Dialogue: Liam Slevin, Middlesbrough Art Week

What started as a weekend event in Middlesbrough has evolved to a week-long festival comprising exhibitions, performance, workshops, talks and more, taking over the town. We catch up with Liam Slevin, co-founder of Middlesbrough Art Week, about what an artist-focused organisation looks like; the growing links between Teesside and New York; and some of what’s in store at this year’s festival.

ANNE: The weekend is now a week! What made you make the leap — and what shift do you think it’ll make, besides having more days? 

Liam Slevin: A bit obvious to say, but time. A lot of energy and labour and financial resources goes into producing the festival. The weekender has served us very well establishing ourselves, building a sense of energy and excitement around a single intense weekend. We’ve been having conversations around its length for a long time, whether to move to a biennial model, or even triennial — or just a much longer run similar to Liverpool Biennial. In the end the week won out. We also run Sonic Arts Week and have seen the benefit of letting programmes sit for longer. People might walk by a space a few days in a row and then ask what’s going on!

ANNE: Is there anything in particular that you’re looking forward to at the Art Week this year — and why?

LS: Saeborg’s work Pigpen (in the exhibition Measure, 29 September – 7 October, and performance on Friday 7 October, 7 – 10pm) has been on my radar for a few years now and to finally be bringing it to MAW is definitely a personal highlight. I’m really intrigued by the type of audience it’s going to attract. Having started life in the BDSM scene and moved into more of a gallery context, I’m hoping we can bring those two worlds together. It reminds me of something you would have found in Bizarre magainze and been totally blown away. Thematically I was nervous about positioning it next to Sarah Maple’s Labour of Love piece, a monumental homage to motherhood and unseen labour. Pigpen may have seem a crass counterpoint but I think it works. I’m delighted with it.

ANNE: The Auxiliary – Middlesbrough Art Week’s parent organisation – is now an National Portfolio Organisation (or NPO: Arts Council England’s regularly funded organisations). Obviously this affects more than Middlesbrough Art Week alone, but what do you hope this will mean for the festival itself? 

LS: It’s definitely going to change, or even has already changed our organisational metabolism. We’ve always produced at a high level, with exhibition turnovers, festivals, professional development opportunities and so on. The NPO is going to make all of this more succinct. I’m keen not to lose more of the freeform and reactive programming style we’ve come to inhabit so we’re squirrelling money away to make sure we can continue that way of working in tandem to the structure of the NPO.

ANNE: That will be the trick, to reconcile the freeform with the framework — and similarly, with both the Art Week and The Auxiliary, how do you think you’ll reconcile the artist-led beginnings of the organisation and festival with the responsibilities – and benefits – of becoming an NPO? Will it change things, and if so, what and how?

LS: This has been a massive concern for me until recently. The answer is that we’re going to develop into an artist-led institution. As long as the direction of the organisation is artist-focused then it’s in safe hands. Which seems a bit silly for an art organisation to say but institutions can quickly forget that they deal with people. I love a bit of naïve optimism. It might seem like a contradiction but that’s the goal. Best of both worlds. 

ANNE: Yes, there’s an obvious tension between the needs and desires of any institution and the grassroots – not least the leap from self- or project-funded, artist-led, to regularly-funded and salaried, arts worker-led. But maintaining an artist-focused structure is a good goal. 

Back to the Art Week, it’s a key date for Teesside-based artists, and from the North East more widely, too, especially via the North East Open Call — but it’s interesting that it also consistently features one or two figures from the international contemporary and art-historical scene. Scrolling through a list of artists from Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Sunderland, suddenly there’s Gordon Matta-Clark and Mike Nelson!

Matta-Clark seems to be a mainstay of the festival, appearing in three editions so far, while Mike Nelson (also showing at the NGCA in Sunderland concurrently with the festival) is a big hitter normally found in huge institutional shows. What’s that all about, and how did it come about? And what dialogues might you be hoping to open up as a result of this pairing? 

LS: Sure, everything starts with an email and we just take it from there. In the case of Gordon Matta-Clark, we’ve been working with Jessamyn Fiore (who’s in Middlesbrough for an in-conversation event as part of the festival), one of the estate’s directors for 3 years now and have built a really supportive relationship with the estate. We commissioned Bordello Collective back in 2021 to respond to Matta-Clark’s iconic Day’s End work. They’ve continued that relationship and are just returning from a trip to America where they premiered a new work, and have both a performance (Saturday 30 September, 12pm and Friday 6 October, 7pm) and exhibition (29 September – 7 October) at the festival. The ambition was for work started at MAW to finally make its way into the Matta-Clark archive. 

ANNE: That sounds like a rich and fruitful relationship — and it will be interesting to see Bordello Collective’s work at the festival with that history in mind. You also have a long-running connection with London-based Matt’s Gallery, which represents Mike Nelson among others. Can you say something about that too?

LS: In 2018 we invited Benedict Drew to show at MAW — to be honest, not knowing he was represented by Matt’s Gallery. In 2019, during a discussion with artist Kypros Kypraniou, I was keen to bring in Willie Doherty, who also turned out to be on Matt’s roster. From there, we continued to work with artists on their books. With Fiona Crisp, she was a real advocate for the festival and this brought the relationship closer. Matt’s Gallery director Robin Klassnik now sits on the selection panel for the North East Open Call (exhibition runs 29 September – 7 October). Most of our long-standing partnerships have been built this way, organic and mutually beneficial. 

Like most things we’ve been thinking about asking Mike to undertake a large work here, maybe in a tower block or something of the like. But, as mentioned previously, let’s start small and see how it goes. 

ANNE: What does a festival do that a static programme can’t? Does it make things possible that aren’t activated some other way? What does it mean for the town?

LS: The town setting is one of the real strengths of the festival. The mix of a director’s programme of exhibitions, talks, performances, public interventions and workshops, coupled with an open invitation to the local scene to have their programme become part of the overall festival can make its mark on the town with such a hive of activity. Such a high concentration of activity, in walkable distances, feels like a real treat for audiences and artists. 

ANNE: It certainly animates the town and articulates a sense of conjunction which feels tangible when walking around between festival venues. Anyway, what’s next? An annoying question, given that we’re only on the cusp of the 2023 festival… but do you have a sense of what the future holds?

LS: I love thinking about future programming. It’s the exciting part, the potential and possibilities. Ideas are cheap and easy! I’m keen to keep developing the North East Open Call into something that can really help established and emerging artists from the region. I’ve been talking with residencies in Ireland, America and Poland about doing a large residency exchange programme where we send out North East-based artists. We hear a lot from Teesside artists that there’s great opportunities locally but not so much to get out, so we’re just responding to that, really. 

For 2024 we are going to have a much larger public artwork programme that ties in with funding we received through Tees Valley Combined Authority and Arts Council England / DCMS’ Cultural Development Funding. Our colleague and friends Navigator North are leading on that programme so you know it’s going to be great.

ANNE: That all sounds very exciting, and will undoubtedly continue to build on Middlesbrough’s claim to be England’s ‘Most Creative Town’. Liam, thank you for talking with us — especially on the eve of the festival, when you no doubt have installs to finish. Good luck and see you in Boro!

Middlesbrough Art Week runs from 29 September – 7 October 2023 at venues across Middlesbrough. See our events listings for what’s on across the festival.

Main image: Liz Wilson, ‘The Optical Mechanical’, 2019. Multi-channel video installation, 4 min, 800 x 450cm. Showing at 11 Centre Mall from 29 September – 7 October.

About the contributor

Liam Slevin is co-founder, with Anna Byrne, of Middlesbrough Art Week, and is curator of The Auxiliary project space.

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