Museum Makers: Olivia Heron, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

  • Published 13 January 2020

MIMA's assistant curator tells us about the gallery's mission to 'put art into action' in society – and how attending the AAMC conference in New York has helped her to foster links with like-minded peers.

2019 Art Fund Fellow Olivia Heron, assistant curator, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, with 2019 Art Fund US Liaison Anne Collins Smith, curator of collections, Spelman College Museum of Art Photo courtesy AAMC

2019 Art Fund Fellow Olivia Heron, assistant curator, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, with 2019 Art Fund US Liaison Anne Collins Smith, curator of collections, Spelman College Museum of Art

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Photo courtesy AAMC

MIMA has a civic mission to put art into action, bringing people together through creativity to make change in society. This ethos is what attracted me to the job. I work within MIMA’s programme team. Together we devise and realise MIMA’s creative programme of exhibitions, events, learning sessions and community activities. My speciality is working with artists, planning exhibitions and looking after the collection.

I started out working front of house for Harrogate museums service. A few months in, I was asked to assist with a survey of the Mercer Art Gallery’s collection of works on paper, alongside my other duties. The project lasted 18 months, and I learned how to identify, condition-check, document and research different types of work. Afterwards, I helped put together the resulting exhibition. Later I covered the assistant curator’s maternity leave, and then we job-shared. I studied part time alongside this, completing an MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies, focusing on museum politics, activism, and education.

I love how my job blends conceptual and practical skills. It hinges on examining ideas and issues, and social interactions are central. I really enjoy working with people and thinking about how art is relevant to society. My undergraduate degree in art practice and my early experiences working with collections have fed my interest in art objects: their form, technique and materials; their makers, their social and historical contexts, their agency – and this underpins everything.

I love how dynamic my role is. Half my time is thinking, creating and communicating. The other half is about making things happen practically. Some days are silent: writing, reading, thinking, planning. Other days I hardly stop talking, as I go from one meeting to the next or tour people around the shows.

I spend quite a lot of time away from my desk. You might find me up a ladder in the museum store checking works for display or loan, or wielding a tape measure in the galleries, planning a display. I meet with artists and collaborators to develop ideas or projects, often making offsite visits. When I’m at my desk I plan, compile, and organise logistics, immersed in object paperwork, spreadsheets or the collection database. I often spend Fridays in the library, working towards exhibition interpretation or funding applications.

I feel very lucky to work within a creative community of artists, museum workers, researchers and community collaborators. There is always something to learn, new people to meet and different perspectives to discover. It’s important to listen to feedback and adapt to learn, change and improve. It’s a continuous process. During my career, colleagues have gone out of their way to support others (including me) to develop. For me this has underlined the importance of sharing knowledge, opportunities and support, helping to build a more open and inclusive sector. I’m inspired by people who are committed to making museums and galleries inclusive and welcoming, yet challenging and critical public spaces.

To someone looking to do a role like this, my advice would be to start small. Think about how you can contribute to projects that interest you, and get involved. Keep learning, reflecting and listening to what others have to say. Widen your life experience, try new things and challenge your thinking. Be curious about people, places and ideas. Think about how you can weave your own interests and personal qualities into different job roles to gather skills to help develop a career that unfolds gradually.

There is always something amazing happening at MIMA. Teesside’s Streetwise Opera, a choir for people affected by homelessness, composed a piece inspired by the Middlesbrough Collection and performed it in our gallery space; we’ve also had students from Teesside University dancing through the collection display, and our dementia-friendly group Creative Age’s kazoo choir bursting into song in our Atrium. In artist-led public workshops, we’ve hiked up Eston Nab with Stephen Gill, meditated on the industrial shoreline with Laura Harrington, and made wooden bird boxes with Isabel Lima and local residents to stick onto the Gresham Horse, a giant roaming sculpture for the neighbourhood.

Attending the AAMC conference last year offered an inspiring insight into socially engaged practice and organisational change in the US. Visiting a range of specialist cultural organisations across New York helped me to understand the roles different organisations play within the US art ecosystem, and the histories, traditions and funding structures that shape it. It was interesting to compare this to the UK and consider how each is shaped by the wider political and cultural context it sits within.

MIMA has developed innovative, inclusive engagement work and actively challenges historical imbalances within its collection and display practices. The AAMC conference’s focus on social justice, community engagement and activism within US non-profit institutions was a key learning opportunity for me to bring new knowledge and approaches back to our work at MIMA and connect with like-minded organisations. It was an opportunity that tied in so well with my own work, so I just had to apply.

At MIMA we are keen on collectivity. I wanted to use Art Fund's AAMC grant to support collaborative research with my colleague Helen Welford, laying the foundations for a fresh wave of activity around the Middlesbrough Collection. We organised a joint visit to the US to research and plan new ways to work with the collection and archive that will help to develop it as an inclusive, relevant and engaging resource for future exhibitions and research. In New York, I shadowed work at the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at Brooklyn Museum, while Helen spent time at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. Learning from these pioneering institutions will inform our work in the coming years.

We have some amazing exhibitions lined up for 2020. In spring we host a major Otobong Nkanga show, and in summer we showcase a new body of work by Sonia Boyce, which includes a collaboration with local women skateboarders. Autumn sees the launch of a group exhibition exploring the production of synthetics in the area, with new commissions by Katarina Zdjelar and Annie O’Donnell, and works in innovative materials by a range of contemporary artists and designers. Longer term, I’m excited to see how the MIMA School of Art and Design grows and develops, helping to nurture new artistic thinking in the area and feed in to Middlesbrough’s already vibrant and ever-expanding grassroots art scene.

Applications for the AAMC International Engagement Programme for UK-based curators are open now. The programme is a collaboration between Art Fund and the US-based Association of Art Museum Curators Foundation, to enable UK curators to travel, network and develop relationships with their international peers.


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