Front row from left: Fion Gunn, Denise Keele-Bedford
Back row from left: Mary Mackey, Niamh Cunningham, Chen Meitsen, Raine Hozier Byrne, Huang Du, Ma Yanling, Gao Yuan, Gail Ritchie, Rikki van den berg
'Intimate Revolution: Discourse in Disappointment' exhibition - Siemens Art Space, 798, Beijing (March 2015) photo: Annie Hastie
In early 2014 I was invited by Harry Liu editor in chief of ArtZip magazine to be feature editor for the Spring/summer 2015 edition. ArtZip is for sale at a number of high profile venues: Tate Modern, Whitechapel & in many galleries in 798. It is the only international bilingual Chinese/English contemporary art magazine.
I was keen to address the issue of the artist as curator and a number of related areas such as the gender rebalancing of public collections, cross-cultural collaboration and audience engagement. The curation of Intimate Transgressions has been informed and shaped by my work as an artist.
Below is an excerpt from the rationale I wrote for the edition.
"The following is a subjective and to some degree anecdotal view of artist curatorial practice, I don’t expect that everyone will agree with me and I will probably feel guilty for being critical of those individuals I’ve named and ‘slated’ if ever I run into them in the future. I have interviewed a number of my fellow artist curators who are quoted in this article and carried out a questionnaire amongst art practitioners and the general public, so this is in a sense, a micro sample of what is happening on a global scale.
The situation is not binary, it’s not about either/or, surely the art world will be a better environment from having a diversity of curatorial and authorial voices? There are many talented and valuable non-artist curators out there, both institutional and independent, whose skills benefit artists enormously and there are a number of concerns which many of us share i.e.
· how to make art available for the widest audience possible without compromising on quality and innovativeness
· how to facilitate diverse practices and diverse viewpoints
· how to gender rebalance public (and private) collections of contemporary art
· how to achieve positive interaction of international and local art & artists
These issues will be explored later on by a range of artist curators, as well as Marko Daniel, curator of public programmes at Tate Modern and Huang Du an independent curator who works in Europe and China. The interviewees do not necessarily agree on every point but I was surprised and cheered by the level of consensus on the key concerns.
Most artist curators are not academics, although I am sure that we can sound as arcane and obscure as the next art world person. I am writing this editorial simply as a practitioner who works with other artists and artist-curators in the UK, Ireland and China. Like all those interviewed, I came to curation through my work as an artist and see the two aspects of my practice as interrelated and mutually enhancing. I am committed to cross-cultural collaborations and making the experience of art available to everyone, however I’m not a joiner, I don’t have affiliations with artist led organisations or institutions even when I work with individuals who have. I have, of course, repeat collaborations with associations, organisations or individuals but these are on a project by project basis.
Artist curators are usually independent. We don’t have institutional obligations, commercial interests or ties, instead we have intellectual freedom, a wide ranging skill set and ongoing financial precariousness – one can’t have everything.
So why is the artist as curator an issue at all? What do we bring to the experience of exhibitions that is any different from the academic, the writer, the museum custodian who dominates the current scene?
The vast majority of artist curators, are not rich, not famous and certainly not like the so called ‘Super-curators’ listed in the eponymous section. The term is both dubious and worrying, growing out of a celebrity culture that often has a damaging, alienating effect on public perception of what art means to society.
In the section on Emerging Curatorial Models it was very interesting to observe how the issues of inclusiveness and diversity are increasingly important for non-artist curators both independent and institutional. However, I suspect that the awareness on their part may have been inspired by the new accountability required when public funding is involved whereas with most artist curators these are deeply held personal values. Institutions also run the risk of media scrutiny in an age where exposure spreads like wildfire on social media sites and Culture Ministries can ask awkward questions.
Accountability is also key in an area which needs urgent attention – the extreme gender imbalance in contemporary public art collections. It is heartening that many public institutions like Tate Modern are taking this matter seriously. So they should, in 2013, 83% of the artists in their collection were male! Artist curators are very aware of this issue, many of us are women and we are serious about redressing the balance. We are also doing this more efficiently than our institutional partners because we are operating at a more ‘grass roots’ level.
In a Chinese context it is worth mentioning the inevitable impact of having a largely male intake in the fine arts departments of universities. This has a knock on effect of making any post graduate networking male dominated. From my own observation I don't think that this is due to any particular sexism or an overt desire to exclude women, that is a much more ‘gallery’’ phenomenon. Simply, most artists who are men, know other artists who are men and therefore tend to move in those circles.
Some years back when I became really concerned about having a 90% male participation list proposed by my Chinese collaborators, I spoke very candidly with my co-curator Zheng Xuewu (who is also an artist) and asked him to find me some women artists to include. He promised to do his best, and he did! Next time I went to China I had 7 women artists to include in the shows which brought the percentage level up to about 40%. Of course once you have one woman artist involved they are happy to suggest their peers, who are mainly women....... institutions need to do much more proactive outreach!
So perhaps for artist curators the tide is turning, in many publicly funded museums and galleries a more respectful, facilitative curatorial approach is becoming common. At the time of writing this article the Hayward Gallery had invited 7 artists to curate History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain an exhibition which explored 70 years of cultural and social history from their uniquely personal perspectives. I went to the exhibition and interviewed a number of the artists; these interviews are included later in the feature.