What Is Curatorial Activism?

Sculptures by Huma Bhabha, paintings by Ellen Gallagher to the sides, Emily Kame Kngwarreye in back, in the 56th Venice Biennale’s central exhibition, “All the World’s Futures,” 2015, curated by Okwui Enwezor.


The following is adapted from Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating, by Maura Reilly (to be published April 2018 by Thames & Hudson). ©2018 Maura Reilly. Reprinted by permission of Thames & Hudson Inc.

“Curatorial Activism” is a term I use to designate the practice of organizing art exhibitions with the principle aim of ensuring that certain constituencies of artists are no longer ghettoized or excluded from the master narratives of art. It is a practice that commits itself to counter-hegemonic initiatives that give voice to those who have been historically silenced or omitted altogether—and, as such, focuses almost exclusively on work produced by women, artists of color, non-Euro-Americans, and/or queer artists. The thesis of my forthcoming book, Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating, takes as its operative assumption that the art system—its history, institutions, market, press, and so forth—is an hegemony that privileges white male creativity to the exclusion of all Other artists. It also insists that this white Western male viewpoint, which has been unconsciously accepted as the prevailing viewpoint, “may––and does––prove to be inadequate not merely on moral and ethical grounds, or because it is elitist, but on purely intellectual ones.”


There are numerous “curatorial activists” working worldwide who are addressing issues of discrimination head-on. Jean Hubert Martin, Okwui Enwezor, Rosa Martinez, Jonathan Katz, Camille Morineau, Michiko Kasahara, Paweł Leszkowicz, Juan Vicente Aliaga, Connie Butler, Simon Njami, Amelia Jones, among others, have and are working towards ensuring that the under– or un–represented, the silenced, and/or the ‘doubly colonized’, are no longer ignored. Each has dedicated their curatorial endeavors almost exclusively to visual culture in/from the margins—that is, to artists who are non-white, non-Euro-American, as well as women, feminist, and ‘queer’-identified artists. These curators have committed themselves to insurrectionist initiatives that are leveling hierarchies, challenging assumptions, countering erasure, promoting the margins over the center, the minority over the majority, as well as positing curatorial “strategies of resistance,” provoking intelligent debate, disseminating new knowledge, which, in the end, offers up signs of hope and affirmation. These curators—and others like them interested in art world injustices—have curated everything from biennales and retrospectives to large-scale thematic exhibitions, focusing on both historical and contemporary material. Some have tackled the historical canon, and have re-inserted artists—women and LGBT artists, for instance––back into a narrative that has left them out altogether simply because of their sex and/or sexuality. Others are organizing large monographic exhibitions of artists who have been historically overlooked; while others still are curating thematic exhibitions of modern and contemporary art that account for a wider range of voices, not just a select few; others still have produced totalizing critiques of canonicity itself.

Theirs is not Affirmative Action curating, it’s intelligent curating. It is a practice rooted in ethics and, as such, their exhibitions function as curatorial correctives to the exclusion of Other artists from either the master narratives of art history, or from the contemporary art scene itself. Exhibitions like theirs, and others like them––Magiciens de la terre, Documenta 11, The Decade Show, Century City, Sexual Politics, Hide/Seek, En Todas Partes (Everywhere), Ars Homo Erotica, Global Feminisms, Africa Remix, Women Artists: 1550–1950, Sexual Politics, Extended Sensibilities, Witnesses, In a Different Light, Queer British Art: 1867-1967––have helped to radically change the course of art history, for the better. It’s no wonder that most of these exhibitions were highly controversial; counter-hegemonic projects are rarely understood.

This book is a celebration of these and other curatorial activist projects that have demonstrated that new approaches to curating are possible. But it is also a manifesto for change in the art world. It demands that we resist masculinism and sexism, confront white privilege and Western-centrism, and challenge hetero-centrism and lesbo-homophobia. It insists that there is a moral emergency in the art world; indeed, there has been for a long time. While Other artists have made progress since the 1970s, the statistics remain quite grim. Overt discrimination needs addressing; and I believe we all have an ethical responsibility to tackle this problem. There is an urgent need for a re-evaluation of mainstream (non-activist) curatorial practice, in particular. Most curators today don’t seem concerned with equality in representation or a diversity of voices. Nor are they acknowledging that the contemporary art world is sexist, racist, oppressive, and that they are playing a critical role in this “centralized system of apartheid,” as Gerardo Mosquera rightly calls it.

