Manchester University staff sign letter in support of Whitworth gallery director

Nadia Khomami & Maya Wolfe-Robinson

The Guardian  /  March 1, 2022 

Alistair Hudson was asked to leave his post over a row regarding a statement in support of Palestine.

More than 100 members of staff at the University of Manchester have signed a letter opposing an attempt to force out the director of the Whitworth Art Gallery (WAG), calling it a “grave violation of academic and artistic freedom of expression.”

The Guardian reported last week that Alistair Hudson was asked to leave his post by the university over a row regarding a statement of solidarity with Palestine’s “liberation struggle”, which was removed from an exhibition of works by the human rights investigations agency Forensic Architecture.

It followed a series of complaints by UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI), which advocates for Israeli causes. UKLFI told the Guardian it had “suggested that the university should take appropriate disciplinary action” against Hudson in September.

Sources also said the university had explicitly cited Hudson’s response to the fallout from the exhibition as the reason for his alleged ousting.

In a statement shared with The Guardian, staff across the university, as well as members of Forensic Architecture, said they were “gravely concerned and outraged at the attempt to force out” Hudson.

“We demand that he be reinstated and an apology issued by the UoM to this grave violation of academic and artistic freedom of expression,” they said.

The statement said it was “damaging and dangerous” that the university “supported the idea that a statement against Israel’s war crimes against the Palestinian people was an act of antisemitism, and forced its removal.

“Forcing out the WAG director six months after the event is therefore not only punitive, but also shows that the UoM will not support and defend its staff when and if under pressure from outside organizations.”

The controversy dates from August, when a statement was removed from the exhibition exploring how pollution, chemical attacks and the aftermath of explosions affect marginalized people in places around the world, including Palestine.

The letter added: “After demonstrations from staff and students (including over 13,000 letters of support for Forensic Architecture sent to the UoM senior management team) the solidarity statement was reinstated, but a counter-statement was exhibited alongside it.”

protest against the university’s action against Hudson “and their censoring of support for Palestine” took place at Whitworth Hall on Tuesday.

About 150 protesters gathered outside the University of Manchester on Tuesday. . The crowd, who chanted “UoM, shame on you,” heard from speakers including Palestinian students, one of who said: “It is extremely sickening to see our voices being censored.”

Ekua Bayunu, a local Labour councillor, said: “We will not let [Manchester University] erode the great work being done at the Whitworth Art Gallery to place a creative institution firmly at the centre of communities.”

The crowd then marched to vice-chancellor Nancy Rothwell’s office and on to the Whitworth Art Gallery. One banner read: “The purpose of art is the fight for freedom”.

In Tuesday’s open letter, university staff demanded “that the UoM reinstate Alistair Hudson and apologize to WAG, the wider UoM staff, and UoM students for this grave violation of the principle of academic and artistic freedom. We also extend our solidarity to the Palestinian people for the right to live with freedom and in dignity.”

One of the organizers of the letter told The Guardian it had received “a large endorsement” within days. They called the alleged move to oust Hudson a “chilling precedent” that they said risked damaging the prospects for politically engaged research “and further marginalizing Palestinian solidarity in UK universities”.

Colleagues, they said, were “also profoundly saddened that the episode threatens to seriously damage the international reputation” of the university.

A group of 23 artists – including the Turner prize winners Helen Cammock, Tai Shani and Oscar Murillo – said they were withdrawing their work from the Manchester leg of a prestigious touring art exhibition in support of Hudson, Palestinians, political freedom and artistic expression.

The University of Manchester pointed to a previous statement that said staffing matters “remain strictly internal to the university” and it would not comment on Hudson, whom it described as “our current Whitworth director”.

A spokesperson added: “We would, however, like to address the explicit criticism in the coverage that the university has in some way suppressed academic and artistic freedoms, or bowed to external pressures. We refute such claims entirely. 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.”

Nadia Khomami is an arts and culture correspondent

Maya Wolfe-Robinson is a correspondent for the north of England, based in Manchester