How do disabled visual artists get to have their work taken seriously when the Art world is so hell-bent against placing value on artwork placed within a disability context? Aidan Moesby discusses the thorny issue of the Curator – gatekeeper for the work we see in public and commercial galleries.
I was interested to read a curator’s perspective on Unlimited, What’s Changed? by Rose Lejeune earlier this year. Particularly so, given that Unlimited doesn’t work with a curatorial model but that of a producer model. The more I thought about my response to the article, so the reach of a personal response extended.
I want to be transparent, to make my position perfectly clear. I benefit directly and indirectly from the work of Unlimited. In 2013, I received an R&D commission, I participated on the collaborative residency Unfixed in 2016 – a singularly life changing experience – and I regularly talk on panels around issues of disability and art. I also chair the emerging artist panel for commissions.
When I applied for that first Unlimited commission I did not know what a producer was, let alone how to meet one, work with one or what that working process would involve. I was used to the curator, I sort of knew what they did and how they worked. I was still very much an emerging artist in 2013.
Since then I have gone on to complete an MA Curating, which together with the development of my arts practice, has led me to think more about the role of the curator, their perceived absence and the predominance of the producer model within Unlimited. However, this is secondary to my thoughts on the position of the disabled artist, and disabled curator, in the broadest context of the ‘art world’.
Unlimited has pushed and developed disabled-led arts practices forward. The quality of performance particularly has significantly improved, transcending the reticence and resistance of the mainstream programmers and audiences to ‘niche’ work that’s ‘not for us’ to making it high quality desirable cultural feasting. Unfortunately, the push, exposure and development of performance has not been mirrored in the more traditionally gallery based, visual arts.
Yes, there are visual arts commissions, but where are the galleries jumping at the opportunity to be part of this and show their work? I often hear that a major stumbling block to getting a gallery on board is that they operate 2-3 years in advance. Unlimited has been going since before 2012, yet there isn’t time and space in the programme for this long relationship building that’s required between artists, producers, curators and galleries.
A search on tate.org.uk for disabled artists returns 41 results and disabled curators only 4 – although results for actual people are even more sparse. Lejeune states in the Unlimited article:
“Through this selection and composition, [the curatorial mode] offers particular readings and suggests particular interpretations that refer to the social agency, cultural context or economic value of art in today’s world. Such a curatorial mode takes the two distinctive features — the curatorial decisions about what to exhibit in the first place, and the articulation of both intellectual and physical barriers to accessing exhibitions and other events for audiences.”
In the diagram below, I have tried to outline different models for curation. The context to the far right is what I call the traditional ‘Disability Trinity’ of Curating. This model offers little to the mainstream. Disabled Artists are generally perceived to have little or no professional skill, no economic value and no value in a societal or cultural context. Generalisations possibly, but attitudes I have experienced. The context dictates value.
I would argue that my lived experience of disability allows me to bring more to my work, I am not a lesser being with less experiences. Disability is a part of me, it is not all of me, in the same way as I wear glasses which do not define me.
Agency, the ability to self-determine or execute your own will, is incredibly important, perhaps this is one of the implicit strengths of the social model of disability. However, in the art world the sense of agency can seem reduced or absent. On a personal level this has been akin to the charity model in the past; I was so grateful at having work that I would accept any conditions to be seen as a valued and respected professional artist (no matter how small the value as an emerging artist).
There were times when I tried to keep a mainstream portfolio and disabled portfolio discrete from each other before becoming open and public about my mental health condition. I soon saw the futility, and difficulty of this. I also realised I was being complicit in my own stigmatisation and marginalisation. Yes, I make work which overtly references my experience of discrimination, but I also make work which has nothing at all to do with disability – and yet they are viewed rightly or wrongly through the same diminishing lens.
How, as a disabled artist, do you get your work seen, out there, in front of the people who have the ‘agency’? Curators are the gatekeepers of the gallery, the rarefied atmosphere of the white cube. In my experience curators are largely incredibly difficult to contact. In 2012, I received a Grant for the Arts to research my own practice through talking to peers and professionals. Of all the curators I wrote to inviting a conversation not one in the UK acknowledged my e-mail. In stark contrast I managed to meet with directors of galleries, museums and national organisations in Denmark, Sweden and Finland. In fact it was not until I studied for my MA Curating that I actually got to talk to curators in the UK. Now, for an artist, they are as elusive and unapproachable as ever.