Installation view of “Women Artists: 1550-1950” at the Brooklyn Museum, 1977.


If you don’t believe that the art world is sexist and racist, it’s time for you to come out from under your rock. Current statistics demonstrate that the fight for equality in the art world is far from over. Despite decades of postcolonial, feminist, anti-racist, and queer activism and theorizing, the art world continues to exclude Other artists—women, non-white and LGBTQ artists. This discrimination invades every aspect of the art world, from gallery representation, auction-price differentials, and press coverage to inclusion in permanent collections and solo exhibition programs. There was, for example, dismal representation of women and non-white artists in the re-opening of the Tate Modern, London, in 2016—of the three hundred artists represented in the re-hang of the permanent collection, less than a third were women and fewer still were non-white. In the permanent exhibition galleries at the Pompidou Center, featuring art from 1900 to the present, less than 10% of the works are by women, and even less by non-white artists. It’s worse at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where today less that 4% of the artists in the modern art section are women, with no non-white artists.

Blockbuster exhibitions are also subject to appalling levels of discrimination. The gender and race breakdowns of the Venice Biennale are a case in point. In the 2017 edition, entitled “Viva Arte Viva,” curated by Christine Macel, women artists comprised only 35% of the participants. European and North American artists dominated the 2017 edition, with 61% of participants coming from the two continents. The racial demographics of the show were particularly disheartening, especially given the widespread vocal activism of groups such as Black Lives Matter: a mere 5 of the 120 artists were African American—just one of whom (Senga Nengudi) was a woman. To my knowledge, not one critic has yet noted these gross disparities. In 2014, however, critics slammed the Whitney Biennial for its blatant racism and sexism, with protests in the galleries—by a group of artists calling themselves the “cliterati”—about the lack of women artists on display: of the 103 artists, just 37 were women. The Yams art collective withdrew their work from the Biennial in disgust at the show’s lack of black and female artists and its inclusion of the fictional African American artist Donelle Woolford. Despite this very public criticism of their 2014 Biennial, when the Whitney Museum of American Art opened its new location in New York in 2015 with an inaugural exhibition entitled America Is Hard to See, showcasing works in its permanent collection and spanning a period from the 20th century to the present, it was an astonishing 69% male and 77% white—which, in my opinion, amounts to serious curatorial malpractice.

These are not issues from the past, folks. This is now. We are living and working in an art world that cares little about racism and sexism, a world that appears to pre-date the women’s/civil and LGBTQ rights movements. Writing for Time Out London, for instance, art editor Eddy Frankel declared in August 2016, “Almost every major art exhibition this autumn in London is by a man, and that is total bullshit.” After declaring the art season a “sausage fest,” he called on museums and galleries to notice that they have “collectively completely ignored female artists for a whole season” and that they should feel “seriously ashamed.” What he failed to point out was that, of the 14 major solo shows on display in London, only one was an artist of color, Wilfredo Lam.

Wangechi Mutu, The End of Carrying All, 2015, which was included in “All the World’s Futures.”


Why are mainstream curators perpetuating such bigotry? Have curators today become so arrogant that asking them to include more non-white and/or women artists is an affront to their egos? Do they view their curatorial thematic as so Biblical / air-tight / brilliant that it can’t allow for Other artists? Has the curator’s voice today become too god-like? Are they too market-centric? Are they studying in curatorial programs that don’t offer up a more inclusive curriculum (e.g. courses in feminist art; post-colonial studies; critical race theory)? If a curator simply does not bother with Other artists, is it out of habit, misogyny, racism, homophobia—or is it just plain laziness? Are they only choosing works they’ve seen in NYC galleries or collector’s homes, instead of traveling to non-western contexts in search of more unfamiliar work/artists? Are these mainstream curators assuming that since some ratios have improved for women and non-white artists that they have attained equality? Has the existence of a few superstars or token achievers lead them to think that Other artists have been so fully integrated into the larger discourse that equality mustn’t be an issue anymore? How do we fight against such cognitive dissonance—or, dare I say, ignorance?

