Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating
(Thames & Hudson, 2018)
No one would argue that the need for social and political activism is more urgent than ever before; that there are no small acts of resistance, and that every act of resistance counts; but they might argue what role the art world has to play in such acts.
Small acts of resistance grow when they are performed in cultural spaces. The ways people are represented, where they are represented, and by whom demonstrates respect and dignity to underrepresented and misrepresented cultural groups. Much of the impetus for systems of power, like Trump’s that portrays all Mexicans as rapists, all immigrants as freeloaders or job snatchers, and all Muslims terrorists, comes from centuries of stereotypes steeped in American society, churned out in every form of cultural production imaginable. A single story, a single representation, one that includes silencing and erasure. The art world maintains this status quo, benefiting from normalized practices of a system created by and for white men. The opportunity to see and value the art of the marginalized triggers larger ideological shifts, and this disruption is precisely what Maura Reilly reasons in her book, Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating, which stems from the unfortunate reality that the art world remains a strong hold of straight white males whose patronage, curation, and art making result in a hierarchy that extends its dominance into museum collections and exhibitions, galleries, auction houses, and private collections.
In the first chapter, “What is Curatorial Activism?,” Reilly outlines how complicated and complex it is to give space and special exhibitions to Other artists (Reilly uses this term to describe marginalized cultural groups such as LGBTQ, women, non-white); it can further ghettoize them, and not all artists want to make art that announces their identity, nor do they necessarily want to be known solely on that basis. These issues point to the shifting nature and context of art making and exhibiting—it's contingent on place, time, and each artists’ desires and goals. She applies feminist scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's “strategic essentialism” as one way to form solidarity—to give voice and visibility to a diverse group under one banner with the understanding that this alliance is provisional and continent in order to promote a certain activist issue, in this case, equal representation within the art world. Reilly’s message is, “not affirmative action curating, it’s smart curating.” Until all groups are represented equally, having museums or exhibitions dedicated to specific groups or themes remains critical.
Reilly paints this curatorial activism with broad strokes using chapter titles like: “Resisting Masculinism and Sexism,” “Tackling White Privilege and Western-centrism,” and “Challenging Heterocentrism and Lesbo-homophobia.” But closer consideration reveals a well-researched book, replete with mind boggling statistics about diversity and inclusion, including the Guerrilla Girls’ 1986 dismal report card and Pussy Galore’s 2015 report card showing there’s still need for vast improvement (in the Gagosian and Mary Boone galleries women still represent under 25%; and in 2016 only 21% of artists represented by New York galleries were non-white). The weight of these statistics is balanced out with detailed accounts of exhibitions that unfold chronologically on each theme. Each illustrates the importance of an activism that reconfigures cultural representations, raises visibility, and affirms other cultural groups, acknowledging their diverse artistic forms. Reilly's institutional critique calls for widespread reform of the art world and this book becomes a “celebration of curatorial activists” whose “work functions as curatorial correctives” to master narratives.
In “Resisting Masculinism and Sexism,” Reilly details the formative exhibitions where curators began the arduous task of “curatorial correctives” in the context of feminism: Linda Nochlin and Ann Sutherland Harris’s 1976 Women Artists: 1550-1950; Amelia Jones’s 1996 Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago’s ‘Dinner Party’ in Feminist Art History; Catherine de Zegher’s Inside the Visible: An Elliptical Traverse of 20th Century Art in, of, and from the Feminine; Nochlin and Reilly’s 2007 Global Feminisms: New Directions in Contemporary Art. Reilly also includes their critical reviews, which were not always favorable. As such, we get a bigger picture of the polyvocal nature of feminism(s) giving more clarity as to how a curator might not always use feminist content (Judy Chicago) but use a feminist methodology for their curation (de Zegher). This section demonstrates Reilly’s expertise as a feminist art historian and curator whose career has been dedicated to dismantling the mainstream art world.
Reilly’s last chapter, “A Call to Arms: Strategies for Change,” includes demands: curators must educate themselves and unlearn sexism and racism; museums must diversify their boards; private galleries must stop their discriminatory practices; critics and other media must use their authority to address disparities by reviewing Other artists; and everyone needs to voice their objection (Reilly calls this “talking back”) to the normalized art canon that is as old, ossified, and as white as some of the art that it produces.
What is missing from this book’s account of the art world’s counter narrative are stories from the periphery of the art world—from community centers, regional galleries, and community colleges that create roving satellites to this mainstream art world, and bring the margins into the center through their programming. Reilly acknowledges this, but she’s after the big ideas, those who hold power and set the benchmarks of successful art. Lost in her account are the subtle ways power operates in these contexts—who makes decisions, why, and at what cost. This is where Reilly's broad strokes over shadow how resistance and action might make vulnerable those who are already at risk; that is, not everyone can be a curatorial activist. Power acts in small and often unseen spaces, and curatorial activism poses a risk not everyone can take.
Curatorial Activism, like most Thames & Hudson books, is beautifully designed and printed. Curators benefit most from Reilly’s insights and steps to shake up the art world’s structures and any cultural producer can take inspiration from the small ruptures she maps throughout. But more complexly, Reilly suggests that museums, galleries, auctions, and studios can model cultural alternatives, challenge dominant discourses, and exhibit new narratives by placing central in the cultural zones of consumption those who have been excluded from it. History shows art as a site of experimentation, an instigator of debate and speculation, a form of defiance. So why not think of curation this same way? The Latin root of curate means “to care,” and advocating and acting for a different art world is a part of that caring.