My academic experience was in a mainstream context. There was no mention of disability or diversity within the context of the MA, unless I raised it. What does this say about the ease with which disabled artists and disabled curators exist within the largely mainstream ecology of the art world? We are written out of the canon of art history time and time again.
Lejeune states: “Before presenting — before that moment where art work enters the public domain and reaches its audience, it involves firstly selecting an artist, then creating the support structures that artists need to create and present — be they financial, logistic or interpretive — generally through a great deal of problem solving and conversation.”
I wonder how you would begin to be in the running to be that selected artist? And if only my concerns were limited to financial, logistic and interpretive – rather than wondering on occasion how I am going to physically and emotionally survive each coming moment – then life would be so much easier. Yet, like many disabled artists I manage to deliver projects and work on time and on budget.
For me the access needs must be locked in from the start of any creative process. My access needs are all around the psychological rather than the physical, if those support mechanisms are not in place, regardless of whether or not I may need to use them, then it is extremely difficult for me to work. For example, in my residencies with organisations I always ensure rest days are in the contract and built in latitude for the unforeseen, having a key person to contact who I feel ‘safe and comfortable’ with – these are foundational not retrofitted.
How does a curator become aware of a disabled artist who cannot attend openings or who experiences social anxiety of networking or economic barriers to getting their work shown in appropriate galleries? How does an artist get exposure if they exist in digital poverty or experience the toxicity of social media and cannot engage online comfortably – and when anything other than small manageable chunks of exposure to the ‘real world’ are overwhelming?
What is the first step on the ladder for a disabled artist to begin to be professionally and economically viable and sustainable when the web of personal benefits, tax credits, universal credit, DLA, PIP, is so complex that the fear of losing a safety net or parachute is too much to navigate or bear? This is not even addressing the issue of ability, critical rigour, talent or luck.
I don’t have a professional training in art. I am self-taught, but no longer consider myself to be ’Outsider’ or make Art Brut. This term seems to have been appropriated by the money of the art collectors and the auction rooms. I was fortunate to meet a few good people along the way who helped me, guided me, mentored me, pushed me and got me to think, reflect and contextualise my work. I consider myself one of the (relatively) fortunate ones.
However, I have been unable to get out of the ghetto of disability arts or being a disabled artist. Will I ever get to show my work in a mainstream gallery? How do I continue to progress my career as a disabled artist? How do I get my voice heard or more importantly, how do I get my work in front of curators and galleries? If you are not in the room let alone at the table you have absolutely no agency, no opportunity, no power, no voice – you are a non-person.
There is something too for me in the nature of an invitation – a clear distinction between the implicit of ‘pop in’ sometime to the explicit ‘come over at 3 we’ll have tea’. Normative people take a lot of social mores and cues for granted. The codification of communication is not always so clear for those with a mental health condition.
I am on the sharp edge of a double bind. I could not function in a traditional job, although I regularly work 50+ hours a week. How then, do I maintain my professional status and economic sustainability? I am largely invisible to the mainstream world where the economic and professional value (of ‘normative’ artists) lies.
It is difficult for me to separate the concerns of my artistic practice from my curatorial one. Indeed, for me, there is no real difference as everything I do is an extension of my socially engaged practice.
So, what is the future for the disabled artist with a ‘traditional’ visual arts practice whose media would normally be exhibited within the cultural confines of the white cube? What about the opportunities for those artists to be curated by a disabled curator?
I was fortunate enough to participate in Tu Fewn, a programme run by DASH to increase the capacity of disabled curators. My MA had taught me little about putting on an exhibition so the opportunity to be guided from my initial concept to exhibition was invaluable. As this fades into the past I am left wondering about opportunities for disabled curators and models of working with disabled curators to facilitate their access whilst supporting them to curate relevant critical shows. I do not lack the skill, the ability or the rigour; I lack the appropriate opportunity. I must stress here I do not expect anything to be done for me, only to be given the support to do it.
I tire of hearing my own voice, often seemingly a lone voice, attempting to highlight the deficit within the visual art world of disabled artists and similarly, disabled curators. In the past, I would rage helplessly against what I perceived as the injustices and the lack of opportunities and negative treatment of disabled artists and curators. Older, and hopefully a little wiser, I am now offering a platform for a discussion of change. How do we begin to break down the barriers to the cultural citadels? How do we truly become inclusive and diverse?
Pulitzer prize winner Junot Diazs’ important comments on immigrants can be translated to the situation with disabled artists and curators.
“There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”