How do we win the curator’s stare?

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The Curator’s Stare was an event hosted by Disability Arts Cymru on 11 March as part of their recent series ‘Crip Talks’. Chaired by Alan Whitfield from DAC with panellists Cheryl Martin, Gail Howard and Richard Butchins. Disabled artist and curator Aidan Moesby reflects on the themes of the event.

Exhibition shot showing ladders stacked with half woven baskets and draped material hanging from the ceiling

Gail Howard’s Brief History of Healing Part 2. Photograph: Clare Charles.

A year to the date Anna Berry hosted her ‘Slaughtering the Sacred Cows’ event at MAC Birmingham as the closing to her year-long curatorial residency. Her DASH funded residency was aimed at increasing the representation of disabled curators in mainstream institutions.

A lot has happened in the intervening time. I didn’t know at the time that I was attending what would be my last in-person event for who knows how long.

So as happenstance would have it, here we are one year on to talk about disability arts and curating again. This time I am sat in the privacy of my own home, staring at -or through – the screen which has become my window on the world both professionally and socially.

As someone who identifies as a disabled curator, I was keen to hear the thoughts of this eclectic panel. As you would expect from three different viewpoints – Butchins predominantly a film-maker, Martin a theatre maker and Howard an artist/curator – we got a varied perspective on the role of the curator. It made me reflect on comparisons of the role of the art curator in different contexts. In my experience, the language of art and specifically the role of curator, does not necessarily translate to that of theatre or other art forms. The role of producer or director does not withstand a nuanced critique of what it means to be a curator although there are some crossovers.

The discussion flowed and ranged from Butchins asserting the curator as being a gatekeeper whose only agenda is to push theirs and present their version of reality, to Howard countering this by suggesting that was an outmoded view of curators and how the construct of the artist being passive is no longer relevant.

Richard Butchins standing outside a museum

Richard Butchins outside Museo Del Prado, Madrid (C) What Larks Productions Ltd – Photographer: Simon Lloyd

Whenever I attended discussions such as this the same issues tend to arise. The perception of the predominant model of how to make it in the art world is that you go to art school, show in spaces with increasing kudos, get picked up and represented and show in increasingly rarefied environments in the art establishment.

I think the reality is far from this for most of us unless you happen across the sweet spot of right time, place, luck, work etc. Otherwise, most of us remain part of the 99% of the art world who keep the bloated excesses of the 1% afloat.

There still seems to be the desire to show in a gallery context and be part of that scene. The question in the invite ‘How do we win the Curator’s Stare?’ I presume this to mean the institutional gaze. What doesn’t seem to get air-time is that there are alternatives. Do we still need to win the stare of that particular curatorial model?

We can create our own path and we don’t need to do it alone. Joining or creating an artists collective that also shows work together beyond the gallery space, taking work into the community and non-traditional art spaces can be good for business and democratises the art world. Gail Howard did just this and initiated Made in Roath which runs residencies, hosts studios, exhibitions, engages in community projects and festivals. She put the current situation in context ‘Galleries are hostile spaces much of the time… yet there is a problem with navigating online exhibitions.’

Martin echoed this approach suggesting ‘creating your own world. Do your own thing.’ She went on to highlight the importance of creating your own networks and finding supportive allies. She gave an example of how she is working within a festival model with the Whitworth. By partnering with different organisations across artforms you can diversify audiences and share the risk.

A black woman paddles in the sea with her back turned to camera

Cheryl Martin’s One Woman.

I understand showing in a gallery and the validation that can bring. I know the barriers faced by disabled artists and the barriers constructed by the art system to keep people like us out, whether that is passive or active exclusion and ableism. I understand wanting to be part of that system and know the pain and cost of trying to be part of it. The making the work, applying for exhibitions, open calls, funding, the rejections – all that labour, including emotional, for seemingly not much return at times.

Butchins reflected on the fact that disability is expensive. ‘It is a class and privilege issue.’ He stated before asking rhetorically ‘Why would the ‘white posh’ want to change a system they have succeeded at?’

We need to be clear when we desire the curator’s gaze. What do I want from this relationship? Why do I want this particular relationship? Is this really what I want? Is this right for me? Is there a different way I can achieve what I want? One size doesn’t fit all.

In this time of corona and living life through the screen, the digital world may present opportunities that were not present in the past. Butchins again highlighted the dominant ableist narrative that ‘working from home and the rise of video (communication) has only happened because the able-bodied want it.’ Again, however, there are issues of access be that sensory, psychological or economic for example. No doubt digital platforms can showcase our work, although not all work translates to the digital format.

There are many issues about the accessibility, inclusion and equality of the art world. There is no denying that these need to be addressed. There is much said about the role of the curator in the art world and how we are excluded. However, what gets little attention are the steps before that. To my mind, there is a lack of critique or critical conversation around the work made by disabled artists. Howard was clear on this ‘always ask for feedback.’

Over the years I have learned to talk about my work. I know why I use particular materials, colours, techniques and I can contextualise that for people. Like it or not, being able to talk about our work in these terms is vital if we wish to be part of the art world. There is a fear of having those difficult conversations about people’s work and saying it is not developed or thought through enough, regardless of saying something pejorative, subjective or speaking in terms of good or bad art. I have been challenged, pushed and provoked to reflect critically on my work. Some of it was painful and difficult to hear but I know that feedback led to my development as an artist.

There is the old adage ‘you only get one chance to make a first impression’. Therefore, I would like to leave you to ponder a different question. Not ‘how do I win the curators stare?’ but ‘am I ready to win that stare?’.