s “40 under 40” list and served as a young ambassador for the Museum of London.
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: We need museums to get on board of the revolution.
And now, onto today’s show.
So, what we’re really talking about today is the museum model and innovation. Bernadine, Vastari is focused on helping museums build business-sustainable models for exhibitions through use of shared data, and you help match-make exhibitions. Alistair, you’re focused on presenting a case for the “useful museum”.
It seemed to me that you were both quite focused on creating more openness within the system, so that seems like a good place to start. What has seemed especially closed off to you, and what seems in need of transformation?
Alistair Hudson: Generally, I think the idea of art is closed off or it’s closed off itself, it’s kind of gone through this process of self-capture, and that’s a kind of 150, 200-year history in the longer history of human civilization, let’s say, which really has been about the compliance of art to the art market and the construction of the museum as we know it.
What I’m interested in is opening up museums; opening up the idea of art now to something much more interesting, after it became something quite specific.
Charlotte Burns: When you say it became something specific, what do you think that was?
Alistair Hudson: Well, our idea of art—basically autonomous art, that’s the general thing I’m trying to fight against I suppose, the idea of art being separate from the world or art as defined by the art world, whereas actually there are kind of other ways in which art is thought about, used in different places in the world, in different cultures, which is just as valid—and perhaps more interesting than the kind of narrow version that we’ve honed.
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: That ties really closely to what we’re doing as well. Where we came from originally was wanting to help more private and public collaborations for exhibitions, so helping collectors and museums work together. The opacity, I guess, was in how do museums work? And how do we approach these curators in order to be able to work with them? Conversely, how do we get in touch with these collectors who are so private and anonymous about what they own? So, there were a lot of secrets.
As we dug deeper into the collector’s story, there were so many different types of collectors, different reasons for collecting. For museums there was a lot more complexity to their operating models than we expected. When you’re building a software program, you have to set rules, and you have to kind of think about how you can emulate the offline online.
I guess with artificial intelligence and machine learning you have to build these rules from these models and I think what a lot of art and technology companies are trying to do is work with these collection management systems to create cool, new things.
It ties into this monolithic art world. There is bias in how things are put online, and so people have to admit that these systems they’ve put into place, especially the inflexible ones, don’t allow for diversification, for different types of content, for different ways of thinking. Those biases need to be disrupted.
Alistair Hudson: Although it’s quite good fun to play with this stuff as well, I think. Actually, if you’re willing to break the rules a bit or make your own rules, there’s actually room for things like we were discussing, immaterial collecting. How do you collect relationships? How do you collect things that aren’t physical? The big question, I think, is do we give ourselves permission to play, and have fun with this stuff, and liberate ourselves into a much more creative culture than this very kind of academic one, which is quite restricting.
Charlotte Burns: That’s interesting.
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: It’s all built on very informal, fun, creative realities, right? I think that’s why we decided to name our company after Vasari, because he was a gossip. He wrote anecdotes that people loved. The reason people remembered the Renaissance in certain way was because he told the stories in a way that most people found interesting and in the vernacular.
Charlotte Burns: And continue to do.
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: I always talk about the Ninja Turtles being inspired by some of Vasari’s favorite artists. People keep calling it populism, but it’s actually just engaging with the public. It’s really important to art, and there are some structures that have moved away from that.
Alistair Hudson: Well, good storytelling is the key. In a way, I think the art world forgot because it told itself a singular story around this idea of autonomous art, around the art market, around a particular version of art. Which in the end ended up with bad storytelling, because people started to use language, like press release language.
And actually, once you see those behaviors broken, for example, an artist who work outside of those parameters, people go, “Oh, yes. I see what art is. I see what it does. I can connect with that.”
Charlotte Burns: I’m going to talk to you both about touring exhibitions, because Vastari published a big report looking at touring exhibitions, taking data from more than 500 museums internationally.
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: Yes.
Charlotte Burns: Alistair, in 2015, you staged a show called “Localism”, which was billed as a sort of antidote to the big, international blockbuster. So, coming at it from different points of view, let’s talk about the role of the touring exhibition in the museum, because they go in and out of popularity. You see in times of boom there are more touring exhibitions; in recessionary times people rely more on permanent collections, but touring exhibitions are a big part of museums’ programming in general. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Where do you both stand on this? What is your thinking?
