Whitworth gallery director Alistair Hudson forced out over Palestinian statement

Alistair Hudson (File)

Maya Wolfe-Robinson

The Guardian  /  February 22, 2022

Exclusive: Manchester University accused of ‘stifling debate’ in its response to UK Lawyers For Israel complaints about exhibition.

The director of the Whitworth Art Gallery is being asked to leave his post by the University of Manchester, after a row when a statement of solidarity with Palestine’s “liberation struggle” was removed from an exhibition of works by a human rights investigations agency.

Alistair Hudson, who heads the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery, has been asked to leave by the university, The Guardian understands, after a series of complaints by UK Lawyers For Israel (UKLFI).

The university explicitly cited his response to the fallout from an exhibition that denounced Israel’s military operations in Gaza and its “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians, sources say, a move that, in turn, was criticized as “stifling open debate and taming political art”.

UKLFI, which advocates for Israeli causes, told The Guardian it had “suggested that the university should take appropriate disciplinary action” against Hudson in the months after the exhibition closed.

The controversy dates from August, when a statement of solidarity with Palestine that formed part of an exhibition by Forensic Architecture, a Turner prize-nominated investigative agency, was removed after a complaint by UKLFI.

The group suggested the university could have breached its public sector equality duties by not considering the “impact of the inflammatory language and representations” in the Whitworth’s “Cloud Studies” exhibition on Jewish people in Manchester.

The exhibition explored how pollution, chemical attacks and the aftermath of explosions affect marginalized people in Syria, Beirut, Louisiana and Indonesia, as well as Palestine.

Forensic Architecture, whose digital models of crime scenes have been cited as evidence at the international criminal court, then demanded the immediate closure of its exhibit. Its founder, Eyal Weizman, a British-Israeli professor at Goldsmithsexpressed concerns about academic and artistic freedoms and stated the importance that the equality duty included Palestinians.

The university, which runs the gallery, reversed its decision, reopening the exhibition and agreeing to display “different perspectives on the issues raised by the exhibition and help contextualize them”.

Commenting on Hudson’s departure, Weizman said: “Alistair turned the Whitworth into an art space where the important questions of our time could be asked. His sacking is the last in series of bullying actions by the University of Manchester, which initially aimed at silencing our solidarity with Palestinians, then at stifling open debate and taming political art more generally. This move will shrink the space for art and artists.”

Jonathan Turner, chief executive of UKLFI, said the group had “pointed out to the university that the director of the Whitworth Art Gallery had falsely assured the vice-chancellor that they had established the accuracy and legalities of the work presented in the Forensic Architecture exhibition”.

“We suggested that the university should take appropriate disciplinary action,” Turner added.

The group said the exhibition included inaccuracies, and claimed a freedom of information request “showed no attempt had been made to check its accuracy”. Forensic Architecture strongly refutes the suggestion of any inaccuracies in the exhibition.

The agency has presented evidence in international and national courts and truth commissions. Their Turner-nominated piece investigated the fatal shooting of a Bedouin Palestinian, Yaakub Abu al-Qiyan, by Israeli police officers in 2017, questioning the official narrative of events. The former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2020 apologized for the killing. At the time of the nomination, UKLFI wrote to the Turner prize judges and the Tate director, arguing that the work lacked objectivity.

Hudson, who replaced Maria Balshaw when she was appointed director of Tate in 2017, joined from the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art in 2018. He is also co-director of the Asociación de Arte Útil, which promotes the idea of “useful art” alongside the Cuban artist and activist Tania Bruguera.

The Whitworth is currently exhibiting a solo show by Suzanne Lacy, a California artist whose previous exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery instigated an increase in cleaners’ wages at the institution.

When Hudson was appointed, the university spoke of his “wealth of experience at the forefront of the culture sector”. Prof James Thompson, the vice-president for social responsibility at the time, praised Hudson’s dedication “to the idea of cultural institutions as a force for promoting social change”, which, he said, “fits precisely with the mission of the Whitworth”.

A University of Manchester spokesperson said: “We absolutely uphold academic freedom. Staffing matters are strictly internal to the university and we never comment on questions of this nature.”

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