Anna Berry’s year-long residency at Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) is the first instalment of DASH’s Curatorial Commissions Programme, pairing disabled curators with mainstream arts organisations. Berry’s residency has culminated in the Art and Social Change exhibition at MAC 11 January – 22 March. Berry along with Deborah Kermode, CEO and Artistic Director, MAC, and curator and mentor Jess Litherland spoke to Disability Arts Online about the process.
As part of its Arts Council England National Portfolio funding, DASH’s Curatorial Commissions Programme sees it partner with three mainstream galleries, Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) in Birmingham, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) and Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridge. Each institution will host a disabled curator for a year-long development programme, aimed at changing the culture of the visual arts and developing disabled leaders and influencers within the sector.
MAC were an obvious choice to be the first host organisation for the programme, as Deborah Kermode, CEO and Artistic Director explains:
“MAC and DASH have enjoyed a long-term partnership, we share similar values and priorities which have led to some terrific co-commissioned projects. The curatorial programme seemed a perfect fit for us, we were keen to be part of a dynamic consortia of venues that challenged the sector and supported disabled curators over a meaningful period of time so as to embed more successfully the experiences they have learnt. We want people to take notice of how important diversity is, how powerful it can be.”
Whilst MAC might’ve been an obvious fit for the programme, Anna Berry didn’t see herself as one, at least initially. “I’ll be honest, I’d seen it advertised and had not considered myself to be an appropriate candidate,” recalls Berry. “But, DASH saw me speaking at another event and politely invited me to apply. At first I dismissed it, but then I thought about it, and decided I had nothing to lose. I think it’s a brilliant programme, and I wanted to be part of it and believed in its aims – I just doubted my ability to be able to do the job well enough.”
Jess Litherland, former curator at MAC and mentor to Berry during her residency clearly feels it was a risk worth taking, on Anna’s part:
“Mentoring Anna has been a real privilege and at the same time a real challenge. I started out my own career by shadowing more experienced curators and I have always felt that learning on the job is the best way of getting a real experience and feel for a role. Mentoring Anna has really taken me back to school! It has reminded me of starting out myself before I had any understanding of how the gallery system works, and Anna’s very perceptive questions along the way have made me sit back and often think ‘why do we do it that way?’.
It is easy to sit in conferences and talk about representation and how we are still so far from where we should be, but actually working on a project that you can see is having a real impact and developmental change on an individual and hopefully the whole sector has been immense. I am incredibly grateful to have been involved.”
The feeling is evidently mutual, as Berry waxes lyrical about Litherland’s support and expertise:
“It’s been a journey! It’s been really amazing, really difficult, and brought up lots of personal growth stuff for me revolving around my confidence, assertiveness and self-worth. But it has been so enriching. I’ve learned that I’m capable of more than I thought I was, if I can get the right assistance. And, being part of a ‘family’ at MAC – I look forward to going there so much – it makes me really happy. I’m really going to miss that. Working with Jess has been such a privilege – not just because she’s such an amazing curator and I got to soak up knowledge from her – but also her warmth as a person and how supported she’s made me feel in the broader sense. I think I was so lucky to be able to have that relationship.
On the nuts-and-bolts front – just learning the day-to-day of curation and also what it is to work within an institutional setting has been revelatory. So much happens in the background that we can’t imagine when, as an audience, we look at these slick shows. It’s so interesting to be part of it all from the other side.”
The fact that Berry has felt so welcomed by the organisation speaks volumes for the culture at MAC, which Kermode expands on:
“MAC is naturally a very collegiate organisation, though we have a big workforce, we talk and share ideas regularly. My colleagues absolutely understand the huge importance of diversity, it’s in our DNA, so buy-in was easy, we just needed to make sure we appreciated the practicalities that would support Anna and team members. Jess, our curator, ensured Anna had a proper induction, as simple as that sounds, and that she was able to meet and embed herself properly to form her own relationships with colleagues.”
Given Berry’s initial reticence to apply for the programme, it’s perhaps taken everyone by surprise at just how ambitious she has been in putting together Art and Social Change: The Disability Arts Movement. “I’m really thrilled Anna has selected to curate a group exhibition – not an easy task,” explains Kermode. “However I couldn’t be more proud of her ability to recognise the interests of our audiences and what excites them. So we know from data that our visitors respond very enthusiastically to issue-based work and that 16% identify as having some form of disability, so Anna’s show resonates with so many people’s lives and their interest in understanding alternative perspectives – it’s already proving to be a hugely popular show.”
“Anna could have chosen something very simple for her first-ever show – a solo show would have been so easy in comparison to what she has taken on with this one! But, Anna is so eager to learn, she wanted to try everything! So, we did studio visits, Anna did epic amounts of loan research and archive visits and put together a big group exhibition with a complex set of themes. There was no pressure on Anna to put together a show that focused on disability as a theme, but she was very brave in terms of wanting to have open discussions with audiences and the wider disability arts community that she went for it. That kind of bravery is very inspiring.”
Berry explains the motivations behind her programming decisions:
“I was very conscious of MAC as an institution and its audience, so I was specifically programming for the organisation. I needed to have some kind of connection to the show The Influence Project in the First Floor Gallery, which I made through the links that the Disability Arts Movement had with the tenets of the Anti-Apartheid movement – particularly those ideas of anti-segregation.
I think it’s amazing and genuinely hefty work, which I think needs to get more airspace in the art world, so it felt good to shine a spotlight on it. It’s a movement that’s just not talked about enough. I’m really aware that if I’ve been given this opportunity to infiltrate the gatekeeper, then there’s kind of a responsibility to try to affect a bit of a change in the narrative. How can I bang on as an outsider artist about representation and not try to do my bit to change that, given the opportunity? I know in the world of disability arts this stuff probably feels very old hat, but I think to the MAC audience it’ll be a real revelation.”
Rounding off the exhibition will be a conference event at MAC on 11 March entitled ‘Slaughtering the Sacred Cows,’ Berry expands upon the title and themes:
“I wanted to see if other people felt that there were things they weren’t allowed to question or ideas they weren’t free to explore in the world of disability arts and politics, without being reviled and disavowed. I’d love for ‘us’ to be a broad church and for there to be room for us to be fighting for each other, but at the same time able to disagree whilst respecting each other’s right to hold a different perspective. I think we live in such depressing times that such a plea for tolerance feels like a hot take!”
For the wider Curatorial Commissions Programme, the baton gets passed onto Aidan Moesby, who has just begun his own year-long residency at MIMA. For Berry, there’s cautious optimism about her own future in curation:
“I’d love to go on and curate further. I’d love to try to work within institutions again to get more disabled artists shown in mainstream contexts. I’d like to work with some contemporary disabled artists. I’d love to freelance curate perhaps some more difficult shows. I just have to cross my fingers and hope that I can access the right support to facilitate that happening.”
Art and Social Change: The Disability Arts Movement is on at Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham until 22 March. A curator’s talk and tour by Anna Berry is on 27 February. The public conference, Disability Arts: Slaughtering the Sacred Cows is on 11 March.