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: The touring exhibition can mean different things, but most of the time it means that the museum is borrowing something external and bringing it into their own institution. In its most put-together way, they pay a hiring fee to take a show from someone else. It saves them money, because they don’t have to do the research themselves. They can just bring a show that has already been successful elsewhere into their institution.
What we’ve been trying to look at is how that dialogue between different museums around the world has been developing, and who hosts content, and who doesn’t, and why? And is it actually cheaper or more expensive to produce your own content, and what are the main goals for museums?
What we found, interestingly, is that most museums are not looking to be profitable from their exhibitions that they host. They do care about cost: cost is the second most important thing, behind the relevance to their institution’s thematic focus when choosing an exhibition to host—but then profitability’s one of the last.
Charlotte Burns: That’s so interesting. Why would cost be so far apart on the priority list than profitability, because surely, they’re connected?
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: I find that really interesting, because in my mind profitability’s very tied to ticket sales, and so then you would have more audience engagement if you’re thinking about profitability. But what I think it is, is that just the limitations that museums face is making them think that I can only take shows that I can afford. They’re not really thinking in the forms of ROI, like “I’m going to invest in this exhibition and then get a profit from it.” I don’t think that’s how museums think.
But Alistair, I’d love to hear what you think on that.
Alistair Hudson: Well, I probably have a slightly different perspective in that every institution I’ve been involved with has been free of access, so profitability doesn’t come into it. What comes into it for me primarily is relevance.
MIMA in Middlesbrough was a very exceptional place, although it was kind of representative of many places outside of the metropolitan context in that it’s a postindustrial setting, it’s a regional setting. These are environments in which I would say touring shows don’t have much currency with people on the ground, and it is sort of manifest of a kind of colonialism. This for me is one of the problems of importing content.
One of the reasons for doing a show like “Localism” was to speak to that critique of the touring show and of this bringing art from elsewhere to say, “Hey. This is really good for you. If you really understand it, you know, your life will be improved,” to actually really evaluate that condition. But, also, is production and export more important than import and consumption?
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: Our data actually showed that export is more important to museums than import. About 85% to 90% of museums want to export their shows, but only about 65% on average—and only 50% of art museums in Europe—want to import shows. They’re much more likely to want to send their ideas out, but not bring ideas in. I think that ties into the post-colonial thing as well, because it means that my ideas can go out there, but I don’t really want to expect things to come back.
Alistair Hudson: In a way I suppose the thing about the useful museum is ultimately about the social function of art as a process, as an entity in the world, rather than necessarily objects. In that, the touring show model is problematic because it’s often driven by economics. Often museums will produce a show for touring, because it’s a way of earning money, rather than necessarily because they think it’s something that has relevance or currency. Of course, they will find a logic to do that, but ultimately in the negotiation around touring shows often it’s around the fee. It’s around the money. It’s around who’s in power? Who’s curating? Who’s controlling?
I’m not thinking of doing away with the touring model, but what’s the goal? What’s the purpose of doing this project?
Charlotte Burns: I’m going to take us back a little step here to talk a little bit about “Localism” and MIMA. Alistair, the “Localism” show you’ve described as a reasonably chaotic exhibition that was crowdsourced essentially focusing on the art history of Middlesbrough and turning the users of the museum from essentially passive spectators into active users. The museum model was switched under your reign, so that the exhibition supported programming rather than programming supporting exhibitions.
I have a quote from you here for few years ago, where you said: “The tradition is that a museum is neutral, and they’re not, they never have been. They are created by their users, now what we might describe as the “elitist, intellectual, autonomous model”– the users of that museum are people like rich art collectors, and self-important curators, and ‘the friends group’. Nice polite middle-class people. That’s one particular set of users of a museum, what we’re talking about with MIMA is expanding that range of users, which might include refugees, schools, children, and actually being honest and seeing their importance, rather than just saying “’we’ll allow this to happen’, fully integrating.”
