What’s Changed? By Rose Lejeune

A woman with black hair wearing a cream coloured tote bag stands infront of a white panel with a painting of a character and description of Namo Ato exhbition in black lettering. In the background are other white panels with characters on.
Nama Ato exhibition at Southbank Centre's Unlimited Festival. Photo by Rachel Cherry.

This essay is a short reflection on Unlimited and the changes it has brought about in the art sector over the last 4 years from my personal position as a curator. It follows an invitation to sit on one of the Unlimited selection panels early in the year – an opportunity to take part in the process of choosing the next set of funded projects. This experience, full disclosure of which, meant firstly realising and then admitting just how little knowledge and experience of disability arts I have; limited knowledge of, limited experience with and considerable trepidation about discussing, particularly within the context of a panel otherwise consisting of professionals dedicated to disability-led arts or at least with lots of experience of working with Unlimited and Shape. What follows then is a reflection on the work that I do, its conceptual and practical framework and, what I might learn from Unlimited.

As a visual arts curator, with a particular interest in the relationship between art collections and performative and social practice, I work across museums, public arts and the commercial arts worlds. I work often as a commissioner, not only selecting existing artworks for display but working directly with artists to make new work that engages directly with a location, a history, a community or an existing collection.

Curating like this works in steps. 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 artist needs to create and present — be they financial, logistic or interpretive — generally through a great deal of problem solving and conversation. It is then an activity of putting together of people, places and objects, a kind of organising and convening of practical project management and administration, emotional support and a critical eye, followed by presenting and interpreting, offering space for audiences to encounter art, to experience and (perhaps) to learn. Described like this, curating is the both before and the after of any exhibition or event; both the behind the scenes and what is played out in front of the camera.

What does this have to do with Unlimited? Behind the scenes, Unlimited provides these cornerstones of what makes something possible in the contemporary landscape — time, space, funding. If curating involves the invention of new ways to work with artists then Unlimited provides the means to support that. Taking a proposal, like those we read during the selection process to a finished work of art, is often a long process of dialogue, revision and exploration rather than a simple linear process of delivery.   Curatorial responsibility involves understanding what is needed to facilitate that for artists with different and varied needs.   A disability-led framework allows the support and space, time and funding necessary to support artists to make new work in this way even before the mainstream sees fit to. It also lays bare the mechanics of barriers that the mainstream operates around, challenging their neutrality in doing so. Unlimited is the organising and convening of practical help, project management and administration in such a way that acknowledges that in order for things to happen differently in the world, they might need to be organised differently behind the scenes.

Personally, I am interested in the ways in which participatory or performative practices are incorporated into art collections and art historical narratives and so I write and research and question what art gets exhibited, what art gets collected, and by proxy, what art is invisible, what is excluded from art histories and who is not able to encounter it. The work I do involves creating frames for contemporary art. These frames — be they exhibitions, talks or events — are methods for making visible new ideas, attempting to create spaces within which what has not yet been said can be articulated, or what has been forgotten can be remembered and examined in a new context. As a curatorial mode, this involves asking questions about what we see, how we see it and who sees it. It is a mode of address that places artists and art objects in a relation to existing or contestable knowledge and history, and offers artistic versions of possible futures of the cultural and political world around us. Through this selection and composition, it 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. The challenge for the curator is to notice not only who they do put in their exhibitions but who they do not. To not only notice who does come to their exhibitions but who doesn’t. And to ask why.

The selection of Unlimited projects broadens the curatorial remit within several key UK organisations to reflect both a diversity of artistic positions and a diversity of artists themselves. In doing so, it opens up a space to discuss, and even think anew, questions of the potential for the political agency of art today. I am reminded here of the Guerrilla Girls – “Unless all the voices of our culture are in the history of art, it’s not really a history of art—it’s a history of power”

Bearing this in mind, the question of the potential agency of curating, of whether it can make changes in the world, have social impact, begins with not with the explicitly political content of the artwork or the exhibition but with the question of who we work with. Noticing absences then, seeking to acknowledge and address them within the field of production activates art’s political potential through curatorial forms.

That Unlimited exists points to the lack of disability arts in the ‘mainstream’ — the failing of curators, such as myself, and the broader structures of the art world in more general terms to work with artists whose needs they are not certain they’ll be able to address or understand. Unlimited refers and highlights the lack of disability arts in the discourse of broader curatorial narratives and urgencies. It responds to this by increasing both by increasing the possibility of work being made and seen both by disabled curators and artists through direct fundings, and thorough its Allies scheme which helps mainstream organisations support disabled artists’ involvement across their programmes.

