After the Nymphs Painting Backlash: Is Curatorial Activism a Right or an Obligation?

The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming takes up an activist mantle?

BY Ellen Mara De Wachter in Opinion | 07 FEB 18

The UK’s Manchester Art Gallery faced a very public backlash last week after its removal of Pre-Raphaelite John William Waterhouse’s painting Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) was widely reported. Visitors were encouraged to write their thoughts on Post-it notes and stick them in the empty space left behind. Writing on the gallery’s website, curator Claire Gannaway said the original motivation had been about ‘challenging the outdated and damaging stories this whole part of the gallery is still telling through the contextualizing and interpretation of collection displays.’ The gallery clarified that the painting’s temporary removal was part of a project by the artist Sonia Boyce, in advance of her solo show in March. After the Waterhouse painting was returned to its gallery over the weekend, Boyce took credit for coordinating the event. Writing in the Guardian newspaper, she detailed the performance that preceded the removal of the painting and explained that it was ‘an attempt to involve a much wider group of people than usual in the curatorial process’.

A curator temporarily removing a painting from a gallery she oversees in order to raise questions about it is not censorship; it’s curating. But the questions raised by Boyce’s gesture are many and wide-ranging. Does it matter whether the decision to remove the work was made by an artist or by a curator? How might the public be involved in deciding and creating new meaning of what is shown? How do we manage the revisionism of white- and male-dominated art historical canons? And how can museums best communicate with their publics when it comes to activist programming devised to alter the status quo?

Laura Raicovich. Courtesy: Queens Museum, New York; photograph: Michael Angelo

Shortly after announcing her resignation on 23 January as president and executive director of the Queens Museum in New York, Laura Raicovich explained her reasoning to The New York Times: ‘There are so many big things that art and culture have to contend with that are so wrong in the world… That’s where my focus and energy needs to be.’ Raicovich had been in disagreement with the museum’s board over her activist approach: she closed the museum and invited local people in to make protest posters on Trump’s inauguration day; proposed to make the museum a sanctuary space to connect immigrants and social services; and cancelled an event sponsored by the Israeli government – which was later reinstated. Last Friday, 38 international museum professionals published a strongly worded letter in support of Raicovich, affirming the ‘civic role’ of cultural institutions, which ‘must respond to pressing issues facing our communities – this is not simply a right but an obligation, especially for those supported by public funds.’ 

Many institutions are already responding to issues in their communities, and involving them in programming in more or less direct ways. Last Saturday, Turner Contemporary in Margate opened ‘Journeys with “The Waste Land”’, an exhibition curated by the T.S. Eliot Research Group, which over the past three years has ranged in size from 20 to 60 local people led by curators Mike Tooby and Trish Scott.

The Waste Land research group. Courtesy: Turner Contemporary, Margate

Inspired by the time Eliot spent in Margate in 1921, working on his poem ‘The Waste Land’, and devised as a long-term participatory project, the exhibition was designed to ‘radically rethink traditional curatorial processes’. Back in the 1920s, Margate was a seaside resort for Londoners; today it is a deprived area, whose local district council is a stronghold for the right-wing pro-Brexit UKIP. Since 2011, when Turner Contemporary opened, the museum has been an important factor in the regeneration of the town and projects that involve the local community have been central to its programme. With members ranging in age from their early 20s to late 60s, the T.S. Eliot group includes academics, mental health professionals, mothers and artists. It reflects the museum’s existing audience, but, as with most museums, is not exactly representative of the local demographic. The exhibition is an associative array of art and artefacts, punctuated by audio recordings of group members discussing their reasons for including specific works. It’s a moving show, in large part because the curators have made each stage of their process transparent. Scott told me the project was about ‘asking who is entitled to make statements about things’ and challenging ‘systemic validation’ of decisions, and that its ultimate aim was ‘to transform lives, to make society healthier.’