So, this is specific to Middlesbrough, which was once a small farm, but then the discovery of iron ore and coal caused an explosion in industry and population, but the area has been increasingly disenfranchised and in decline since the war. The press have called it things like the UK’s Detroit. When you joined, there was a campaign by the Mayor against the museum, because it was “too snobbish”.
Alistair Hudson: The parallel will be in the states with the Rust Belt. So, essentially Middlesbrough is a UK “Rust Belt town. There’s the same cultural political situation as you might equate to kind of Trump’s America and somewhere like the Northeast of England.
Charlotte Burns: Yes. Sort of. Postindustrial towns, for sure.
Talking about this idea of shifting that model. When you talk about self-important curators, I had just read that and I was so curious as to what your curators thought when you said that?
Alistair Hudson: Did I say self-important?
It’s probably a bit of a flippant comment, but the point is that it’s about curating for what? If we’re honest, a lot of curators curate for other curators, and particularly in regional museums, where they see it as kind of being a place where they might make their mark in the world and about generating critical content that resonates more in this international world of other curators, and artists, than necessarily with someone we might describe as the audience for that exhibition, the primary driver.
I’m not being harsh here, because I would say I’ve done similar things. I know how this works. There is a bit of you that says, “Oh. I hope Frieze picks this up or that we may get a gig in the Sao Paulo Biennal out of this.” That’s part of the mechanism of how—
Charlotte Burns: So, the network.
Alistair Hudson: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. And that’s not to do away with that all together, because you won’t do away with that. That’s actually all part of what I would call the usership matrix—it’s everything and everybody in play.
Charlotte Burns: Right. You want those users too. You just want to expand it—or you want to break it?
Alistair Hudson: Well, I do want to kind of break it a bit.
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: I agree. The first blog post that was written about us was “Is This The End Of The Curator?”, because we were finding content and making it available for curators to request. So, what’s the job of the curator? We found that really controversial, because in our mind finding the loans is not the curator’s job. It’s telling the story and thinking of why it’s interesting to bring all of these things together. And if a curator feels intimidated by the networks of loans and collectors, and all of that being disrupted and more open, then that means that their value is not more than just their address book. I don’t think that that’s what a curator should be. It should be about what you want to tell, and how you’re going to tell it, and how it impacts people that come to your exhibition and think “wow, this is different, this is new, I hadn’t thought of it this way”.
Charlotte Burns: Do you find that’s different in the UK and the US?
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: No. I think that it’s different in different sized institutions, rather than in different geographies. I think especially contemporary art curators at very large institutions, they’re almost hired for their address book, and they’re hired for who they know. I don’t think that that’s fair, because it shouldn’t be about who you know. It should be about what you want to tell.
Charlotte Burns: Coming back to the idea of storytelling then, the storytelling that will be documented from this period will be about who had access to those works, and who bought those works at those prices. What you’re proposing, Alistair and Bernadine, in different ways essentially is a democratization of that, for people to have access to information.
Alistair Hudson: Yes. I think we should distinguish between democratization of culture and cultural democracy here as well. It’s not about allowing more people access to the art that we know, because that is the model we’ve got.
It’s about actually creating other forms of art, having a more democratic understand of what constitutes art in order for more people to actively see its function, see its role, and embed it in their lives.
Picasso plays a role in that, but for example, we might say that there’s a more interesting story around Picasso, which is, for example, how he picked up on art that came out of Africa, that came to Europe and came to Paris through basically the palm oil plantation industry, by basically plantation workers in the Congo being banned from making their art, which then found its way into Europe, which then created a model for European art.
Now, that was about the suppression of a particular kind of art, i.e. what you might call the indigenous art of the Congo and the dominance of a white, Eurocentric version of what art was. What I’m interested in doing is opening art back up to these different forms of craft, of handicrafts, technology, cooking, whatever it might be. This is a spectrum activity that we might define as art. To democratize that as a process, which allows a multiplicity of people to have more inroads in a more rewarding way.
Charlotte Burns: So, everyone can be an artist.
Alistair Hudson: Yes. They don’t have to be, but they can be, and often they are. What’s interesting now is that in a way people have started to move away from art—the art world—to find their art. So, if you look at for example, online creativity and YouTube and how people produce culture themselves.
