Artists, curating and disability: “We need to shift the notion of the curator as an author to somebody that listens”

A recent event at MAC in Birmingham brought practitioners and curators together to interrogate ‘the (in)visibility of disabled artists’. Anneka French reports on a productively critical discussion.

Sue-Austin-Creating-The-Spectacle-Immersed-in-360-20-768x512

Sue Austin, Creating The Spectacle! Immersed in 360, installation view, Mac Birmingham, 2018. Photo: Mac Birmingham

“I am really concerned about the lack of representation and the invisibility of disabled artists,” says artist, curator and writer Aidan Moesby. “Within the art establishment, once you say that you’re disabled, you tend not to have any professional or creative or aesthetic or economic value.”

Moesby is outlining his concerns for artists that identify as disabled, in his role as chair of the discursive event ‘Curated Conversation: Interrogating the (in)visibility of disabled artists’, at MAC, Birmingham.

Coinciding with a solo presentation of video work at the venue by Sue Austin in which she scuba dives in a specially-adapted wheelchair, the event, convened by Disability Arts Online (DAO), poses a series of pertinent questions on the career development of disabled artists, and on curatorial practices embedded within mainstream gallery structures.

Austin is joined by self-described “art world outsider”, artist Anna Berry, MAC’s visual arts producer Jessica Litherland and Wellcome Trust curator George Vasey. Succinct individual presentations explore the subject from personal perspectives, opening up a range of issues, and refreshingly, some potential action points for curators and for artists with visible or invisible disabilities.

Litherland begins by checking her privilege. She has followed a “typical” curatorial career trajectory via art school education and unpaid internships, and has been able to “play the art world game”, something she recognises is not always viable for those with disabilities.

As a “gatekeeper” and curator of Austin’s exhibition, Litherland is critical of her role, particularly of institutional nervousness around working with disabled artists, driven by a fear of getting things wrong. Her open minded, collaborative and reflective methodologies stress that curatorial approachability and flexibility is crucial.

Litherland rounds off with suggestions for curators that aim to facilitate conversations, empower and increase visibility for disabled artists: mentoring, responsivity, avoiding silos, co-authored publications, the sharing of best practice case studies to improve confidence around access and language, accessible proposal and application formats, and inclusivity in institutional staffing and on boards.

When asked how artists might approach her or other curators, Litherland encourages artists to find commonalities with curators via programme research and direct conversation, which she herself welcomes.

The enormous value of disability-focused residency and commission schemes, operated by organisations such as DAO and Unlimited, is returned to at various points in the afternoon’s discussions. Indeed, Litherland notes that Austin’s exhibition arose as a result of an earlier collaboration with Shropshire-based disability-led visual arts organisation DASH. Austin attributes the success of her practice, which has been picked up by the BBC and NASA, to such formal inclusion and access policies.

Berry, meanwhile, is much more critical of such schemes. They often lead to a “therapeutic cul-de-sac” or are limited to generating other specifically disability-focused opportunities such as her 2017 showing at Tate Exchange. The barriers faced by many disabled artists, she feels, are far more insidious, noting that something as seemingly simple as attending openings is not an option for her and for many others.

Without the visibility that networking provides, and without, in her case, adequate access support for written applications, she rightly questions how disabled artists might break into the gallery context. She has negotiated these problems by instead working in the public realm on projects that have come through her dogged persistence.

Berry makes a vehement call for galleries to take risks and meet disabled artists part-way. Vasey agrees: “We need to shift the notion of the curator as an author to somebody that listens. The key skill of a curator is understanding what’s urgent within [the gallery’s] communities and trying to learn from the people around you.”

Questions of intersectionality and spaces for critique are raised, which the scope of the event, at only two hours, leaves little time for. Discussions focus, rather, on a more proactive approach on the part of both artists and curators.

Barriers are uniquely individual and it is through recognition and honest conversations between both parties that these begin to break down. The importance of home visits, authentic engagement, less competition, more care and the possibilities of the digital to improve visibility are all vital reminders of what’s required.

Moesby’s concluding remarks reiterate the need for curatorial transformation to enact change: “Getting it wrong is OK, as long as you’re trying.”

There is clearly much work left to do. But that the conversation was productively critical of mainstream curatorial approaches enabled discussions to pinpoint some tangible methods by which both disabled artists and curators might be able to enact change, and work together within a framework of respect, communication and care.

‘Curated Conversation: Interrogating the (in)visibility of disabled artists’ took place at MAC, Birmingham on 23 November 2018

Images:
1. Sue Austin, ‘Creating The Spectacle! Immersed in 360’, installation view, MAC, Birmingham, 2018. Photo: David Rowan
2. From left to right: Sue Austin, Anna Berry, Aidan Moesby, Trish Wheatley, Jessica Litherland, George Vasey, pictured at ‘Curated Conversation: Interrogating the (in)visibility of disabled artists’, at MAC, Birmingham. Photo: MAC, Birmingham

Commissioned and published by a-n news, 4 December 2018

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