COMMENT On Some Conditions Facing an Early Career Curator
I arrived early for the first meeting of British Art Network’s Early Career Curators Group (ECCG) in June 2019, so spent some time with Mike Nelson’s The Asset Strippers (2019) which had then filled Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries with orphaned industrial machinery, grease and dust…..
The installation comprised a sprawl of heavy objects gleaned from asset stripping—the vampiric practice of profiteering from the sale of a failing company’s assets. Sometimes imprinted with imperial insignia, the provenance of these defunct machines was scored onto every surface. Nelson’s landmark commission brought the reality of neoliberalism into the gallery through the debris of British manufacturing, its first victims. A year after The Asset Strippers opened, COVID-19 would hasten the effects of this pernicious policy model on the culture and heritage sectors themselves, precipitating large-scale redundancies and raising the question of whether collections should too sell their assets.
The museum, the gallery and the academy are, as many of us recognise, now firmly in the grip of such forces. In an essay published before he permanently bowed out of curating, “The New Conservatism: Complicity and the Art World’s Performance of Progression” (e-flux conversations, 2017), Morgan Quaintance maps an unsettling series of recent instances in which public-private partnerships have seen public arts subsidy siphoned off by private interests. Curators Lina Džuverović and Irene Revell’s article “Lots of Shiny Junk at the Art Dump: The Sick and Unwilling Curator” (Parse 9, 2019), asks outright whether the curatorial career is a Ponzi scheme by another name. In 2016, Creative Scotland’s Visual Arts Sector Review revealed that the average total income of survey respondents was £17,526 p.a., with further indictments including a far larger than average wage gap across genders. From lived experience, contracts are overwhelmingly temporary, inextricably linked to funding which is rarely secured beyond a threeyear term. These things are never too far from mind: latent fears, baked into the subconscious of the precariat, allayed briefly by conversations, colleagues and the work—the magnetic objects and practices of art which it’s all in service to. For a while now, however, the work has felt to me a bit like the pilot light in a rundown boiler, persevering but perpetually at risk of being extinguished.
In December 2019, six months into the ECCG programme, the cohort had our third in-person meeting: a two-day session within the inspiring surroundings of The Hepworth Wakefield, where a two-person show of early paintings by Alan Davie and David Hockey was touting the virtues of interconnection and influence. By then, aided by dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant with a BYOB policy, the group had built enough trust to become something other than a professional development network. Unprompted, members shared stories of exploitation, anxiety and frustration with the tacit understanding that what had emerged was a space of solidarity. A sense of early career exhaustion cut across working contexts and identities. It got me thinking about how we build resilience, how not to burn out.
Lockdown was called in the UK ten days before our third meeting. At the outset of the pandemic, Warsaw-based curator Kuba Szreder asked if what we are facing is in fact the end of globalisation (“Independence Always Proceeds from Interdependence: A Reflection on the Conditions of the Artistic Precariat and the Art Institution in Times of Covid-19,” L’Internationale, 2020). COVID-19, he argues, has revealed how the autonomy, interconnection and mobility of art workers has been heavily dependent on accessible public infrastructure maintained by an invisible workforce, often underpaid women, whose care labour has long underwritten the global circulation of art—elsewhere dubbed the artworld’s dark matter by Gregory Sholette.
At the time of writing, the cohort now hasn’t met in-person for exactly one year. Migration to exclusively digital communication has tested group working in all forms. Within the ECCG—or its ongoing group chat more specifically—I am, however, grateful to have found an enduring commitment to sharing resources, opportunities and news. I know many of these connections will be called upon long into the future. It might not be the design of any professional development programme, but something powerful is wrought in the convening of commonality. Anticipating further tides of destabilisation in the sector which invariably impact those nearest the bottom, it seems increasingly pertinent that trusting spaces such as these—alongside unions, co-ops and representational networks—are directly resourced and able to participate in rigorous evaluations of where we have been and where we are going.
In his essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” (1923), philosopher György Lukács compels us not to mistake social relations for things. Following this train, we can understand categories—academic disciplines, movements, genres—as culpable in the bourgeois reification of knowledge, in pulling up the drawbridge. As long as art and its history are encoded as objects of study, distinct from our individual lived experiences, the curator remains an agent of such reification. This reified curatorial must be held to account. Its myths of connoisseurship, of the necessity of self-sacrifice, of taste and classlessness, and of an artworld which sits outside the programme of neoliberalism belie the very deep inequity upon which it sits. The constitution of the ECCG 2019/2020 itself, it must be acknowledged, replicated much of this prejudice: largely middle-class, mostly in institutional employment, all white. For me, and I think for my colleagues too, the challenge for curators now is to found a new curatorial: one that exercises the same values in private as in public; one that acts in solidarity and resistance; and one that works to undo the classism, ableism, racism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia which have enabled our own autonomous, interconnected and mobile being. It’s not so much a case of servicing the old boiler but of divesting completely, digging deep and sourcing a more sustainable kind of energy.