There’s still huge audiences for museums, but you can begin to see it happen. It’s embedded in education systems, the phasing out of creativity and art within our education system. Art will always be there. There will still be artistic activity, but this thing we’ve kind of narrowed down into this cul-de-sac of contemporary art, for example, has kind of lost relevance to a broader audience. So what I want to, really, my mission, is to not do away with art, but to find a way of, as Rasheed Araeen puts it, art beyond art.
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: It’s really interesting. I do agree with you, but I innately just have a lot of issues with that concept because I have such an attachment to art, and I trained as an artist at one point. But the concept of everyone being an artist, I still think that are some pieces of art that resonate more. Either from an aesthetic point of view, or from a historical point of view that tells something that means more than other things.
I don’t think everything’s going to be the same value.
Alistair Hudson: I’m not arguing for everything being the same value. This get us into quite complicated territory.
Charlotte Burns: I’m kind of with Bernadine on this, that I think it’s really interesting and there is some form of shaking up that seems instinctively to be necessary. But having said that, some part of me remembers going to the Leicester Art Gallery when I was a child, and there was all the stuff that was foxes in boxes and nature walks and different kinds of craft making, and all that community-based stuff. I’m sure that’s why my mum took me.
As I grew older, the thing that really resonated with me was the German Expressionist collection. I didn’t come from a family who talked about art all the time. But seeing art of a really high standard, that changed something in my mind in the same way that reading a really great work of fiction as a teenager changed me too.
Which is a long-winded way of saying there’s something that I found maybe patronizing about the idea that people just won’t “get” great art, that if you bring great art to people you’re patronizing them. Because I don’t know that that’s true.
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: It relates to your narrative about the Congo, because it was the best works from that region that really moved people. They are the ones that are now being restituted back to the sub-Saharan African nations.
Alistair Hudson: I’m not totally disagreeing with you, because I used to go to Manchester Art Gallery and equally look at paintings and be moved by them. Of course, these experiences have effects but that’s sort of the point. The way we understand what’s called great art—that concept, those ideas, that proposition—is created by cultural social political circumstances, by neurological frame works, by culture itself.
What we consider to be great art is programmed. It’s not something that’s inherent in the object. It’s something that created by circumstances. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, that’s just how things are.
Charlotte Burns: You don’t think that certain objects resonate by themselves without the culture?
Alistair Hudson: No. Absolutely not. No. No object.
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: I agree with you. We have neural networks that create certain emotional attachments to certain things. I grew up away from the Great Masters. I grew up in the Dominican Republic where we didn’t have a great museum like you both had in the UK. The first time that I saw the German expressionists at MoMA, I started crying. I do think there is something. That might have been because my neural network was programmed by looking at the books.
But more recently, I was in Shanghai. I went to the Shanghai Museum and a piece of furniture wood carving, that I had absolutely no knowledge of, had the same effect on me. Just the way it was carved—the craftsmanship that was required, and the patience to be able to build something so beautiful moved me to tears. It might be my neural network knows that is something that’s difficult to do.
Charlotte Burns: And you’re seeing it within a context.
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: Yes, there’s still context. There always is context, but I think there is context that we all as humans have. Then there’s the context that the elite art world has. Even the conceptual art of a certain period in Italy in the 1960s had a context. It was just a limited amount of people that knew that context, and therefore people weren’t moved by it.
Charlotte Burns: But people were. So much of Modernism, especially in Europe, was to do with progressive ideas. Even if a lot of those ideas were—
Alistair Hudson: And there was populist Modern art, as well.
Charlotte Burns: Yes. There were a huge number of manifestos. Art could change the world. That was a real belief that people had. So, it’s interesting, that sense of art becoming unmoored from its use with Modernism. Really, Modernism began as very much rooted in the realities of the time. Arte Povera was using poor materials. It wouldn’t have been predicted it would sell for high prices on a market. That wasn’t really the point of it.
Alistair Hudson: But it evolves through time and is used and misused through time. So actually, what you’re talking about is what I sometimes refer to as the best intentions of modernity, which was about this strand running through the last 19th, 20th century history of artists trying to change the world, of artists trying to integrate art into ordinary life. All these things that I totally agree with, and totally involve with. But what happens is the capture of that art by art, as I would call it.
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: So, the self-reference?
