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First published on Disability Arts Online, 2018.
Low pay and unpaid labour, student debt, long and unsociable hours, demand for constant mobility, fixed-term and zero-hour contracts — it’s clear that the conditions often fostered by the art world act as a barrier and exacerbate a lack of access to the sector. As austerity and funding cuts have further eroded capacities it seems a pertinent moment to question what the barriers to access are for disabled artists (and curators, administrators, writers, and academics). I paint a bleak picture, and in reality, many of the cultural organisations I’ve worked in and artists I’ve worked with are doing exceptional work on limited budgets.
A couple of weeks ago I participated in the panel discussion ‘Interrogating the (in)visibility of Disabled Artists’, curated by Aidan Moesby and hosted by Disability Arts Online at MAC, Birmingham where, over 2 hours, we discussed some of these issues. We asked lots of questions and solved all the problems (if only). I was flattered to be invited but felt apprehensive as someone who does not define myself as disabled. Reflecting on the invitation I thought about the people around me with hidden and visible impairments. My partner has Type 1 Diabetes and my parents care for a young girl with cerebral palsy as well as running a charity providing respite for carers in the North-East. I would imagine that nearly everybody has experience in some form of disability.
Around 20% of working-age adults in the UK are disabled yet according to recent reports by Arts Council England 1, only 4% of cultural workers would define themselves as disabled. It gets worse. 1% of people in an artistic position in the visual art sector would define themselves as disabled. It is a jaw-dropping statistic and begs the question; why? The situation is complex and I’ve covered only a small amount of issues in the opening paragraph. During the panel discussion, we reflected on the competitiveness of the field and lack of opportunities and jobs and the difficulty for artists in opening up lines of conversation with curators and institutions. Certainly, my own experiences as an emerging curator would concur with this.
I came into curating through trying to be an artist. For a number of years, I worked in a bookshop and curated exhibitions in my front room and disused warehouse spaces, wrote for online blogs and generally tried to make opportunities for myself wherever I could. I also undertook unpaid internships at Tate Britain and low paid work in various commercial galleries before I went on to do an MA in Curating at Goldsmiths, graduating in 2013. I spent years knocking on doors that refused to be opened and writing emails that were never answered.
I often say that I took the scenic route into curating, and as the first person in my family to go to university, I felt there was no roadmap for me to follow. The art world felt like an alien place and I did, and to some extent still do, feel like an interloper. Over the last 5 years, much of that early work has started to pay off and I have worked on some amazing projects as a curator, teacher and writer across the UK. I currently work as a curator at Wellcome Collection in London.
Throughout my career, very few of my opportunities have come through people seeing my CV, but rather through informal conversations at openings and events. My experience has been that the visual arts sector is very much a reputational environment fostered by being present and visible.
I realise now, looking back, that my ability to work for very little, my geographic mobility and ability to work long hours was the privilege that I was willing to exploit to progress in my career. I could do this because I was able-bodied, young, and could live on very little. The art world that I have witnessed over the last 10 years is resourced by this kind of labour. How does somebody participate who doesn’t conform to this able-bodied model? How do you participate if you can’t be present?
In her fantastic essay 'Sick Women Theory', the artist Johanna Hedva 2 writes eloquently about her own chronic conditions and a particularly painful episode that coincided with a Black Lives Matter march in her neighbourhood. Hedva talks about her solidarity in the protest but her inability to participate due to her illness. She quotes Hannah Arendt, who defines the political as an action performed in public. Whether collectively or individually, the presentness of the body makes public space through action. As Hedva goes on to articulate in her essay; who does this exclude?
We can replace ‘public space’ with ‘art world’ and Hedva’s essay can be applied to other forms of invisibility. How do we hear the voices of artists who can’t be present because of illness or disability or are carers for a disabled person? I often think that an institution’s role is about building ladders and bridges, creating opportunity and connecting people and ideas. Of course, one type of ladder or opportunity doesn’t work for everyone — and the art world, at least historically, has not been particularly good at tailoring the type of ladder it makes.
To diversify the voices in the art world requires more attuned and sensitive ways of listening so that we pay attention to the quieter, marginalised and invisible stories. This involves shifting institutional thinking from an auteur model of curating into a listening model. It means shifting the language of competition to a discourse of care and self-care that helps to construct a less exploitative art world. It means thinking about politics beyond a polemic and embedding it into institutional structures. It may mean giving away some control.
How do we work with artists in different ways? How do artists impact the operational culture of an institution as much as the artistic programme? How do you play the game and change the rules? How do we translate curatorial and institutional privilege to disrupt the normative models and values? Should we slow down our ways of working and work on fewer projects and give more space to risky and speculative endeavours?
One question Aidan posed to me during the panel was “do disabled artists have to follow the normative models to representation?” I would suggest that nobody should follow the “normative” model to representation and we all have responsibilities to disrupt the mechanisms of value and visibility that the art world generates. The art world has always been an economic pyramid with 1% of successful artists supported by the 99% of other artists that administrate and maintain the conditions of the pyramid.
Gregory Sholette calls this 99% the dark matter of the art world and it has more agency then it thinks it does. Institutions and curators should shape themselves to the practices of artists, not the other way around — and, not to sound too much like Jeremy Corbyn, it should listen to the 99%. A public gallery is a space for people to share what is valuable and important — it is a space of contestation — and shouldn’t be defined by the most dominant and present voices.
1. Arts Council Report. https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/publication/equality-diversity-and-creative-case-data-report-2016-17, date accessed: 2018
2. Hedva, J. https://johannahedva.com/SickWomanTheory_Hedva_2020.pdf, date accessed: 2018