After Manchester University’s Whitworth Art Gallery asked its director to leave, staff at the British school and a prominent museum industry group decried the move, claiming that the controversy has been damaging to the space’s reputation.
News of the gallery’s attempt to oust director Alistair Hudson was reported by the Guardian in February. It followed fierce debate during the summer over a statement that the Turner Prize–nominated group Forensic Architecture had made in solidarity with Palestine and that was displayed as part of the group’s exhibition at the museum. Neither the museum nor Hudson have spoken publicly about the situation.
In February, the advocacy group UK Lawyers for Israel called on the museum to take down Forensic Architecture’s statement. The Whitworth Art Gallery did so, then put the statement back up days later, along with a posting from the museum that claimed Forensic Architecture’s Palestine notice “expresses the views of the contributing artists.”
In an open letter issued this week, more than 100 staff members at Manchester University and 6 members of Forensic Architecture spoke out against the Whitworth Art Gallery. “It is damaging and dangerous that the UoM supported the idea that a statement against Israel’s war crimes against the Palestinian people was an act of antisemitism, and forced its removal,” they wrote. “This was not only a violation of the academic freedom of Forensic Architecture, but also a violation of the principle that universities should provide a space for free critical inquiry and opinion.”
Voicing similar concerns, the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM), which offers guidance for institutional leaders, called Hudson’s being asked to leave a “forced resignation.”
“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,” CIMAM wrote. “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.”
In a statement to the Guardian, Manchester University denied that it had “in some way suppressed academic and artistic freedoms, or bowed to external pressures,” saying “museums and galleries have traditionally been a space of experimentation and challenge and we hope that the Whitworth is a place where we can debate, discuss and disagree well.”
The two statements follow a similar one by artists in the “British Art Show 9,” a traveling survey organized by the Hayward Gallery in London that is set to visit two more cities in the U.K. this year after appearing in Aberdeen and Wolverhampton. Among them is Manchester, with the Whitworth Art Gallery being one of four venues in the city when the show opens this summer. More than 20 artists asked to be taken out of the Manchester iteration of that exhibition as a result of the University’s call for Hudson’s resignation.