Alistair Hudson: Institutional capture, which is also part and parcel of a market-oriented art world. Rather than—
Charlotte Burns: It becomes a commodity.
Alistair Hudson: Yes, it becomes a commodity, or even the idea of it becomes a commodity as well. Not just the object. It becomes around is cultural capital. It becomes around the empowerment of the artists, or the curator, or the collector.
Charlotte Burns: But aren’t they the stories we tell ourselves about progress? Isn’t that what we capture? We capture the history of the past. I don’t know. It’s quite interesting.
Alistair Hudson: But the question is, who benefits as well? Where does the balance of power lie in this mode of operation? In a museum, absolutely. For example, Manchester Art Gallery that I run is owned by the people of Manchester. The collection is owned by the people of the city. It’s a unique situation, but it makes it very interesting. It means that any acquisition for the institution is something that is, in a way—
Charlotte Burns: For the people, by the people.
Alistair Hudson: It’s generally for the people.
Charlotte Burns: How do you decide which people? You said when you took on the new job that you wanted to stage projects that have a real impact on people’s lives. I wondered how you measure impact, and how you define or choose which people?
Alistair Hudson: This is something we developed over the last few years with other museum partners was this idea of—part of it was the useful museum, and this language of usership. This very dynamic interplay between different users in a social system.
In that way, what you can start to think about is not the exhibition, or the gallery and the audience, but to think about a body of material and a network of relationships which have different emphasis and nuances at different times. Everybody becomes a user or constituent component of that cultural entity. People working at different intensities at different times with different interests. That’s, in a way, a much more realistic understanding of how the world works.
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: If you think about every person being an owner of that museum, every constituent is an owner of that museum, there are some interesting initiatives also trying to disrupt this whole model by emulating that with technology using the block chain.
There are some new fundraising propositions that are proposing that you have the physical artwork that’s owned by the museum, which is owned by the constituents. Then you have a digital version of the artwork that you then turn into almost like shares, but they’re not really shares. They’re like tokens, let’s call them, and people can buy those tokens to feel that they own a bit of that work.
But it’s all imaginary, because it’s a digital asset that’s being tokenized, and that people own a bit of. But it’s just a way for the museums to be able to raise a bit more money, because you have to buy the tokens to feel ownership of that thing. But they might even already be owners through their tax system, and through the fact that it’s a national, or state, or city museum.
I’m having a bit of trouble with this, because we’ve been in the discussion about block chain a lot and I’m very passionate about what distributed ledger technology can do, but I think that there are also some issues with that difference between the physical asset and the digital asset, and ownership feelings. Because if someone suddenly buys 20% of a work that is in a museum in order to feel ownership over it, doesn’t that immediately contradict the concept that everyone owns it? You see what I’m saying?
Charlotte Burns: You’re sort of double selling.
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: Yes. Exactly. You’re kind of double selling. What is the value of the physical asset, versus the value of the digital asset?
Then, also, this is happening with a lot of different types of digital assets when you talk about copyright. When you talk about an artist’s estate having claim over the digital reproduction of the work. You’re suddenly getting into so much complexity about value, and stored value, and the artworks themselves that through trying to democratize, we’re actually making it so much more complicated.
Alistair Hudson: Also, in a way, that’s principally still around financial value. Where does social value come into this, as well? There are other kinds of value. For me, the interesting thing is use value. What are these things for? Why are we even collecting them as an institution? What’s their job? Why are we even doing that thing? Why does the museum exist? What’s its job?
Charlotte Burns: What do you think the job is of the museum?
Alistair Hudson: If you’re going to the founding text, it’s there. Both with the Whitworth and the Manchester Art Gallery in the 19th century, they were designed as educational and socially transforming institutions. Basically, using creativity culture and actually science and the arts, as well, to educate and create better social conditions. That’s what they were for. I still think that’s true, now.
Charlotte Burns: And distracting the masses from their hard labor.
Alistair Hudson: It’s not—
Charlotte Burns: Especially in industrial cities.
Alistair Hudson: Partly distracting, because the institute movement was about basically people doing craft classes, or chemistry classes in the evening instead of going to the pub. That’s part of it. And it was instrumental to a certain extent. But at the same time—
Charlotte Burns: It’s tied to productivity, and capital and capitalism as well.
