Curating disability part two: peeking beneath the artworld curtain

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Anna Berry continues the reflection on her curatorial residency at Midlands Arts Centre, in partnership with DASH. In this piece, Anna gets her hands dirty and starts to learn some of the tricks of the trade. This article is published in partnership with a-n.

Audio visual installation with projected images

Sue Austin ‘Creating The Spectacle’ Immersed in 360 at Midlands Art Centre

In the first few months of my residency, it is my job to be a sponge. I am here to learn. This means, in reality, trailing, puppy-like after uber-curator Jess Litherland, whose unenviable task it is to form this unpromising clay into something that resembles a curator.

The first few days are logistics orientated. I am given a lanyard, which opens locked doors by means of a magic bleep. I am so used to un-belonging, it feels like a sort of guy-rope, tethering me to the institutional ground. I am also furnished with a laptop, all of which feels amusingly officey. Nevertheless, I fumble fecklessly with doors, bleep notwithstanding. There is something reassuring about this – clearly, I shall be maintaining my amateur status a while longer.

I watch largely irrelevant corporate videos about safety on ladders and how to lift things from the knees. From this I learn that, even in the arts, everyone lives by a tyranny of Boxes That Must Be Ticked. Naturally, I got the multiple-choice questions, designed to prove you paid attention, wrong and had to watch them all again. I got lost many many times in the ant farm that is the building. I met the Big Kahuna, hoped to elicit approval, probably said The Wrong Thing.

The semi-drowning at the deep end of the first few days subsides and segues into a period of getting-to-know-you. Annabee, meet MAC: MAC, meet Annabee. I have a series of meetings with individuals to understand their roles and introduce myself – community outreach, volunteer coordinator, cinema programmer, learning and participation producer, marketing manager, etc. I am humbled by people so willingly giving their time just so that I can learn.

People at an exhibition

People at the Handsworth Self Portrait: 40 Years On exhibition at Midlands Art Centre

At the same time, Jess exudes knowledge and generously wafts it my way; I gratefully inhale. Some is MAC-specific – the vagaries of which stuff goes in which gallery, for example. Some is generalizable – using floor plans to map out work, designing the visitor experience, how to handle art, which gloves to use for what, plinths, types of hanging, making catalogues. I am fascinated to learn that things go wrong. Vinyl doesn’t stick or stencils don’t work. The entire school party who turn up a week early. It is not schadenfreude – more a sense of relief that things really do go wrong for everyone – even the best. And yet there are always solutions – somehow rabbits are pulled from hats and happy endings prevail. For some reason I find this tremendously comforting.

Sometimes I pitch in at ground level. Painting gallery walls and plinths or stripping vinyl letters ready for show changeovers. I find it really valuable to get my hands dirty in this way, to get a concrete sense of the real work involved – I suspect there is a danger of curators being a bit aloof from this in some instances. I also like it because I get a tangible sense of contributing. Even though I know that learning, as opposed to being useful, is my primary objective at the moment, I have the constant urge to offer to make tea so I can feel less pointless. I think a lifetime of feeling un-useful because of impairments can lead to a certain desperation to be conspicuously helpful and worthy not just of your wage, but the space you take up in the world.

We do some outside visits. Ian Andrews’s inspiring particle physics collaboration at Birmingham Library. A tour of art spaces in Digbeth makes me mourn the dearth of this kind of art community in Milton Keynes, where I live. There is huge value in the art eco-system this kind of area creates. And at the same time, I see so clearly how excluded disabled artists are from the networks such an eco-system generates. If we cannot participate, we’re on the outside – the exclusion is neither deliberate nor malicious.

We even went to a conference – TEG: The Touring Exhibition Group. This was particularly revelatory for me. In hindsight I feel incredibly naïve, but I had no idea that institutions could fill their schedule gaps with off-the-peg exhibitions, or the reverse – tour shows they’d put together elsewhere. It felt like a huge insight into how the great wheels powering the artworld infrastructure turn.

Two women looking at photography exhibition

People at the Handsworth Self Portrait: 40 Years On exhibition at Midlands Art Centre

Much to my amusement, I kept being accosted by people aggressively pitching to me. They sidle up, indirect and crab-like, scanning your lanyard before your face – quick computation – is this person useful to me? This is followed by flattery about how much they admire (insert institution from lanyard scan here), which leads into just what a miraculously amazing fit (said institution) would be for their show. After I got bored explaining to people I was but a minion with no commissioning authority, I decided to go with it. Give me your elevator pitch! After all, the nibbles were free…

TEG was two days in a row, which was probably a little too much for me. In fact, I was so tired that night, I accidentally set fire to my dressing gown whilst cooking. It would be a marvellous irony, having survived all those suicidal episodes, to die by freak accident, my barbecued remains consumed enthusiastically by my cat! I am reminded that, much as I don’t want to miss any of it, it remains my responsibility not to take on too much – to actually take the access offered to me. It is an unhappy balance between this and the gnawing, hopefully unfounded, feeling that I am failing for all the reasons I usually fail – I am becoming incrementally more tired, consequently I arrive later than I did at the beginning of the residency. I am painfully aware that could read as not showing enthusiasm or lacking commitment. Of course, nobody has made me feel this way. I do it to myself. Nothing is simple.

I continue to struggle with PC illiteracy – I had to watch a YouTube tutorial to figure out how to reply to a meeting invite via Outlook. It turns out I’m way more stupid than I ever suspected I was! The executive function issues I warned everyone about at the beginning make their presence felt – I struggle with keeping on top of the emails and organizational side of things. I even continue to fail lanyard orientation 101: no matter which way I put it on it resolutely turns its back on the world, like Jim Morrison in an early Doors gig.

There is much joy at the learning I am lapping up. But inevitably it is counterbalanced by the continuing anxieties I create for myself. More missives from the curatorial coalface to follow…


For more information about Anna Berry’s work, visit her website.

For more on DASH’s Curatorial Commissions programme, visit its website.