Whatever the reasoning, mainstream curators propagating discriminatory practices must be held accountable, and curatorial misconduct criticized, to the point where it becomes unacceptable, for instance, to present women artists only 26% of the time—as was the case with the Venice Biennale in 2013, curated by Massimiliano Gioni. Not a single art critic noted the gross disparity in representation. Statistics on race and gender in exhibitions should be widely disseminated and curatorial malpractice made public. It is truly deplorable, and art critics need to speak up; otherwise, aren’t they colluding in the discrimination?

What we need is more transparency, and more education: If we cannot help others to see the structural/systemic problems, then we can’t even begin to fix them. We need to make statistics more readily available, so that the empirical data cannot be dismissed or denied. In other words, how can we get mainstream (non-activist) curators to think about gender, race, and sexuality, to understand that these are persistent concerns that require action? How can we get them to recognize, accept and acknowledge that there is indeed a deep-seeded inequality that needs addressing? How can we elicit sympathy to the point of action?

In order to offer up a more just and fair representation of global artistic production, mainstream (non-activist) curators need to re-envision/re-write their definitions of “greatness” to include non-whites, non-westerners, the under-privileged, and women. In an art world that remains what Judith Wilson has called “one of the last bastions of white supremacy-by-exclusion,” most mainstream curators tend to reproduce a whitewashed art world, offering little more than lip service to the concept of racial inclusion. But, as Maurice Berger explored in his seminal article “Are Art Museums Racist?”: “Not until the white people, who now hold the power in the art world, scrutinize their own motives and attitudes toward people of color, will it be possible to unlearn racism.” Mainstream curators today must unlearn both racism and sexism.

Curators (and other art world professionals) must be amenable to self-critique, as well. As cultural critic bell hooks asserts, we must “produce work that opposes structures of domination, that presents possibilities for a transformed future by willingly interrogating our own work on aesthetic or political grounds. This interrogation itself becomes an act of critical intervention, fundamentally fostering an attitude of vigilance rather than denial.” In other words, learning how to listen is not enough; we must first listen to ourselves. In doing so, curators could begin by asking themselves: What are my biases? Am I excluding large constituencies of people in my selections? Have I favored male artists over female, white over black—and why have I done so?

It’s not too difficult to change one’s checklist—or to produce an exhibition with a diversity of voices in lieu of a monologue of sameness. Take the 2017 Whitney Biennial as an example: 28 of the 63 artists in the exhibition were women, several participants were gender fluid, and there was an almost equal percentage of white and non-white artists. That wasn’t so hard, was it? Kudos to the co-curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks. Or, take MoMA’s exhibition galleries, featuring art from 1880 to 1970. In 2004, only 4% of the artists on display were women, and even less were non-white artists; whereas in 2016, 21% of the works were by women and 14% were by non-white artists. While one could argue that 21% and 14% are still unacceptable statistics (and I would have to agree), the shift from 2004 to 2016 does demonstrate that, if curators are proactively pursuing it, then change is possible, even in a storied institution like MoMA, where, historically, even slight modifications to the permanent collection display seemed never to occur. (Thanks is, of course, due to the curators associated with the Modern Women Fund, a major museum initiative that seeks to promote women artists at MoMA.)

In the end, instead of denying statistics, or ignoring the subject of gender, race and sexuality altogether, we all need to stop making excuses and to face these issues head-on in order to come up with solutions, possibilities, and strategies for addressing these inequities. Mainstream curators need to join the ranks of curatorial activists working worldwide to institute change, and to collectively work towards transforming what is, in the end, an abhorrent situation for Other artists in the art world. Now is the moment for curators to work together to acknowledge the problem, to come to a resolution, so that all peoples and their creative outputs have the opportunity for equal exposure.

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