Alistair Hudson: Partly, but also what was interesting about that was through the mechanism, this is really interesting around the institute movement to the 19th century, although they were created by industrialists who said “Hey, we’re onto a really good thing here. We can make really happy, productive workers who are really bright and intelligent, and will bring the next generation of entrepreneurs and technologists”, etc., and it worked. It’s very interesting, in fact, even in current context, that museums and galleries and these institutes were seen to work on those terms because they knew what creativity would bring to a society.
Charlotte Burns: That’s interesting
Alistair Hudson: So yes, of course, they were productive. But at the same time, because that was the place where people came together, these were the institutions where people started to self-organize. Everything was happening in places like the Manchester Art Gallery because that’s where people said, “Hey, we can start to use these institutions ourselves to change the system.”
Charlotte Burns: And have different conversations.
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: It’s so tied to the systems. It’s almost like the system created something that then wanted to disrupt the system.
Alistair Hudson: But of course. It is the same argument now. For example, the stuff I do around Arte Útil and useful art—often the knee-jerk reaction is, “Oh, you’re just fulfilling the role of the state.” But you’re not. You’re actually repurposing and co-opting a system, which you’re embedded in anyways. You’re never going to escape the system. Never, ever, ever. The only way, really, to bring about change is to piggy back it and work within it. And start to manipulate things from the inside. That’s always been the case.
When you’re talk about shows, basically it’s part of a spectator economy. Me personally in Manchester, I would ask, is our role about working within a spectator economy? I would say no. If you look at the founding purpose of our institution, we will be doing a disservice to that intention if we were going to be all about spectator economy and tourism. That’s part of it, but that’s not our driver.
Charlotte Burns: So, it would be more the question for you of bringing in artists who are outward looking?
Alistair Hudson: Part of it. But really, it’s about developing a program that creates social change. Then what success looks like, as it says in business plans: what did you make change?
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: I think that’s a luxury that happens when you have enough funding. If you don’t have enough funding, and I don’t know what the situation is with funding at your institution, but a lot of museums, if they want to do things just for the educational or social value, it’s very difficult to do unless you get the funding. That’s why they do shows that are more popular, or get more tickets, or whatever.
Alistair Hudson: This is why, in a way, the art sector needs to understand the different economics in play. For example, in Middlesbrough, doing touring shows that cost a lot of money that have bad ecological impact in terms of shipping and transport costs—they’re a luxury you can’t afford. When you’re funding comes from the expectation that you will deliver on a social agenda from your community, doing a Gerhard Richter touring exhibition is not serving that agenda. That is a luxury that we can’t afford.
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: Then I would talk about some of the exhibitions that we have available that are not Gerhard Richter, but that are an exhibition from the National Museum in Lagos, Nigeria. Yes, it’s far shipping, but it’s not hundreds of millions of insurance value. It’s something that you can bring that can come into dialog with whatever is in the permanent collection at MIMA, and then create new dialogues that are more interesting. They wouldn’t be expecting the type of hiring fee that some very popular content would require.
Charlotte Burns: But it’s still spectator, and what you’re saying is that you’re less interested in that?
Alistair Hudson: This is actually all about thinking what I would call ecologically. It’s thinking about all the different components in play and what really offers the most, I suppose, in simple terms. So of course, you want a lot of people to come and do something in the museum. That is a good indicator. But it’s not the only indicator. For example, how long do people stay? What’s the level of their discourse? What’s their engagement in the institution? Do they come every week, or do they come only once every time there’s an exhibition? I’m interested in changing the behaviors of how people engage with an institution, which is not about coming to look at something but about active, what I would call, emancipated usership—which is about really people getting most benefit for them and for wider society through the operations of this institution.
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: You can have that type of analytics now. There are devices that tell you the dwell time and the facial expressions of people when they’re in front of a work of art. You can do heat maps using the Wi-Fi ping from a mobile phone to see how many people are walking around, how long they’re staying in front of a certain piece. You suddenly understand more than just, “There were 100,000 people here.”
