Statement on the Forced Resignation of Alistair Hudson

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Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester.

2 March 2022

Statement on the Forced Resignation of Alistair Hudson, Director of Whitworth Art Gallery, by the University of Manchester

The Museum Watch Committee (MWC) expresses our deep concern regarding the forced removal of Alistair Hudson from his post as Director of the Whitworth Art Gallery, an institution under the University of Manchester. The proposal to dismiss Hudson after almost 4 years successfully directing both the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery comes as a great shock and the MWC demands that the conditions of his dismissal be made more transparent.

Hudson is alleged to be in the process of being dismissed due to the dispute over the Whitworth’s exhibition of Cloud Studies by the investigative agency Forensic Architecture, commissioned and produced by the Whitworth, the University of Manchester, and Manchester International Festival for the Festival’s 2021 edition. Cloud Studies is an investigation into environmental racism and included a section on the environmental degradation as a result of violence by Israeli forces in occupied Palestinian territories. As the conflict was seen to be worsening at the time of Cloud Studies exhibition, Forensic Architecture wished to put up a statement expressing solidarity with the people of Palestine against violence against its people and the destruction of their land. Hudson sought additional, expressed clearance from the University’s senior leadership for the artist to exhibit this statement, a roundly agreeable measure.

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Forensic Architecture stands with Palestine.

Regardless, Forensic Architecture’s statement was viewed as inflammatory by UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI), alongside the Manchester Jewish Representative Council (JRC), North West Friends of Israel (NWFoI), and the Manchester Zionist Central Council (ZCC). They cited the statement as being “factually incorrect and dangerously one-sided account on an extremely complex foreign policy issue.” It is clear that the UKLFI will take issue with findings on Israeli-occupied Palestine that runs contrary to their stance: the group had previously disputed the accuracy of Gaza Platform, also by Forensic Architecture, despite its findings being supported by several international Human Rights organisations.

The exhibited statement was removed, without consultation with the artist, after discussions between representatives of Manchester University, Whitworth Gallery, and the Israeli-related organizations. Vice-Chancellor Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell apologized for any “distress which has been experienced by members of our Jewish community in connection with aspects of the Cloud Studies exhibition, particularly the accompanying written statement.” Forensic Architecture only learned of the statement’s removal through UKLFI’s website and demanded that the exhibition be closed as its work had been compromised. Cloud Studies was closed for a brief period beginning 15 August 2021, during which Hudson led discussions between stakeholders to reach a compromise.

Despite pressure from all sides, Hudson’s mediation did manage a respectable compromise—the Whitworth reopened Cloud Studies accompanied by a framing statement, the UKLFI’s counter statement, and another from representatives of Palestine. A signed statement from Hudson was posted to Whitworth’s website explaining the Gallery’s decision and position to the public. Given the conviction of all parties as to their own positions and the urgency of having this exhibition stay open to the public it serves, the compromise reached was admirable. His arbitration ultimately allowed the exhibition to remain open to the public, maintained the integrity of the artwork with the artist’s agreement, and managed the relations of stakeholders involved.

Following this agreement, however, the UKLFI then submitted a Freedom of Information request to the University demanding further evidence for mediation between different ethnic, national, and religious groups owing to the content of the exhibition, and proof of fact checking. When the University could not submit information relevant to specific points in the UKLFI’s request, the group deemed Hudson to have been duplicitous in his dealings with the University and suggested disciplinary action be taken against him. It was subsequently announced on 22 February 2022, months after the initial incident and the original complaints by the UKLFI, that Hudson was to be removed from his post as Director of Whitworth Gallery.

In light of the limited information made available to it, the MWC demands greater clarity as to the reasons for Hudson’s removal and reconsideration of the University’s decision, given that he took conscious and proactive steps to seek leadership’s consensus on difficult decisions, and has appeared to balance competing interests through the disputes surrounding Cloud Studies. Throughout his time as Director of the Whitworth, Hudson has fulfilled the vision established by Whitworth itself to “work with communities to use art for positive social change, and actively address what matters most in people’s lives”; exhibitions in his tenure have centered on social practice, reinforcing the role of museums as a force for good and change in society. To the best of our knowledge, it therefore seems that Hudson has excelled in his role as leader of the Whitworth Gallery. That he now appears to be punished for the decision to put up an exhibition like Cloud Studies in its entirety—a decision undoubtedly also cleared by the Gallery’s senior leadership—raises doubt as to the rightfulness of his removal.

On a broader level, it also speaks to the silencing of dissent by pressure groups with capital and influence. As part of the University of Manchester, the Whitworth was created as a protected space for the expression of academic and artistic freedom, for open and productive discussions to be had about the issues of today, including the continued political oppression of marginalized groups like communities in Palestine. By bowing to such external pressure, the University has compromised the Gallery and by extension spaces like it, setting a dangerous precedent for any attempts to platform marginalized voices and to speak truth to oppressive, violent powers.

The artistic community in the UK is rallying against the University’s decision; artists participating in the touring British Art Show 9 are pulling out of its Manchester stop. The MWC strongly urges the University of Manchester to reconsider its decision to remove Hudson from his post, at least in part also owing to the implications of his removal on artistic freedoms in the UK and beyond. We hope there is an opportunity for talks between the University and Alistair Hudson to be open about the conditions of his dismissal, and that the University will be likewise open to hearing the concerns of the artistic community on this matter.

In representation of the CIMAM Museum Watch Committee integrated by:

  • Bart de Baere, Director, M HKA, Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp, Belgium.
  • Calin Dan, Director, MNAC Bucharest—National Museum of Contemporary Art. Bucharest,
  • Romania.
  • Sarah Glennie, Director, National College of Art and Design. Dublin, Ireland.
  • Malgorzata Ludwisiak, Chief Curator, Department of Modern Art, National Museum in Gdansk, Poland.
  • Victoria Noorthoorn, Director, Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  • Eugene Tan, Director, National Gallery Singapore, and Singapore Art Museum. Singapore.

CIMAM – International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art, is an Affiliated Organization of ICOM.