As a disabled person currently studying an MA in Curation Practices, I was pleased to read Aidan Moesby’s article, Where are the disabled curators? last month. Is pleased the right word? Because Aidan outlines a number of persistent barriers, particularly prejudice and negativity, that disabled people trying to break into curating, and indeed into the art world, still face. And I’m not pleased about that.
However, I can definitely relate to what Aidan says, and it’s always good to know that others are experiencing similar things to you.
I came to curating as an activist. Throughout the nineties I was a DAN (Disabled People’s Direct Action Network) regional organiser. (A highlight: disrupting the opening ceremony for a “garden for the disabled” on Leeds station – opened by Jimmy Saville!)
I didn’t think of myself as a curator when I organised an exhibition of work by disabled artists, in protest at the local council exhibiting Grayson Perry’s tapestries in a venue that was inaccessible for many disabled people. This was activism, using art as the vehicle to make draw attention to unfair treatment, which it did very effectively. The exhibition turned out to be much more than a protest, being a significant event in its own right, showing some fantastic work by disabled artists.
It was popular, and I was persuaded to organise another exhibition and to show more work by disabled artists. With attacks on disabled people’s lives, freedom and dignity being carried out in the name of austerity, I didn’t see how the project could avoid making reference to the current situation. While there were a number of themes in the exhibition, Shoddy called out the government’s “shoddy” treatment of disabled people (an understatement, to say the least).
I still didn’t call myself a curator. I was making things up as I went along and I had no training or real knowledge of curating. Looking back on these exhibitions, I decided that working with artists, disabled and non-disabled, was an area where I could be effective and to which I could bring my skills and experience. My aim is to spark more conversations: about disability rights, visibility of disabled artists, access and inclusion. I’m hoping to improve my skills and knowledge of curating by immersing myself in an MA.
In response to Aidan’s article I’ll share some of my recent experiences. When I tell people what my aim is in learning about and doing curating, there is often interest, even though some people don’t really get it: “That must be very rewarding”; “Art is such good therapy”.
While that’s irksome, it’s not as annoying as some of the advice that I’ve received from various people in the arts. I’m assuming they are not disabled themselves, they’ve said things like:
- You’re just ghettoising disabled artists
- Don’t set yourself up in opposition to the mainstream
- Many “artists with disabilities” don’t want to be labelled or known as disabled
- Nobody’s interested in the work of disabled artists.
I’ve been sorely tested, and upset, by some of these comments. They’ve made me question what I’m doing. Are my aims misguided? Am I coming across as narrow-minded, with fixed ideas about disabled artists, how they should describe themselves and what sort of work they should be making? Am I being antagonistic to non-disabled artists and mainstream organisations? I hope my work disproves this.
To state my case: I’m interested in visibility and breaking down barriers, not creating ghettoes. I love working outside the mainstream with underground, DIY and Outsider artists (I’ve heard some really strong defences of this term recently), as well as making opportunities to work with mainstream venues – but it’s vital that we challenge them. To say that nobody is interested in what disabled artists are creating is clearly ridiculous, but, as Aidan says, more mainstream galleries should be proudly showing disabled artists’ work.
What is clear from these conversations is the stigma that still surrounds disability. The art world still views disability as entirely negative, so why on earth would any artist or curator want to label themselves as disabled?
Talking of labels, I’m not suggesting that galleries need to label artworks “BY A DISABLED ARTIST”. But they do need to think about their programmes, wider issues of interpretation, events, talks and partnerships, and consider how they can be more inclusive and not bury issues relating to disability.
We’ve got to turn the negative thinking around and create conditions where disabled artists can proudly say they’re disabled if they want to, without being ghettoised or excluded from the mainstream. How can we do this? By talking about disability, by giving disabled artists more opportunities and seeing more of their work. By having disabled people working in all kinds of roles in the arts, including as curators. And by making links with other forms of oppression, recognising multiple layers of oppression, and working together to tackle that too.
There are still loads of barriers and inequality in the art world. Prejudice and wrong-thinking about disabled people is one of those barriers. The role of curator is broad and can be influential. This is why, as Aidan says, we need more disabled people doing the job.