Alistair Hudson: It’s very funny. The big question now for the culture sector that I’m picking up in the UK is, what’s the data around social impact? Ten years ago, the big argument in the culture sector was what’s the financial impact of these institutions? The case for culture was based around, “Oh yes, for every visitor there was an added value of how many thousand dollars, so many bed nights.” Everybody produced these figures. It didn’t ultimately mean anything. Nobody believed it. But in a way the case was made, and everyone went, “Oh yes, fine. You can carry on going, because we understand the story of what you do.”
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: You have to talk in that way for those who are not in the art world to understand the value.
Alistair Hudson: Yes, of course. Now the question that I think is really interesting because I am interested in data. A lot of people say, “Oh you can’t put data around art.” Actually, what happens if you did? What happens if we really embrace data? Because actually, that’s the way the world is going, so let’s adapt. But let’s be creative within it.
One luxury we do have in Manchester is we have a data manager who really is starting to look at how you analyze the data around social impact. Could a case study of the impact of a work or a project within our collections management database, or disseminated through our platform, become actually the evidence you need to really show the effect that this project, or this artwork or this institution had on the world?
This is kind of a growing area that I think in a way will be a mistake to ignore. The danger is we get slightly elite. “Oh, no, no, no art isn’t not about all data.”
Charlotte Burns: I do want to ask you both, I don’t think we really dwelled on the popular and populist. Because, how do you decide whose stories to tell? If we’re looking at data and we’re looking at what’s popular, is that going to make it harder to buck the trend and tell stories that maybe people don’t want to hear?
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: I would call it diversity of thought. It’s not about what you look like or what you are, but more just you think differently, and you need to have all of those different types of thinking in your narrative.
One of the issues I find with the staff within museums is you mentioned having a data manager. There is a lack of skill set within the museum. A lot of people haven’t trained with certain ways of working that would be helpful to make things a bit different.
If you really want to be able to personify different types of people, then you really need diversity of thought.
Alistair Hudson: The important thing for me is to embrace complexity in this. The danger is in any sort of political stance that you simplify in order to make it. We see this polarization through populism, Brexit, identity politics. Whereas actually, there’s potential, I think, in our museums, galleries and institutions to complexify this. It’s through that complexity that you start to get other people to have empathy with other people. Then once you start getting in specific stories about, for example, migration, about the intricacies of how migration actually works, and people’s individual stories and how culture works in reality, then people go, “Oh, oh right. Yes, it’s not how I thought it was.”
Charlotte Burns: I think we’re nearly reaching the end of our time. I know, Alistair, you have a train to catch. Before we get there, I have to ask you both about Brexit. You both are based in the UK. We’re at a moment of transition, as we always seem to be in Brexit. What are your thoughts about the impact of Brexit on the culture in this country?
Just a nice easy one to wrap us up.
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: As a European living in the UK and married to an English guy, I was very surprised. Our entire company is European. We have only one English employee at Vastari in London. It felt very alien and foreign to us that the British population felt this way about internationalization because without the EU, we wouldn’t have been there.
I think that is something that we are still questioning. What is our relationship with the general British public as Europeans after this transition? At the end of the day, a lot of it is about that narrative of what is the relationship between Europe and the UK that I don’t think has been described in the right way at the moment.
Charlotte Burns: Alistair?
Alistair Hudson: Yes, big subject. During the referendum, obviously, Middlesbrough was the epicenter of the Brexit vote: highest Brexit voting ward in the country with Thornaby. I took a very clear stance as the director there that I was for remaining in the European Union. For me, it’s essentially around adapting to change and globalization and people feeling left out and quite rightly so. But Brexit wasn’t the answer, as far as I can see that’s what’s happening. I assume by the time this goes out, whatever processes we’re undertaking are not the answer to the problems that people are facing. That’s the big issue for me.
It was pitched as an economic decision: Britain as a nation of shopkeepers, as Napoleon said. It proved to be true, because actually it was a cultural decision. The effects we’re feeling are about the UK’s change in its cultural role in the world. For me, all of that pipeline of conversation with Europe, which is our neighbors, was cut through this decision.
I’m in the process of trying to maintain it and repair it, but cultural relationship damage was done. It’s not just with Europe, but it’s with the rest of the world. These decisions are actually cultural decisions and interestingly, this language that was used—by Breitbart, actually, the right wing—they understood culture. They said culture is upstream from politics.
