Maria Lind at the Coniston Institute
Sunday evening, 27 July 2014
Presented with dinner by Grizedale Arts

What does an art institute do? Who is it for? What new curatorial models might facilitate a reciprocal cultural exchange? Oriented away from the urban periphery and engaged instead with diverse local and global communities, these are daily questions for Jade Lillie at Footscray Community Arts Centre, or Jeremy Gaden at The Substation, or Kiersten Fishburn and Augusta Supple at the Casula Powerhouse. For Maria Lind, Director of Tensta Konsthall in suburban Stockholm, such questions have framed her transformative time at the helm, and she’s also taken the initiative to form an EU-funded international network of curators working in residential, suburban and other non-innercity contexts.

Maria gave an evening dinner talk last Sunday at the Coniston Institute, a former Mechanics’ Institute hall and theatre in the heart of the village, with a program of workshops and creative events presented by Grizedale Arts. The setting was an informal one, which generated broad-ranging and at times unexpected discussion spanning art’s relation to cultural difference and the political.

Framing her talk, Maria offered a brief survey of projects presented at Tensta Konsthall prior to offering a set of curatorial principles, which gave a rich and practical sense of the institute’s work. The forgotten watercolours of Josabeth Sjöberg (1812-1882), who methodically depicted a series of the rooms she lived in as a poor working woman. Ahmet Ögüt’s Silent University, an artistic framework for the presentation of lectures and seminars by stateless people whose qualifications aren’t locally recognised. Petra Bauer’s work on listening as a political strategy. A gallery café operating as a social enterprise. A self-organised Gallery Club of local ten-year-old girls (whose first rule for the club was “No foul language”).

Questioning the meaning of art as a discipline and as a practice, and doing so with sensitivity to context, is Maria’s mission. Maria’s previous connection to Tensta has been family – her grandmother lived there – and today, after three-and-a-half years in the role, she extends a generosity to local families and communities as part of the work of her organisation. For example, she dislocates the regular staff meetings by holding them at the nearby Hjulsta Women’s Centre, always offering the reciprocity of hosting the group’s tea salons at the gallery café. This role of cultural mediation continued into the discussion, with Director of Grizedale Arts Adam Sutherland describing the need to be invited by the local community, to be welcomed rather than imposing a pregiven approach to art – art understood very much as process: “I get a bit worried when we produce commodities.” Cross-cultural exchange does not only occur among people of different national origin; the relationship with the Lake District locals, largely comfortable in enjoying their affluence, itself requires a sensitivity to local practice and local values, with an honest and sustained approach.

Despite these accounts of meaningful and generous exchange across cultures, Tom Kelly from Irish art and activist collective The Bogside Artists recoiled at the idea of art requiring any form of mediation or interpretation at all, attacking what we perceived as a lack of clarity, and suggesting that their work could be understood and thereby enjoyed by anyone from any culture around the world. I was taken aback by this vehemence, especially given it was framed in the militant context of The Bogside Artists stating they had been marked for death by the IRA. The danger of this political struggle is not something to which I can relate; I was reminded, however, that the sensitivity to cultural difference is not a universal, and where it flags, violence is an ever-ready threat.

Tensta Konsthall is a former storage space of some 700m2 under a shopping centre in a suburb that remained farming land until its 1967 modernist social housing transformation. The area is culturally diverse, and in contrast to our Coniston setting, not at all affluent. It’s the only workplace where Maria has experienced armed hold-up, and recently the café was broken into and money and biscuits stolen. Maria welcomes the artistic cooption of what might be perceived as social services – Ögüt’s Silent University, for example, or the Konsthall’s temporary accommodation of a local library, sets the artistic context clearly as a space for unsettling the political constraints framing cultural exchange. (Maria thus orients her approach and her practice explicitly as feminist, as we discussed on a road trip the next day.) Situating his own work in this context, Fernando García-Dory described the role of the artist as taking the critical perspective and persona, listening, investigating, facilitating: “We’re not neutral players.”

Maria’s practice is a diverse one. She is a writer, critic and curator, and was curator of Manifesta 2, the European biennial of contemporary arts, in 1998. Her former roles include directing the Masters Programme at the Centre for Curatorial Studies at Bard College in New York; (2008-2010); directing Iaspis in Stockholm, and Kunstverein Munchen; and she is a former curator at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet. In 2009 she received the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement. Currently her writing is looking at the idea of quality in art.