Whilst we live in a multicultural world, the consideration of diversity is now crucial more than ever. Art can undeniably connect people from a variety of cultures and socio-economic situations, with the ultimate power to eliminate borders. Hosted by Rebekka Kill (York St John University), Season Butler (Slate), Zoe Sawyer (The Tetley) and Laurence Sillars (BALTIC) highlight how organisations are addressing marginalisation and what is being done to ensure that audiences are experiencing the breadth of work being produced through a level playing field in the sector. Sillars expands on the relevance of the topic in his line of work.
A: Having previously been curator of exhibitions and collections at Tate Liverpool you now work as the Chief Curator at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. What has been the most exciting project you’ve worked on to date?
LS: There have been many but inevitably the project you’re currently immersed in becomes the most exciting. Right now I’m co-curating an exhibition with the artist Edgar Arceneaux that opens in October. Its starting point is the speech Martin Luther King gave in Newcastle 50 years ago, his last outside the States before he was assassinated, but its a reflection of so much that’s defining today and tomorrow — the rise of populism, and the impact upon basic humanity and civil rights. The research for the exhibition and the conversations we’ve had with participating artists including Arthur Jafa, Kenyatta Hinkle, Karon Davis, Micol Hebron and Charles Gaines have been some of the most inspiring I’ve ever had.
A: What has been the most difficult?
LS: A great thing about being a curator, especially when working so closely with artists, is that nothing ever stays the same and each collaboration brings the unpredictable. A memorably bizarre moment happened with Shimabuku who realised his film Shimabuku’s Fish & Chips, a meditative proposal of the first encounter between these two foodstuffs, for the 2006 Liverpool Biennial. Somehow I ended up on a speedboat with him and a deep-sea diver on an especially choppy River Mersey. We were slammed about in the water before pausing in between vast cruise liners to film Shimabuku dangling off the edge of the boat with a fishing rod casting a King Edward potato into the murky water beneath us. His was just one work within an exhibition of some 12 artists, all of whom were realising new commissions for the exhibition at Tate. I was delivering an exhibition of work that didn’t actually exist yet: in many cases the works weren’t completed until weeks or sometimes days before the opening. Sleepless nights were plentiful.
A: You co-curated the first Turner Prize exhibition outside of London in 2007. Do you think it was important in terms of cultural diversity to host the prize outside of the capital? How do you think that this changed perceptions about the prize and perhaps opened it up to new audiences and populations across the country?
LS: This is an exhibition that’s supposed to represent a flavour of the UK right now, a barometer of what’s preoccupying British artists today. London is a big place sure, but to have this snapshot only available to a London audience can only be limiting against this ambition. I think it was a brilliant move by Tate to send it out of the organisation and it has undeniably re-energised the prize, not least because it’s now seen by thousands who had previously only experienced the exhibition through the blanket media coverage it always attracts. There’s clearly massive thirst for seeing the real thing: 72,000 people came to see the exhibition in Liverpool and 149,000 when we presented it at BALTIC in 2011. It’ll be fascinating to see how it works at Hull this year, especially with such a great shortlist.
A: Why do you think that it’s important for both audiences and artworks to be representative of a wide array of cultural identities?
LS: This is old language window onto the world stuff, but I still believe that the encounter between art and people can represent one of the greatest opportunities to facilitate a wider understanding of the complexities of what identity actually is – and that includes your own. If the work you present or the audience that sees an exhibition is monocultural then all the richness of that possibility is quickly diminished.
A: Do you think that there is a connection between the two, i.e. does one affect the other?
LS: Well, there’s a third party in between audiences and artworks and that’s artists. They are all connected at some level but also completely independent. It’s the job of the curator to care for each, creating enough space, time and structure so that they can speak to each other without drowning each other out.
A: How do you think that the nature of exhibitions are changing to be more inclusive?
LS: There are lots of strategies that we could consider here from the physical layout of an exhibition to interpretation, audience development, marketing and wider communications. Ultimately though, to make a great exhibition you’re thinking about how the artworks you’re presenting create an experience. We all need spaces and situations that reflect us as individuals, our needs, our weirdnesses – spaces (including exhibitions) where we don’t need to move with the mass. One of the things that has always felt to special about BALTIC to me is its capacity to present very different exhibitions simultaneously and to move with and around different audiences.
A: How do you think that art can be a mechanism to connect people from different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds, especially within today’s perceivably fragmented climate?
LS: Exhibitions and art galleries aren’t a quick win to solve all of the problems that we face in society right now. I could give you a very long answer on what those issues are and of course, the communities we engage with at BALTIC as in many areas of the country are microcosms of these issues. However, small scale projects, education projects or exhibitions that have genuinely broad appeal and bring people together such as the Playground Project presented at BALTIC last summer do create new, discursive spaces where people from different backgrounds can connect.
A: How do you think that the role of the curator is pivotal in terms of creating dialogues and conversations about equality?
LS: Curators have an exceptional role in society because we operate within this intersection between artists, a civic agenda, national politics, the public, the education system and so many other social forces. Working into that situation you have the opportunity to present new models of how things can or could be, and to ask the right questions. But I also think curators have an additional role to play in continuing this possibility by ensuring that artists still have a place to speak and present and even to exist. For example, we have an education system in this country that will increasingly only breed a monoculture by squeezing out creative subjects unless some radical steps are taken – even, that is, if you can afford to enter that system in the first place. Alternative models need to be found to allow artists to advance in their careers, to be given opportunities and to be validated without traditional art school routes being a pre-requisite. I hope that BALTIC’s FIGURE open submission strand – a rapid-fire commissioning and exhibition opportunity to test ideas in progress – has started to play a part in this, but there are of course other significant models.
Future Now Session 6: Diversity in the Art World runs 25 May at York St John University. For more information: www.aestheticamagazine.com/art-prize/symposium
1. Sali Miller. I am running. Courtesy of the artist.