Margate's shelter in which TS Eliot wrote The Waste Land. Courtesy: Turner Contemporary, Margate; photograph: Thanet District Council

Curatorial practices of civic engagement were the subject of an Arts Council Collection curators’ day last November hosted by Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art and organized by its Senior Curator Miguel Amado. Under Alistair Hudson, the museum’s outgoing director who will head up the Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth, the gallery has become known for championing art that is useful to society, in line with Cuban artist Tania Bruguera’s notion of ‘Arte Útil’ (Together with Bruguera, Hudson is co-director of the project Asociación de Arte Útil).

Also an economically and socially deprived part of the UK, Middlesbrough is still suffering from the long-term effects of the closure of its heavy industries. In recent years, the town’s demographic has changed thanks to a growing population of refugees and asylum seekers, routed there by the British asylum system. The museum’s socially engaged programme includes community days with workshops and free meals that attract diverse groups, working with local charities, and involving audiences in the selection of works for permanent collection displays. In his presentation at the curators’ day, Amado outlined an uncompromising curatorial vision for the museum and suggested how its agency can be stretched beyond its comfortable limits and made useful through direct intervention in the political, economic and social status quo. He appropriated Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s statement in their 2013 book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study that ‘the only possible relationship to the university is a criminal one’, substituting ‘the university’ for ‘the museum’. For Harney and Moten, it is the work of subversive intellectuals, the revolutionary thinkers who disappear into the ‘Undercommons of Enlightenment’, that stands to reinvigorate learning.

New Linthorpe’s ‘The Coffee House’ session, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, 2016. Courtesy: Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art; photograph: Judy Hume

Museum programmes developed in response to pressing social issues raise questions about the competing roles of art and curating and how they negotiate collaboration. Curators tend to come up with conceptual, historical or formal frameworks within which to show art works, serving the artists’ original intentions more or less faithfully; and artists have to be willing to see what happens to their work within those contexts. But while the intentions of curators and artists often overlap, the ground they hold in common is fragile and can be susceptible to expedient or ideological takeovers.

Recent scholarship around experimental curatorial strategies has examined how cultural institutions are responding to contemporary paradigm shifts. How Institutions Think: Between Contemporary Art and Curatorial Discourse (2017, MIT), edited by Paul O’Neill, Lucy Steeds and Mick Wilson, draws its title from a 1986 study by social anthropologist Mary Douglas. A collection of essays by 20 curators, academics and museum directors, it is shot through with a sense of urgency and purpose, encapsulated in a quote from Douglas which the editors have used in their introduction: ‘solidarity is only gesturing when it involves no sacrifice.’ In the forthcoming book Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating (2018, Thames & Hudson), curator Maura Reilly, the founding curator of the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, offers a history of activist exhibitions that challenged art world hegemony by addressing sexism, racism, homophobia and white supremacy. For Reilly, curatorial activism is a set of resistance strategies such as revisionism, area-studies and relational studies – she is clear that each of these approaches also harbours its own dangers.

Book cover for How Institutions Think: Between Contemporary Art and Curatorial Discourse, 2017 (MIT Press). Courtesy: MIT Press

One such danger is the prospect that intransigent demands be made of all cultural programming to take on an activist mantle. In January, an anonymous group of artists calling themselves Los Hemocionales broke into the Museo Experimental El Eco in Mexico City, breaking windows and vandalizing works. They accused the museum of failing to be experimental and in an email to the local art community said that museums should work more closely with local communities.

The injustices facing society are grave and pressing. Change can be brought about in many ways; some private, others public, some direct and others so subtle that they can be hard to detect. It is vital that public museums and cultural institutions challenge retrograde conventions of exhibition-making and show leadership in addressing social injustices. And there must be time, space and encouragement for institutions to freely develop those responses, rather than either compelling them to action through violence or jumping to conclusions over how they have done so. In the rush to judgement (as shown with the outcry over the removal of the Waterhouse painting) and accusing curators of bad faith, the very freedoms such criticisms ostensibly seek to protect seem under attack.

Main image: John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Ellen Mara De Wachter is based in London, UK.