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Un Magazine 14.1

The Slow Burn

Nanette Orly

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15/20

Article

A shift towards advocating for full representation within the arts sector has encouraged an increase in programming across artist-run and institutional spaces that supports and prioritises culturally diverse artists. However, there is still a need to address the underrepresentation of curators from a variety of backgrounds employed within these cultural organisations. If the curator’s etymological role is ‘to take care’1 of arts and culture, then there needs to be curators who initiate lasting change within these organisations, especially in Australia.

The art gallery, the museum — these are structures that will continue to work within certain confines, but we can refocus and readjust the way programs are curated and managed. An ongoing study conducted by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in the United States found that, in 2015, 12 per cent of curators were non-white; in 2018, it rose slightly to 16 per cent. A similar report released by Diversity Arts Australia in 2019 found that only 9 per cent of arts leaders are from culturally diverse backgrounds and 4 per cent identified as First Nations.2 The lack of full representation in arts organisations is a common problem in both countries, however across the United States it is being addressed in notable ways. In 2017, the Mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, gave cultural institutions an ultimatum: future funding would be dependent on the diversity of employees and board members. Government-funded museums had to adopt inclusion plans by 2019 or risk having their funding cut. This kind of top-down change doesn’t happen in Australia.

Invitations to curators to work as ‘guests’, whether as individual voices in the program or as staff, without organisational structural changes occurring, seems to be the method of choice for most arts organisations to expand on and diversify their programs in Australia. Initiatives such as Yalingwa at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) and TarraWarra Museum of Art aim to support the development of contemporary Indigenous curatorial practice, selecting three different curators, each awarded a two-year term to conceive one major exhibition. As a guest curator, the pressure to produce a one-off, high impact and fully inclusive exhibition can be immense. Positioned outside of permanent curatorial staff, you are often not allocated ongoing organisational resources such as time and funding to build trusting relationships with certain communities who may need more than two years to feel comfortable showing work within an institution. In the end, the scope for nuance also becomes rather restricted. These initiatives are imperative in changing the dialogue of our major arts organisations; in fact, the model to which Yalingwa runs its program is not too dissimilar from that of Studio Museum in Harlem. But their organisation’s curatorial and artistic engagements are long term commitments as opposed to fixed- term experiments. When arts organisations rely on temporary insertions of diversity in their programming, it demonstrates a lack of accountability. It’s important to emphasise here that in recent years there have been remarkable key appointments of curators of colour, especially First Nations curators, across our major institutions and artist-run galleries in Australia. However, there remains a large proportion of contemporary arts organisations, even those well known for exhibiting particular cultural groups, that have little to no people of colour employed as staff at all — permanent or casual. At this point, with almost half of this country identifying as non-white and exhibition themes around migration or colonisation increasing, the discrepancy seems baffling.

Perhaps, the solution isn’t simply to invite more guest curators or to program more exhibitions featuring diverse artists, but for our cultural organisations to fundamentally alter their approach to exhibitions, the artworks they acquire, and ultimately just commit to hiring people of colour. This commitment should encompass representation across all levels of these organisations from directors, board members, staff, curators, artists, interns and volunteers. People of colour have historically had difficulty entering this pipeline, facing barriers that include exclusion from informal mentoring networks, resistance to alternative perspectives on art history and financial hurdles, as many entry-level internships and positions are unpaid or paid very poorly. Pursuing structural changes to policy and process is not an easy task but it would be encouraging to see organisations implement change by refraining from expansive programming and focusing on doing less, but better. In lieu of government funding, support being limited for arts organisations today, doing less but better would be a very strategic move. Reconfigure those large-scale production budgets and offer paid internships, team up with foundations and universities to fund curatorial jobs and fellowships, appoint people of colour to leadership roles including board and advisory committees and direct sponsors or benefactors towards projects that actually need help to implement change. There needs to be a significant reset phase before we move on to a genuinely inclusive curatorial methodology.

Curatorial studies have increased in popularity over the past decade and the demand for more inclusive art history and curatorial methodologies is high. Universities, as one of the oldest institutions, need to listen and adapt. It has been interesting to watch two very different scenarios unfold in a four-month period. In January 2020, it was announced that Yale University will be eliminating their highly popular art history course as part of a broader overhaul to reconsider how it might tell a fuller story of art in the wake of complaints that the class promotes an overly white, westernised canon at the expense of other narratives. The last cohort to be taught ‘Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present’ will be asked to submit essays making the case for the inclusion of a work that is not currently part of the canon — focusing on arts evolution in relation to gender, class and race. As quite the stark comparison to this progressive move, a significant top-down change occurred in Australia when Tess Allas, Director of Indigenous Programs at UNSW Art & Design, was told her position would be terminated by the end of 2019. Tess Allas had worked at UNSW Art & Design for more than thirteen years and was responsible not only for leading the Indigenous Programs, but also for teaching the only course available to students about contemporary Aboriginal art — which ran as an elective unit combining undergraduate and postgraduate students. After structural changes within the university, it was decided that only staff holding PhDs would be given junior academic (teaching) positions and the one Indigenous curator and lecturer at UNSW Art & Design was let go. The uproar from current students, alumni, Aboriginal artists and community as well as fellow university colleagues was immediate. A new Director of Indigenous Programs or the possibility of a compulsory Aboriginal art course at the university has yet to be announced. How are we supposed to ensure the next generation of curators or arts leaders of colour enter the pipeline if we limit or abolish the education they need to receive?

Looking behind the scenes is important and we should encourage people to be curious and care about movements and decisions made back-of-house. For arts organisations in Australia, it’s important to look to international examples, especially with countries that do have similar histories and are engaging in decolonisation practices, to see what is working or not — which is why I’ve drawn upon a number of examples from the United States in this piece. This is not to say that their models will entirely fit in an Australian context, but it might broaden our own knowledge and offer alternative perspectives to curators and artistic peers as we take on what it means to present artistic expressions in Australia today.

Curators must be sensitive to the interests and intention of artists, but we also need to ensure the work displayed is accessible and meaningful to the public.3 So, why do we need curators of colour specifically? I believe it’s because we care so strongly about the artists and the audience at a level that can only be reached due to a mutual understanding of lived experiences. Curators of colour can genuinely engage with and advocate for artists with similar backgrounds. We can form vital networks to later draw on for mentorship opportunities. We can present a variety of narratives that represent the society we live in today. We can work in spaces where we have historically been objectified or tokenised. We can fill in the missing blanks of our shared history. We can provide space for artists not wanting to make work about identity. We can provide platforms for intersectionality. What’s more, we can achieve all this working at an independent or institutional level.

This is not to say that upon entering arts organisations, curators will only program people of colour — we are trying to move past hegemony, after all — but it must be acknowledged that for every important stride we are making, there is still an imbalance and a lot of work to be done in Australia. As curators, we play an essential but not standalone role in transforming critical discourse into long-lasting change. Curators need ‘to take care’ of this balance, this slow-burning, constant change within the heart of our cultural organisations.

Nanette Orly is a curator based on Wiradjuri country. She is the current Chair of Runway Journal and Assistant Curator at Murray Arts Museum Albury (MAMA).


  1. The word curator comes from the Latin word curare which means ‘to take care’. 

  2. Shifting the Balance: Cultural Diversity in Leadership Within the Australian Arts, Screen and Creative Sectors, Sydney: Diversity Arts Australia, BYP Group and Western Sydney University, 2019, p. 17. 

  3. Helena Reckitt, ‘Support Acts: Curating, Caring and Social Reproduction’, Journal of Curatorial Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, 2016, pp. 6–30.