Curatorial Activism by Maura Reilly

US author, curator and arts writer Maura Reilly’s ‘Curatorial activism: towards an ethics of curating’ explores the deeply entrenched white privilege and whitewashed forces at play in the art world. Its main arguments, however, can be applied to any curatorial lens, ie. literature, museums, pedagogy, or the archive, for example.

For artists or people and practitioners in the arts and culture space outside the white male privileged experience (which Reilly refers to as ‘Others’), our cultural experience or artistic expression is often relegated, ignored as less interesting, or deemed lesser quality than the great artists of the Euro-US centric western canon. Reilly includes statistics and examples within the Euro-US context from galleries and major exhibitions that paint the reality of this mass inequity, where white artists are exhibited to a much larger degree than ‘the Others’. I wonder too if this systemic racial discrimination is somehow inextricably linked with revenue. Generally, the people who are wealthy enough to pay for works that are exhibited/privileged already are reluctant to pay for the art of ‘the Others’.

To combat this, Reilly calls the reader and curators to action; to consider a relational approach to curating, be it in a gallery, library, classroom, museum, archive. A relational approach is interested in a ‘multitude or cacophony of voices’, its lens is wide, kaleidoscopic, ahistorical and non-linear.

‘What if history was re-conceived as dialogic instead of synchronic? So, instead of thinking, for example, of Modernism and postmodernism as a series of interlocking, related “-isms”, arranged along a linear historical line, they could perhaps be re-conceived as multivocal.(p.30)’

With this type of relational curatorial approach, for example, contemporary ‘Aboriginal art’ would be considered as contemporary art and exhibited alongside contemporary art from other parts of the world, thereby removing hierarchical distinctions.  At the same time utilising careful juxtaposition to show the artist’s different treatment of similar themes would be the centre of interest, so that an equitable and diverse story can be told.

As Griselda Pollock (cited in text) describes it –

‘The cultural field may be reimagined as a space for multiple occupancy where differencing creates a productive covenant opposing the phallic logic that offers us only the prospect of safety in sameness or danger in difference, of assimilation to or exclusion from the canonised norm.’

The book includes chapters with themes such as, ‘resisting masculinism and sexism’, ‘tackling white privilege and western-centrism’, ‘challenging heterocentrism and lesbo-homophobia’ Reilly leads the reader through prolific exhibitions where these kinds of curatorial interventions have occurred and offers strategies for change. Curatorial Activism is a manifesto for change in the art and cultural worlds that aims for a broader and more inclusive vision for everyone.

Author – Cassie Willis


Reilly, Maura. & Lippard, Lucy R.  (2018).  Curatorial activism : towards an ethics of curating.  [London] :  Thames & Hudson