Curator of the Month: Miguel Amado

From interning in his native Portugal to being a senior curator at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, Miguel Amado shares his thoughts on the why curatorial practice is best informed by political activism and challenging societal and artistic norms.

Name and job title

Miguel Amado, Senior Curator, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

What inspired you to become a curator?

I studied sociology at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. But instead of going to classes, my first year in college was spent self-educating in radical political traditions (for instance, Trotskyism and the proposals of the Situationist International) and cultural production, often underground (experimental electronic music, spoken word, and Third Cinema, to name a few), as well as doing stuff in this field. I was an actor for a couple of years and engaged in campaigns of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.

So my encounter with art occurred in this context, as just another practice (particularly one that is rooted in collective action), and I expanded my interest in it through theory. I began interning at the Encontros de Fotografia, an annual festival in Coimbra, at the age of 18. Two years later I was asked to join the team on a regular basis, and the director of this event told me: ‘I just want you to browse the books we hold in our library and learn how we put together a show here.’ Looking back, this is what I have been ever since: reading about (and seeing) art and making exhibitions, and focusing on politics (as often as possible).

What was your first job in the art world, and how did you get to where you are now?

At the Encontros de Fotografia, my first duty was to paint the galleries white. Curating – the profession, and even the term – was unknown to me then. In 1998 I was one of the two assistant curators of the event. Until then, and after that, both in Coimbra and then Lisbon, I collaborated with several artists and curators, but it was not until I attended the MA Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art in London in the early 2000s that I realised that I was doing was 'curating'.

After that, I contributed to the launch of Centro de Artes Visuais, a new institution in Coimbra, between 2003 and 2005. Then I worked (or collaborated) and studied in different organisations in New York, where I lived until 2011, including Rhizome at the New Museum, ‘Night School’, apexart, the International Studio & Curatorial Program, and Artforum. After that, I worked in Portugal and England: achievements included building a collection of art from the African Portuguese-speaking countries for the PLMJ Foundation, organising the Portuguese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and being a member of staff at Tate St Ives and now at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art.

What has been the highlight of your career – and the biggest challenge?

Curating the museum debut of Simon Fujiwara at Tate St Ives was a complex and sophisticated exhibition. It featured six commissions, some involving Tate Collection works, which required detailed preparations. But really it was at an intellectual level that it proved to be so demanding. I collaborated with the artist in the research, sometimes conception, and production of the commissions. Everything was provocative – homo-erotic references and imagery all over, Bernard Leach pots destroyed, satires of Barbara Hepworth and Patrick Heron, and so on. ‘This is not the Tate way,’ someone scolded me at one point.

At Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, ‘If All Relations Were to Reach Equilibrium, Then This Building Would Dissolve’ was a display and set of outreach initiatives that addressed the migration control system, specifically narratives around the ‘refugee crisis’. I curated it following visits to the homes of people seeking asylum, and conversations with local charity professionals that enabled me to understand their reality. It became our trademark for the shaping of a new model for the contemporary museum: performing a social role, functioning for the commons, approaching art not through aesthetics but use value, and focusing on civic engagement towards community development.

If you had one piece of advice for aspiring curators, what would it be?

To leave the office desk and start working from the streets. The British art system has been designed in such a manner that much of what curatorial staff do is to manage projects instead of producing them, and one needs to break away from this situation to take ownership of institutional missions and programmes. With London-based organisations generating so much content to be dispersed across the country, many young curators just facilitate logistics instead of researching, creatively imagining exhibitions, partnering with artists and organising events, or writing.

In addition, curatorial staff seems to not connect enough with social life, which prevents them from adopting the urgent issues of our era as drivers of their practice. Of course, this situation is embedded in the mainstream vision of art as an autonomous sphere rather than part of society, which in itself is associated with the commodification of the artwork and the corresponding expansion of the art market. So, ultimately, one needs to challenge this story by excavating other, alternative outputs, both historic and contemporary, and this is the task at hand that I think aspiring curators can take as their own.

What’s special about working at mima?

Freedom to do what I want (and I what I believe in). At mima, ‘business as usual’ is not the rule, and experimentation is encouraged and rewarded. In addition, given that the institution operates almost entirely with public funds, the constraints and pressures of private patronage are not felt. I have thus been exploring what I call ‘art without art’, or art that follows the lineage of a subaltern history as a mechanism of societal transformation, and exhibitionary models that dispute the ‘white cube’ ideology.

This means that I have been able to work with international artists relatively unknown in England, or based in the Tees Valley, or from an ethnic minority origin, or outsider (many women); or mixing artworks with films, archives, photographic records, texts, and artefacts (which encompasses anything else); or emphasising ideas; or embracing activism; or introducing a service provision mentality; or collaborating with scholars, amateur historians, university students, and refugee-background groups.

What are your favourite objects in your collection and why?

One would certainly be 'She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose)' by Sonia Boyce. The work was purchased in 1987, just one year after it was created, but never exhibited until 2017, when it became the centrepiece of the first ever permanent presentation of the Middlesbrough Collection, following its selection by our ‘users’ in one of the workshops the curatorial team organised with them. Using autobiographical imagery and a black ‘English rose’ motif to communicate ideas around nationality and stereotypical standards of beauty, Boyce questions the notion of ‘Englishness’ and considers what it means to be a woman, both black and British, exploring the conflict inherent in identity.

Boyce’s work is as pertinent today as it was in the 1980s, and is complemented by works produced by artists from the same generation, including Chila Kumari Burman, Lubaina Himid, John Akomfrah and Keith Piper, which I have been able to recently acquire with support from various funding bodies, notably Art Fund. They put forward issues around representation with respect to race, gender, and class, and consider themes as diverse as blackness, imperialism and diaspora. Quoting Himid, they ‘challenge the order of things, take back that which has been stolen, call to question those in power and make them answerable’.

Away from work, how do you spend your free time?

My time is actually almost entirely devoted to working. I visit museums (all sorts of kinds, not just art), read (mostly theory and criticism), and watch documentaries. As I travel a lot, I also enjoy sightseeing in cities. With my partner, I used to go to the movies very often, as well as attending music concerts and theatre and dance performances, but since our now five-year-old boy was born, we rarely have a chance to do it. Together we go to the swimming pool, sometimes the park, build Lego sets, eat out and, of course, visit museums.

What is the best exhibition that you have been to recently?

‘Forensic Architecture – Towards an Investigative Aesthetics’ at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (co-produced with the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City). Forensic Architecture is an agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, founded in 2010. Eyal Weizman is its director, and its team includes architects, artists, filmmakers, coders, journalists, archaeologists, lawyers and scientists. They have been investigating human rights abuses globally, especially in conflict zones.

Their research combines forensic techniques with an understanding of the built environment, generating evidence for courts, reports, truth commissions and legal forums. The exhibition outlined their work through texts, films, archives, infographics, and artworks – ‘spatial and visual material’, as they put it. Each investigation – or case study – was detailed, from context to activities, findings to media reception or public awareness. The exhibition revealed the connections among the state, technological devices, corporate interests and power in the manufacturing of ideological truth.

Miguel is hosting a session on Social Function of Art Institutions at the Museums Association Conference 2017.

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