Sitting in Modern Art Oxford’s shabby chic courtyard cafe on a grey and rainy day, is a man dressed in a sharply cut suit.

Paul Hobson, the new director of Modern Art Oxford, has bright-blue eyes and an effervescent energy which bursts through the dank day. His infectious enthusiasm spills over into every sentence.

Having worked in the visual arts sector for more than 20 years, he is returning to Oxford from the Contemporary Art Society, where he has been director since 2007.

He enjoyed his time reading modern history at Brasenose College in the 1980s. “It’s a very particular sort of privilege studying here — it’s as if academia happens to you somehow,” he said.

“They’re special friendships you develop in an environment like Oxford and I’ve been able to retain them, so feel as though I’ve always had a bit of Oxford with me, despite having spent most of my career in London. “The prospect of experiencing the city as a professional, who will be part of its intellectual and cultural life is really exciting.”

As a student, Paul knew he wanted to work in the arts and is glad to find himself back in Oxford. He explained: “Oxford is the only city I’d want to work in, outside London.

“The intellectual and cultural offer is so exceptional and the brand so international. “All contemporary culture is about asking questions that are relevant today, in theatre, in dance and in visual forms.

“I’m really interested in the relationship that contemporary art has with other forms of research and learning because art is a form of visual research and so the greater the ideas and the oxygen around that, the more relevant it is to audiences that might not think they’re interested in art but come into it through another route.

“That idea of cross-fertilisation is particularly exciting in a city like Oxford.”

Modern Art Oxford will celebrate 50 years of influential exhibition-making in 2015. The gallery was founded in 1965 by a small group of artists and architects, and championed during its early years by British luminaries including David Hockney, Henry Moore and John Piper.

Today, it is one of the most important contemporary art spaces in the UK with an international reputation for its exhibitions, projects and commissions. Where does he intend to take MAO during the next 50 years of its life?

He pointed out: “We’re going to think it quite odd in years to come that we have this notion of art where people go into galleries and look at things on plinths, because it’s quite a 20th-century thing to do.

“The way audiences now are looking at visual information, on the Internet, in social media, the way they’re producing content themselves, alongside all the other very different things artists are doing that are away from galleries like this, might show the direction visual culture is going in.

“I’m really interested in how a physical space like Modern Art Oxford, responds to those trends in culture.” He plans many changes to the programme and the way Modern Art Oxford is run.

“I will build upon the amazing history of exhibition-making here but there’s another opportunity to engage with the very different things artists are doing.

“Contemporary art practice has become very diverse and lots of artists are doing things away from those white-cube spaces.

“We have to reflect those, in order to be a very relevant organisation and to think about audiences and their experiences and the way they produce things.

“We need to think how we can have more of a democratic relationship with audiences, so moving away from space that is quite authored, to one that is more of a platform for audiences.

“I’m interested in trying to become a new kind of institution.”

He is keen to take exhibitions into another dimension. “We have off-site in the real world and also digitally, in order to engage with all of our potential audiences, some who don’t think to go to galleries but are interested in the ideas artists have.

“The way people are engaging with our programming online is really important.

“Anything from digital artists squatting a website, through to ensuring you might have talking-head interviews, or guided tours of the exhibition available online.

“Many other types of audiences will want to know about Modern Art Oxford’s programmes but aren’t necessarily able to come here for whatever reason and we need to assume people will want to engage with our programming digitally as well.”

The previous director of Modern Art Oxford, the late Michael Stanley, nurtured early-career talent in Oxford. Paul Hobson plans to continue this: “It’s about providing a platform for artists who’ve trained in a city, choose to remain living here and want to be visible.

“It’s also about developing the audience for those artists and acting as a platform for them to have visibility in other influential centres, such as London.

“Where we are attracting audiences who are interested in contemporary art, there’s an opportunity to develop those into people who might also buy art.

“I want to look at how we can develop the economy and ecology of art in Oxford.”

As an institution part-funded by the local authority, Modern Art Oxford’s mandate is to be as accessible as possible. He relishes the challenge. “If you value and don’t underestimate your audiences, you believe people can and will get really challenging stuff and then, when you bring really exciting contemporary art to them, the sky is the limit.

“Times are quite hard for most people, so free recreational activities can be what make life worth living. “People want inspiration and to have somewhere of the standing of Modern Art Oxford on the doorstep, a free gallery that brings education and inspiration, is especially valuable.”

Under his leadership, the Contemporary Art Society strengthened its programmes and profile, including an unprecedented period of growth and remodelling. “I’ve been really fortunate to have worked in very different organisations,” he pointed out.

“The Royal Academy, the Serpentine and I’ve run tiny East London galleries, a private foundation working on a private collection and also, of course, the Contemporary Art Society.

“I think I’ve been appointed in recognition of the fact that I can give vision and direction, whilst balancing the books.

“I’m interested in thinking about this organisation through the prism of all the other things I’ve done. “The only danger is not taking any risks and not reinventing Modern Art Oxford.”