DNR_RND: Attenborough Arts Centre’s Rachel Graves


Ashok Mistry has been interviewing artists and prominent figures in the sector as part of DNR_RND, a project he initiated to examine how the arts sector can change to be more equitable post-Covid. Here, he speaks to Attenborough Arts Centre’s Visual Arts Officer, Rachel Graves about the human side of curating. This week, Attenborough Arts Centre and Disability Arts Online launched a new programme of Visual Arts Support Commissions, which is open now for applications.

An art exhibition full of sculptures made of geometric shapes and colourful wall hanging pieces

Installation photo of ‘Criminal Ornamentation: Yinka Shonibare curates the Arts Council Collection’

As disabled artists and activists, curators are usually recipients of our ire. After all, they are seen to create opportunities to exhibit and can be gatekeepers to that privilege. For this reason, it is rare for curators or any employees of art centres to reach out and talk about what they do. Rachel Graves took up the post of Visual Arts Officer at Attenborough Arts Centre back in October 2019 and since then has brought her insights as an outsider to the organisation. 

A woman taking a photograph on a phone within a silver mirrored art installation

Rachel Graves enjoying the Lee Bul exhibition at the Hayward Gallery.

Rachel’s creative interests started with photography and she went on to study Art History at the University of Nottingham which led her into curating.  Working in Leicester is a welcome return to the East Midlands after working for The Lowry in Manchester, The Hepworth, Wakefield and Arts council Collection. 

Rachel starts by unpacking the myth of homogeneity amongst curators as wielders of great power and conveyed the nuanced range of roles that become filed in the catchall of curator. 

“I’m interested in how curators are sometimes perceived as this homogenous group of people who hold all the power. The reality is a bit more complicated than that and the job title ‘curator’ can be used to describe a really wide range of different jobs and responsibilities, just as the institutions that we work for and within have their own agendas and priorities. I also, rightly or wrongly, feel like a bit of an outsider when it comes to talking about curators – none of the jobs I’ve done have ever had the word ‘curator’ in the title.”

She welcomes narratives around diversity and sees them as a responsibility of all curators.  At the forefront of her thinking is the conundrum of moving beyond tokenistic programming and addressing diversity in the arts workforce.  

“I do think that curators of all stripes have a responsibility to think about equality and diversity of representation in their programmes. I’m pleased to see that there is a more active and vocal community of artists and audiences demanding this – not just in art galleries, but across all forms of culture. One of the questions at the forefront of my mind at the moment is how curators and organisations can move beyond tokenistic inclusion and truly embed more inclusive ways of working into our programmes. I think we are moving in the right direction, but the pace of change can be frustrating and is compounded by a distinct lack of diversity in the workforce as well”.

The perception of a cat and mouse game played by curators was tackled and looked at through the lens of her role at Attenborough Arts Centre. 

“I’m glad that curators and artists are starting to talk to each other about this issue. I remember it being a topic of discussion at the Contested Spaces symposium earlier this year too. I thought that Elinor Morgan had some really valuable things to say on the subject, especially around practical things that artists can do to make meaningful connections with curators.” 

Capacity is becoming an increasing problem as Rachel points out, where staff are unable to talk to artists however another problem she cites is the effect on staff with disabilities across the sector feeling a sense the roles are stacked against them.  

“In my experience, one of the best bits of my job is getting to talk to artists about their work and I always want to make more space in my day to do that. But finding time for it is not always easy, especially when dealing with the avalanche of admin that exhibition-making and collection care generates. Curatorial departments in public institutions have really suffered from the succession of funding cuts that have been dealt to the sector for over a decade. We are stretched very thinly and those parts of the job that require more time and thought, including making connections with artists, have been a casualty of that situation”. 

A large group of people sitting around for a discussion event

Gallery Late event photo

Disabled artists need curatorial support, especially in the over-neat world we live in.  When disabled artists can’t associate with norms, they need translators who sit as intermediaries, helping to bring the unique thinking of the artists to the audience.  

“I should say that, feeling like a bit of an outsider in the sector myself, I have struggled at times to understand how to navigate many of the codes of behaviour and hierarchy that exist in different parts of the art world. I think many of those unwritten rules are designed to keep people out, and they need to be challenged, but I hope my answer above gives some insight into how there can be other pressures contributing to the situation”.

Institutions can portray the work of marginalised artists without understanding the full nuance of views and approaches beyond issues attached to them. Marginalisation can also be excoticised as it is conflated with artists from marginalised communities.  There are many disabled artists who do not explicitly talk about disability through their work. On this subject, Rachel shared her frustration with the shorthand of representation espoused by institutions who programme the work of marginalised artists in a simplistic way.  

“We have seen a proliferation of issues-based exhibitions in the last few years that have enabled museums and galleries to very visibly show work by disabled, BAME or other marginalised artists, and whilst I can see the value in this, I think it is quite a simplistic way to work with those artists. It must feel frustrating and reductive for artists to have their work included in those exhibitions and yet not be part of museum collections or programming beyond that. I think the sector needs to move beyond this ‘tick box’ approach to diversity because it creates a very one-dimensional discourse”.

installation photo of current exhibition ‘Kelly Richardson: Mariner 9’ . Photo: Paola Bernardelli

Maintaining a parity of esteem between disabled and nondisabled artists is seen as difficult.  However,  in some ways, lockdown as a result of Covid-19 has become a great leveler, bringing into view some of the techniques used by disabled artists for years, to engage with an inaccessible world.  The question asked by Rachel is, whether the understanding this adaptability brings, is attributed to disabled artists and sustainable.

“It has been quite telling that institutions and artists have rushed to fully adopt digital technologies under the current lockdown so that their staff can continue to work from home and programmes can be maintained. There has, understandably, been a cry of frustration from many disabled artists who have been successfully doing all these things for years without recognition or support, whilst the rest of us pat ourselves on the back for adapting to change and finding ‘new’ ways to keep working at a distance. I really hope that this becomes a teachable moment for the sector, that it is not just possible, but necessary, to be flexible in how we do things to enable greater access.”

Rachel is keen to highlight the work that goes on behind the scenes that is not visible but needs to be shared. 

“At Attenborough Arts Centre we strive to present the work of disabled and non-disabled artists in the same gallery spaces, to the same standards. There are four different gallery spaces across the centre in which we show work by artists at all stages of their careers. It’s really important to us that we work with artists as individuals, taking the time to get to know their work well so that we can present it to visitors in a way that feels right for that artist and gives visitors the best possible experience of that artwork.

We also have a small commissioning fund, which we use to support artists in extending their practice, taking risks and making new work. Through that, we have helped artists access new opportunities and further their careers. That side of our work isn’t generally that visible to people, a lot of it happens behind the scenes, but I want to get better at sharing it!”

The closure of the venue during lockdown has been difficult to deal with but her and her venue strive to keep in touch remotely and share.  Rachel provided a link to a podcast that casts a light of the work of Attenborough Arts Centre.

Attenborough Arts Centre and Disability Arts Online are offering five Visual Arts Support Commissions worth £1500 each, with a programme of tailored support beginning early 2021. See here for more information, and to apply.