Maura Reilly’s 2018 book Curatorial Activism inspired this review by University of Miami senior Melissa Huberman. An excerpt of Huberman’s writing is featured in Issue 6, of our Research Guide.
Art, at its core, prides itself on breaking the boundaries of mainstream rules, whether those rules are political, social, or stylistic. However, even art falls victim to the mainstream machine, which inevitably sets systemic rules that become familiar and go unquestioned. Arts writer, educator and curatorial activist Maura Reilly breaks this pattern in her exploration of western art from a perspective critical of its racial and gendered disparities. Her four-part book, Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating, reviews these differences in representation and considers how scholars, observers, procurers, and others involved in the art world can take an active approach to art and its curation. Reilly cites large-scale strategies that could be used to solve the problems she outlines in the book. She directly challenges curators with her worthwhile introspection about the contemporary representation of gender, race, and sexuality in art and a much needed call-to-action. The book presents exhibition successes along with failures, navigating the practices of the past and the present. Reilly’s assessments and suggestions would be useful guides for responsible and engaged members of any arts community to evaluate and balance representation in their local art scene.
We cannot solve the inequities by celebrating female artists for a single month, or setting aside a specific gallery for artists of different ethnic backgrounds. In the case of gender disparity, integrated programming must provide opportunities to understand the history of women artists. The author explores many ways we can do this. Some scholars argue for the incorporation of simultaneous art movements to integrate women artists into the historical cannon. The Modern Women’s Fund (MWF) has made a long-term commitment to this effort. The MWF initiative has funded important changes by acquiring and purchasing art by women and supporting educational programming. Other initiatives globally have helped shed light on the widespread discrimination women continue to face (Largo & Reilly, 2018).
Reilly similarly cited curatorial attempts to challenge the whitewashed art narrative of the past. The book’s third section, “Tacking White Privilege and Western-Centrism,” features successful, and less successful, attempts to bridge the gap between non-western art and the mainstream western art aesthetic. Pointing to examples such as Magiciens de la Terre, she explains, “instead of imposing western aesthetic criteria [the curation] …attempted cross-cultural dialogue via the careful juxtaposition of works from different cultures.” This falls in line with Reilly’s premise that curatorial activism is not a form of affirmative action. Unlike affirmative action, which directly focuses on the allocation of resources for minority groups, Reilly’s perspective aligns with Spivak’s “strategic essentialism,” which focuses more on a collaborative minority voice joining together “to form solidarity, to give voice and visibility” (Coombs, 2018).
The book is a call to action full of well-researched statistics defending the need to change the way the mainstream encounters art. With the Internet, art has become more accessible to consumers; curation is a practice that extends further and further into our lives. It is more important than ever, as art and design become deeply embedded in our everyday experience of the world, that historically marginalized voices do not get left behind. Curation is more than just choosing. Today’s curators see themselves as “catalyst[s], generator[s] and motivator[s]” (Stoppard, 2020). Those who take their curation seriously should use their unique position to thoughtfully and actively raise a more holistic understanding of art and art history.
Although this book is important for anyone interested in art history, contemporary art, or curation, it may be especially relevant for those involved in emerging art scenes. South Florida would be a perfect testing ground for these practices as it has a healthy contemporary art market as well as a growing number of diverse local artists. However, curators engaging in any context owe it to cultural consumers and artists to think strategically about their role. Curatorial Activism’s unique introspection suggests a range of ways to amplify hidden voices. Curators that become familiar with the practices that Maura Reilly explores will recognize the strengths in inclusion and the common pitfalls faced by those working to cultivate equity in the field of contemporary art.
Maura Reilly, Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating. Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2018.
Coombs, G. (2018, August 30). Maura Reilly’s Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating. Retrieved from https://brooklynrail.org/2018/09/art_books/Curatorial-Activism-Towards-an-Ethics-of-Curating
Largo, M., & Reilly, M. (2018). RACAR: Revue d’Art Canadienne / Canadian Art Review, 43(2), 142-144. Retrieved March 4, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/26530779
Reilly, M., & Lippard, L. R. (2018). Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethic of Curating. London: Thames & Hudson.
Stoppard, L. (2020, March 3). “Everyone’s a Curator Now.” New York Times.
Maura Reilly is an arts writer, educator, and curatorial activist. She is the author of Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating (Thames & Hudson, 2018), which was named a Top 10 “Best Art Book of 2018” by the New York Times. As Founding Curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, she launched the first exhibition and public programming space in the USA devoted entirely to feminist art, where she organized several critically acclaimed exhibitions, including the permanent installation of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, the blockbuster Global Feminisms (co-curated with Linda Nochlin), Ghada Amer: Love Had No End, among others. Other books by Reilly include monographs on Richard Bell, Nayland Blake and Ghada Amer, among others, as well as the edited volume Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader (Thames & Hudson, 2015). She has served as Executive Director of the National Academy of Design, Chair and Professor of Art Theory at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University (Brisbane, Australia), and as Senior Curator at the American Federation of Arts.
Melissa Huberman graduated from the University of Miami (UM) in May 2020. Huberman was among student participants in an art podcasting course led by Fresh Art founder Cathy Byrd at UM in Spring 2020. Huberman produced the episode Art in the Time of Corona, prologue to the Fall 2020 Student Edition on Fresh Art International.
This review is edited for clarity.