In failing to address their behind-the-scenes uncertainty, curators render disability artists invisible within the public frame. The importance of Unlimited in providing a space, visibility and discourse around disability arts remains crucial, not only as an end in itself but also as a reflection back on the non-disability arts sector. Those who pay attention to what we see in one realm, might also take note of what we don’t see in another.

For me, participatory, relational and collaborative strategies, both artistic and curatorial, emphasise discursively and performativity as the cornerstone of the possibility to experience cultural space as one of potential change or political action (regardless of the scale of such possibilities). Nonetheless, any exhibition aims to make a connection between art objects, and the stories that they might tell, and the people who encounter them. Put this way, the question of inclusivity works both ways.   As Amanda Cachia argues in her essay “Disability, Curating, and the Educational Turn: The Contemporary Condition of Access in the Museum.”[1], inclusivity and curatorial strategies that include educational aspects, need to go beyond inclusivity as either “a flat, narrow category that can only ever be addressed by a visitor services department’ or the curatorial concept of “access” as “rooted in a philosophy premised on the visitor’s ability to participate in knowledge production.”

Unlimited, actively through the Allies scheme and abstractly through its very existence demonstrates an alternative structure. Here, an offer of intrinsic access can be responded to in a meaningful, productive by curators and institutions.

Finally, curating has an audience. It is a profession that attempts to take responsibility for creating space for communities and meeting points within which we pay attention to that art and those artists. Curating creates platforms not for their own sake but as a method of thinking through the best possible way to for an audience to appreciate an artist’s work.   As a means of creating new forms of exchange between audiences and art works, of thinking through how we encounter artworks in the best possible way, it allows space precisely for bringing in what seems uncertain and for creating space for dialogue and exchange and for understanding and acknowledging the intellectual and physical barriers to those encounters.

Curating is a relatively new profession and one which is fast evolving. In thinking about the changing nature of curating, there is a frequent return to a much older sense of the profession and specifically to the idea of care as embedded within its very conception; an etymological bond created in its very root, from the Latin curare, meaning ‘to care.’ If historically, the curator is thus a caretaker of objects, artefacts and artworks in a collection, then, in this context, contemporary curatorial responsibility involves not just caring for objects through the professional processes of exhibition making or project management but also understanding the act of caring in relation to every interaction with people and objects. For some, this idea of care does not simply refer to an idea of looking after, but more specifically to the sense of paying attention to. For example, in his essay “Take Care!”[2] Anthony Huberman makes an argument for curating to return to care-taking can be found in the root of the concept of the curator. In parallel to questions of the visibility of disability arts in the mainstream and the possibility for change through new organisational methods and structures, Huberman suggests slowing down, experimenting, meeting face-to-face and, crucially, replacing the idea of knowledge-making within exhibition-making with the idea of care, fandom and love: “An institution could stop behaving like an explanation machine…After all, the ideas that make us curious are not the ones that we fully understand, but the ones we care about—I Love It is always more compelling than I Get It.”

Such a curatorial discourse explores the idea of caring and learning as two sides of a coin. Divested of the need to know or to tell, the curator’s job is to provide space and critical discourse around issues and voices we don’t know everything about:   “The act of appreciation, by nature, is not didactic — it’s what you like, not what you know — but it is social: it involves not just what you like, but caring about it so much that you want to share it with others… [This is] the vulnerable, dangerous, and radical act of wearing their heart on their sleeve.”[3]

The goal is not so much to set out to change things through force, but to exist as an alternative structure to the mainstream, to make visible what is overlooked and to share together through commonalities and differences. This is a version of curatorial responsibility that strikes me as useful when addressing the mainstream’s relationship to disability arts and Unlimited’s role — a role thereby we undertake to work with artists simply because we feel it is important to give them a platform and not because we have the answers.   Unlimited proposes not just that we see more work from disabled artists in isolation, but also that that we notice when we do not, and most profoundly that we care enough to take risks, to not know, and pay attention to what we can all do to make visible what would otherwise remain invisible.

[1] Amanda Cachia “Disability, Curating, and the Educational Turn: The Contemporary Condition of Access in the Museum in On Curating, Issue 24 / December 2014.

[2] Anthony Huberman “Take Care!” in Circular Facts, Sternberg Press, 2011

[3] ibid.

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