What we need to ascertain now, see a big role for institutions now is reclaiming this territory of culture, of how we shape and create our culture as being above and beyond politics and economics.
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: That ties actually to earlier when you asked, “What is the museum?” My definition has always been custodians of culture. What is our culture, and how do you preserve and promote it?
Alistair Hudson: Also, how do we make a culture?
Charlotte Burns: More actively involved in a way.
Alistair Hudson: What kind of culture are you making? There’s this thing, it’s not choice to have culture or not. It’s just what kind you want.
Charlotte Burns: Well, on that note, I think we’ll get to the end of it. Is there anything that we didn’t cover that you wanted to?
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: Well, we didn’t discuss that much about how art is valued, particularly. I just think one quick point I’d add— that I think we probably both think about quite a lot—is about that the art market and the astronomic prices you see at auction. They really often make people think that those are the most valuable items.
If you think about the neural networks we’re training in computers, they’re using algorithms that are based on pricing databases, that are based on auction records. I think that one thing that museum professionals and those who are working with culture need to understand is the more we digitize the work that museums are doing, the more you’ll have the type of data that can counteract that in our value-measuring mechanisms. If you’re thinking about the value of a work at auction, you can also think about the value of the work at exhibition. It doesn’t have to be a dollar amount. It’s eyeballs versus dollars, almost.
Charlotte Burns: Or use, as Alistair was saying as well.
Alistair Hudson: Yes, absolutely.
Charlotte Burns: There are different social uses.
Alistair Hudson: Which is not to take a kind of stalwart Marxist position. The idea, actually, is quite liberating once you get your head around it. It’s about what we actually do with this stuff.
Charlotte Burns: This is your hero Ruskin, isn’t it Alistair? He said, “Art must never exist alone. Never for itself.”
Alistair Hudson: Yes, he’s kind of a flawed hero.
Charlotte Burns: They’re always the best. I do think some of this is a broader economic conversation to do with tying it all around this sense of people feeling slightly ill at ease and feeling left behind as things are changing. All the great wars, all the great migrations have happened around times of technological change and followed hot on the heels of technological change. We’re in the midst of one of the largest, fastest technological upheavals that modern man has ever gone through. It seems so tied to that. In the process, means of communicating are shifting, too. Means of consuming are shifting but means of communication are too. The value of art is something that will get clicks in a newspaper, more so than someone writing about the use of art. People are fundamentally interested even if they dislike it, to know—it can be hate bait to look at the fact that “X” sold for “X” hundred million dollars and read a controversy around that.
Alistair Hudson: I really think that’s our challenge to change that language. That’s one of the jobs, I think, certainly as a museum director. That’s one of my jobs is to change that public discourse around how people understand art. That’s very damaging to the health of society if that’s how we think about art.
Charlotte Burns: It’s a very new means of disseminating that information, as traditional media is in crisis because of technological upheaval.
Alistair Hudson: I’m interested in the algorithm. Could we have an index around social value as well as its monetary value?
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: Well, that’s what I think will happen, but we need museums to get on board of the revolution. I feel like a lot of them are still working on paper, and not very keen on digital innovation. A lot of the collection management systems are so clunky or all of the rules that have been set don’t fit with their jobs anymore. But all of that is malleable. If we work together to build digital tools that work, then you’ve got the meat to be able to build.
Alistair Hudson: You’ll be pleased to know, I’m working on a project with a mathematician around changing the value system around art based on the idea of the coefficient. So, what’s the coefficient of art? What’s the coefficient of use? It’s about the degree. Then you can create a system in which everything is in play, everything has a role—but it’s what has the most value in the most general terms.
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: The more people we have speaking about this, the closer we’ll get to a better result because it needs to be a dialogue and a discourse internationally and be throughout museums from all different parts.
Charlotte Burns: We began with openness and we will end with a call for openness.
Alistair Hudson: Open call.
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: I love the open call.
Charlotte Burns: Thank you both for being my guests today. I appreciate it very much. It’s been really interesting.
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder: It has been fascinating.
Alistair Hudson: Thanks for having us.