Love is in the Air: Anna Cutler and the Tate Exchange

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A Conversation with Anna Cutler by Marcus Civin

The Tate Exchange is an experiment in museum culture. Sometimes it is an open university, sometimes a concert and dance venue, and sometimes a studio. Housed within the Tate Modern, it challenges and expands the roles and spaces that arts institutions have traditionally occupied. As Director of Learning and Research, Anna Cutler is responsible for the conception and direction of the Exchange; to promote positive, sustainable change in museum education practices where artists and the public develop events collaboratively with the aim of building a meaningful dialogue around today’s most pressing issues.

I got a chance to ask Cutler a few questions about the Tate Exchange in anticipation of her visit to MICA for a free public lecture on February 26.

Marcus Civin: Can you lay out a little bit of your thinking about the potential for museums as spaces for interaction, and democratic and ethical practice?

Anna Cutler: I think all of us are caught up in forms of cultural and structural normative thought that permeates all we do and how we think, talk, behave, and make. You don’t need to be a world expert to spot that most institutions look and sound like their makers in the time and place they were made. Being part of any institution is not straightforward if you recognize this, but sitting outside them or inside them and complaining doesn’t change anything.

If we are all part of the institutions that exist (and I believe that we are) then we all have to attend to the processes that maintain them. If we do want them to be sites that invite difference and a sense of democratic engagement, and I do, then we need to be responsible to one another in how we act to change things.

I do have a personal belief in equality and I’m sure that this looks different from others’. For example I believe in the equality of the imaginary, which is an idea that has successfully emptied rooms at parties in the past, so I am keen to understand my views and values, why I have them, what others values are and in this how I can learn and therfore change, as I hope others may be prepared to do so too. I also believe in generosity, trust, and respect with a serious dose of humour and playfulness thrown in.

What are you working on right now at Tate Exchange?

Right now I’m delighted to say that I’m introducing our new Head of Tate Exchange to the organization and programme! Dr. Cara Courage started last week and is getting to grips with it all.

We are in week six of our Associate programme (those colleagues and organizations that work beyond Tate and sometimes outwith the arts) exploring the theme of Production. We have had more public engagement this year (more people and more time spent in the space) as well as a growing range of very impressive programming from everyone involved. Confidence and expertise in the content and use of space with the public is apparent. People are taking more risks whilst also making a clearer invitation for how the public may engage in the activities and ideas.

We are also assessing what’s working well (or isn’t) at the same time as planning ahead. Next year the programme will be blended with a move towards the removal of phases so that Tate’s programme and the Associates’ programme becomes one by 2019. We are looking at how Tate Exchange works with the rest of the institution and how to transfer what we have learned beyond Tate Exchange itself. It seems to be a period of improved alignment and reconfiguring systems that better negotiate what Tate can become in the wider ecology of cultural practices.

Tate Exchange Event, Tate Modern

We have a real wealth of inspiration at MICA, a free program of speakers that you are a part of. You’ll be followed in March by Dawoud Bey… towards the end of the semester, the designer Zach Lieberman… Right before you come, we’ll have Allan McCollum and Sherin Neshat. I am wondering who are the artists and designers that influence you?

Perhaps, rather predictably, it’s not any single person or individual and their ideas that influence me. I have to say that I’m a bit of a magpie and am likely to take parts of ideas as much as the whole! I am attracted to those who draw out the complex and contradictory, those who question the ways we have been accustomed to things or the way we see and assume things. I like the processes of incorporation to be exposed. This can be subtle or not.

Equally I like a firm hand in this. I like the surety of an artist or the conviction of design—if only as a temporary gesture that might be overturned in future thinking. I think exposure to a range of practices old and new is essential for deepening critique and critical thinking. The speakers you have before and after me certainly speak to this range and depth of complexity and difference. I am the only person [of this group] that I have never heard of.

At MICA, we think a lot about what it means to be an art and design student today and what it means to be a creative person in the world outside of school and what that will mean in the future too. In your work, it seems you interact with all kinds of schools and educational projects. What have you observed that inspires you in the realm of art and design education?

What inspires me the most is that art and design education opens up complex ideas and generates creative thinking and thinkers. In my opinion, we desperately need this kind of open and divergent thinking that can push forwards new ways of figuring out our new cultural and social landscapes. Nothing is fixed and being able to be flexible and manage contingency is, and will be, essential. Making through learning and learning through making stretches the limits of what we think is possible. It brings me hope.

Museums have sometimes been sites of protest. In the US, in the 1960’s, there was the Art Workers Coalition. Now we have Occupy Museums. What do you think about the museum as a site of protest or political action and how might this thinking influence your work?

As public sites that present forms of re-presentation, resistance, activism and much else through the works collected, it would be disingenuous not to recognise that protest and art have links. In fact this is explored in our Art and Society collection displays. As a museum we have had protests presented in various shapes and forms and this has been discussed in Tate Exchange. Perhaps one thing that the programme enables is somewhere to voice potentially opposing portions and have them heard in a different way that provides a form of debate and dialogue.

Can you talk about the relationship between inside and outside, pulling that apart where possible and trying to be a good neighbor and good citizens, working to make an institution permeable and welcoming? At MICA we are often trying to use our spaces and resources creatively, to participate in various communities, and learn from and share with different coalitions, communities, and groups, particularly in Baltimore, but elsewhere as well. It seems to me like you have figured some of this out in the context you work in. How do you do this? What’s your secret?

I’m rubbish at secrets and don’t really think I have any! I do have a structure I use, a kind of frame for thinking things through that might have helped and I can share this when I’m over. But if I said part of the answer for me is love, you would probably laugh at me, or feel a little nauseous. But if by this I mean care, respect, knowledge and responsibility, which I do, then it might make more sense. I’ve borrowed it from Eric Fromm‘s work.

I have a brilliant array of colleagues around me. Frances Morris is fantastic and I have a team of highly thoughtful practitioners who both contribute ideas and keep me on track! All these aspects of love are apparent in the work we do and if they’re not, we try and rethink them. I’ve been lucky enough to have had the same group of people to travel with me for ten years now as well as 63 external organizations advising and challenging me, so perhaps one of the answers might be ‘other people who can help.’

In the US, I think there has been a lot of good change-oriented work recently for art and design institutions to address misogyny, racism, ableism. I think there’s room still for much more. What are you noticing in your work?

This is at the forefront of work in Tate Exchange and I also notice it in the broader cultural field. Its taken a long time to get the kind of purchase required for change. I’m looking forward to supporting this.

Author Marcus Civin is currently working on a round-up of local books and zines for the next print issue of Bmore Art. He is Associate Dean in Graduate Studies at MICA.

Photos courtesy of Tate Photography.

MICA Mixed Media Lecture Series Feb 26: Anna Cutler of Tate Exchange – info here.

Anna Cutler at MICA Monday, February 26 at 6 pm: lecture, followed by questions and discussion, free and open to the public in MICA’s Lazarus Center Auditorium. Anna’s visit is an opportunity to think together about publicly-facing/publicly-engaged space and initiatives in relation to art and design education and the Baltimore community. Please invite others and spread the word.

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