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Curatorial Activism and Essentialism

Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating by Maura Reilly

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Figure 1. Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1974-1979, The Brooklyn Museum.

I recently started reading Maura Reilly's Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating. Since its publication in 2018, I noticed the book many times in bookshops, but when it was set for reading for the #DouglasHydeGallery Student Forum I jumped at the opportunity to treat myself to a copy. I wish I had come to the book earlier. (Reilly is also the editor of #ThamesandHudson's The #LindaNochlin Reader, which is also on my wish list: maybe 2021 will be the year!).

Reilly is perhaps best known as the Founding Curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Centre for #FeministArt at the #BrooklynMuseum. There she organised many public programmes and exhibitions focused on feminism and oversaw the permanent installation of the ever-impressive #TheDinnerParty by #JudyChicago (I once visited the museum and had this work all to myself).

The aim of Curatorial Activism is clear and forward: the book is a reflection on, and guide to, resisting hegemonic curatorial practice in the #museum sector (and commercial gallery sector) which unfairly and unjustly promotes the work of white, cis-male, heterosexual, Western artists over that of their contemporaries who are othered and marginalised in discourse, the market, and institutions.

The bulk of the book is a collection of short chapters outlining individual exhibitions, arranged chronologically, which Reilly singles out as examples of curatorial activism. Three examples include:

Women Artists: 1550–1950 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976/ Brooklyn Museum, 1977)

The Global Contemporary Art Worlds After 1989 (ZKM/Museum of Contemporary Art, Karlsruhe, 2011–2012)

Art Aids America (Numerous museums; opens at Tacoma Art Museum, 2015–2016)

This approach brings to mind the wonderful two-volume collection by Bruce Altshuler and #PhaidonPress: Salon to Biennial: Exhibitions that Made Art History, 1863–1959 (2008) and Biennials and Beyond: Exhibitions that Made Art History, 1962–2002 (2013).

I like when books take exhibition history as a model for discussing larger themes as it reminds me of the precarity of art. In such accounts there is a certain "living-ness" to the work, the curators, the artists and audiences experiencing these works for the first time comes across as exciting, particularly before the work vanishes into a private collection, or becomes neutered (or too historical, precious, or valuable) in a museum permanent collection.

In her work Reilly asserts that the 'master narratives of art [...] continue to be discriminatory discourses that are rarely challenged. Sexism and racism have become so insidiously woven into the institutional fabric, language, and logic of the mainstream art world that they go almost entirely undetected' (Reilly 2018, 21). Empire, patriarchy, institutions, markets, press are hegemonic in that they privilege white male creativity to the exclusion of all Others.

Reilly's activism is 'counter-hegemonic' (Reilly 2018, 21) and she identifies a number of ways curators have, and can continue to, level art world hierarchies, including: 'challenging assumptions, countering erasure, promoting the margins over the centre, the minority over the majority, inspiring intelligent debate, disseminating new knowledge, and encouraging strategies of resistance...' (Reilly 2018, 22).

As a writer and researcher I see value in these strategies for all those working in the arts, not just curators. Any writer or researcher of institutional or public history can consciously adopt these strategies in their work.

Reilly asks some pertinent questions: 'should our goal be a totalling critique of canonicity itself? Should we be creating new, alternative canons?' (Reilly 2018, 23), and how can we, in the worlds of #GriseldaPollock "difference it"? In her opening essay, Reilly singles out revisionism, area studies, and relational studies as three approaches to Curatorial Activism.

Revisionism sees 'individuals [...] reclaimed from history' but is problematic because it 'assumes the white masculinist, Western canon as its centre', perpetuating binary oppositions (Reilly 2018, 23, 24). Area studies (e.g. LGBTQ art, African American art, etc.) meanwhile, produces new canons, but risks ghettoising artists within essentialist categories. Reilly channels #GayatriSpivak's concept of "strategic essentialism" here, which allows curators to engage in area studies on the grounds that '"essential attributes" are acknowledged to be a construct—that is, 'the (political) group, somewhat paradoxically, acknowledges that the attributes (black, queer, woman, for example) are not intrinsically essential, but are invoked if they are considered to be strategically and politically useful' (Reilly 2018, 29). Finally, a third approach, a relational approach, is positioned as 'a polysemic site of contradictory positions and contested practices' allowing for multiple voices and highlighting cultural differences etc.; an example here is a group show rather than a monographic exhibition. (Reilly 2018, 30).

Such questions and strategies are relevant to my research on the art market and the #history of collecting and the role of women in the arts. Although there is no definitive book on the art market in #America, where literature does it exist is usually separates out strands of this market, so essays exist on collectors, dealers, artists, patrons, schools, exhibitions etc., but rarely do these strands overlap. These separations are, of course, enforced, not natural; in much the same way that all counter-narratives and strategies are also enforced. (Fundamentally important here is the role that a historian's 'choice' has to play in writing a history; history is not (only) the piecing together of irrefutable facts; it is other concerns and blueprints in operation).

Turning to Reilly's strategies of resistance, researchers like me can opt to critique pre-existing accounts of dominant narratives, counter erasure, promote the margins, adopt a strategic essentialist approach etc. Despite this, challenges remain. One of the difficulties I find in researching women art dealers at the start of the 20th century is that primary sources on these women and their galleries is often patchy, or as is more often the case, lost or non-existent. So, there are very practical challenges a researcher must face even when they have decided on their strategy, framework, and methodology. Sometimes it feels like some histories are lost forever. This, of course, is a symptom of the patriarchy; an inheritance.

I am looking forward to finishing Reilly's book, which also has chapters on 'challenging heterocentrism and lesbo-homophobia' and 'tackling #whiteprivilege and western centrism'.

It is clear from the outset that Reilly's focus throughout is on gender, sexuality and race, though there are of course a number of other categories, including intersectional ones, that are institutionally othered and made invisible in the art world. #Class, #faith, #indigeneity, #language, #education, #age, physical and #mentalhealth, are, depending on your location (and Reilly is writing from a position in the English-speaking 'West'; specifically, North America), powerful factors that influence how one engages with, and is engaged by (or not) those in power in culture. Another thing that interests me is how can the strategies that Reilly offers be adapted for use in other sectors of the arts including live performance, publishing, and music.


Reilly, Maura, Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating (Thames and Hudson: London, 2018).


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