Activism In The Art World: Meet The Next Generation Of Radical Curators

In the current climate, activism is experiencing a resurgence. We are in a time where major movements such as #OscarsSoWhite and #Metoo have gained momentum, with millions taking to the streets to support initiatives including the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives.

The equivalent movement in the art world is known as curatorial activism. The goal is to organize exhibitions with the aim of ensuring that broad groups of people are no longer marginalized or excluded from the master narratives of art, according to curator Maura Reilly. It aims to draw attention to the urgent need to address issues of gender, race and sexuality.

Despite this, equal representation for non-white, non-male and LGBTQ artists remains disproportionately low. Tate Modern’s reopening in 2016, for example, saw just 32% of women and 29% of non-white artists represented in the 300-strong permanent exhibition. A survey by East London Fawcett also found that of the 134 commercial galleries surveyed, less than 30% of the artists represented were women.

Curating may not be an obvious path for those interested in the arts, but it can offer a way to enact change. “If you are intent on instituting change, then curation can be a powerful tool,” says Reilly, the author of Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating. She encourages young people to speak out and agitate for change.

Reilly has spent her career challenging traditional notions of artistic greatness. In 2007, she co-launched Global Feminisms: New Directions in Contemporary Art at the Elizabeth A Sackler Center for Feminist Art, the inaugural exhibition in the first public programming space in the US devoted entirely to feminist art. Similarly, Rozsa Farkas, co-founder and director of south London’s Arcadia Missa gallery, set up her exhibition space to showcase artists who may not be represented elsewhere.

Farkas sees the importance of diversity not as a quota to meet, but rather a reflection of the exceptional nature of the art being displayed. For her, the practice is about personal taste more than anything else. The gallery’s collaborative and communicative approach, combined with its location in a Peckham railway arch, sets it apart from traditional galleries, which can be alienating for some visitors.

Commissioning artwork for public or common spaces has become more popular in the past two decades, with people like London-based curator and writer Fatos Ustek playing a key role in this shift. She believes that curators have the power to make art public and should embrace this responsibility. She curated London’s second Art Night in 2017, taking art out of traditional institutions and into unusual sites and locations.

To truly engage their audience, curators feel that participation is key. For instance, Charlotte Keenan, the curator of British art at the Walker gallery in Liverpool, believes in providing alternative histories to those told in British galleries. In a recent exhibition called "Coming Out," Keenan invited community groups, artists and activists to use a gallery space to tell their own stories and histories. She sees the role of a curator as not necessarily always speaking out, but sometimes stepping back and empowering others to take the stage.

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  • kaydenmarsh

    I am Kayden Marsh, 34yo educational blogger and school teacher. I am a mother of two young children, and I love spending time with them and learning new things. I also enjoy writing about education and children's issues, and I hope to continue doing so for the rest of my life.

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