• Archie Gibbs

Curatorial Activism (Maura Reilly, 2019) Book Review

There certainly isn’t a shortage of art historical texts. Entries to the discipline, monographs of canonised figures and movements and in depth surveys of mediums/nations/subject matter are plentiful. Though not obsolete, I often find myself pondering the real world application of these texts. What can a new monograph of Pablo Picasso really offer the wider art world. Yes, they function as educational and undoubtedly offer in depth information to substantiate you claim that (enter movement/artist/museum etc.) is your favourite; however, from where do we progress? It seems often they are unilateral in purpose – meaning they stand rather passive and celebratory whilst recoiling in fear from any critical edge. We understand from reinforcements in media that Picasso is a ‘great’, so how does more writing about his move this dynamic domain we call art forward? There is salience in highlighting an artists triumph, but a triumph absent of failure and problematising sparks a lot of doubt, personally.

I believe in a criticism which encapsulates all aspects of the word with veracity – it does not exist in vapid, negative ‘hot takes’ for the controversial sake of it. Being critical is a sign of respect – it takes attention and care and conviction to give a true opinion and assessment of anything in life. Curatorial Activism is a text which truly does this. An anthology of noteworthy shows in an apropos curatorial fashion, Maura Reilly guides the reader through progressive techniques of curators. A proficient curator herself (Elizabeth E. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at Brooklyn Museum, NY), Reilly understands what it takes to put on a show of progressive means. At its core, the book is biblical in its detailing of the trials and tribulations of attaining an activism-based practice of curation.

Activism is something with a loose definition – does an Instagram share denote activism or does it require protest? Is it a currency of capital, time, effort, or all? This book outlines 3 core concepts of a truly active curation: to resist, to confront and to challenge. Entwined with these strategies are the structurally oppressive paradigms, the grounds of which activism fights: hetrocentrism, lesbo-homophobia, white privilege, Western-centrism, masculinism and sexism. Though not exhaustive, Reilly works through these concepts to bring attention to exhibitions and curators who actively negate these issues that have historically pervaded art production and display.

The shows discussed range from major biennials like Documenta and Venice Biennale, to independent gallery exhibitions. This broad scope is important; yes the Whitney 1993 Biennial is key but a book that harks a diversification of the canon requires spotlighting of less ‘mainstream’ shows and Reilly does so excellently.

By nature, exhibitions receive a spectrum of responses from absolute praise to total dismissal. These more ‘controversial’ shows included the Magiciens de la Terre from Jean-Martin Hubert, 1989. The show is discussed not only with regards to their contemporary criticism at the time but also with a lens reflective of today’s practices. I like to think Reilly gives these commonly thought of a as ‘swing and miss’ shows a chance. Progress is not an a-b process and thus entails praxis prone to obstacles in the wider goal of a global art world free of bias, ignorance, stigma and prejudice.

The western-centrism of the text is also slightly concerning. Ostensibly marketed at a western audience (Reilly’s NY background and base along with the text being published by London based Thames and Hudson), Curatorial Activism at times falls into a regressive trope. Largely highlighting western curatorialship of marginalised groups, the text alludes to institutions ‘finding the gems in the rough’ and exhibiting them for the world to see their new exotic discovery. Mentioning the curation of Okwui Enwezor is a start, though there are many shows and curators based and working outside of the Global North that ought to be propelled on a wider scale as opposed to of propagating the already concrete legacies of many shows mentioned.

Furthermore way that Curatorial Activism assorts shows in specific segments relating to the systemic prejudice/inequality of a singular group of peoples they combat (e.g. shows of Woman Artists only, shows of Queer Artists only etc.) could be criticised for its lack of intersectionality. Though in Reilly’s writing there is a conveyed sense of the ‘strength in numbers’ in the art exhibiting world – a singularly focused show on a group historically marginalised and excluded from fine art spaces denotes a power only ascertained in such a formula.

To surmise, I see this book as an incredibly useful tool as an index of progression in all senses of the word in the art world. A 50-year catalogue of exemplar curatorial endeavours eschewing uninspired, lackadaisical selections will give the young budding curator and equally the general art reader hope. Though you must be aware of these ‘timeline’ and ‘canon’ books. This is a small sample size and one authors perspective. Reilly is as qualified as any to give this expert take on the matter, though art remains subjective and one person’s guidance should not be taken as gospel. It is a history, not the history. Use this book as an advisory for what it means to put on a show rooted in activism, so that you are able to support and enjoy them in the future.

Curatorial Activism is available at the Thames and Hudson website for purchase for £24.95.