Anonymous: Ignore this at your peril

We hold low status. Outside the institution our experience is dismissed. Inside the institution our experience is increasingly dismissed.

We are artists and we work in gallery education. We work hard to build a tacit understanding of how media and materials, context and presentation may inform meaning. We combine practice with research, develop methodologies and evaluate best practice to ask if the work we produce does what we want it to do. We engage in rigorous self-interrogation to question the ethics of what we do and for whose sake we genuinely do it. We invite others to cross-examine our practices and close-read the work of others, to explore how intentions may, or may not, match outcomes. We are highly skilled and we believe in the necessity of questioning, individually and collectively, if what we hold to be true, or are told to be true, actually is.

We are good at what we do but we always aim to be better; as artists, as educators, as people. Many gallery education programmes state that this is their aim too. It’s as political as education ought to be: promoting dialogue, critical enquiry and genuine engagement, to enable those who participate to realise their ability to question what is presented to them and, by extension, the status-quo of any situation that they find themselves in, within the institution and beyond. It’s a critical practice and an important one. On paper and through rhetoric, there is a perfect match between our reasons for engaging with gallery education and the declared intentions of the institutions we work with.

All should be well, but it’s not. Not anymore. Once, there was a genuine desire to apply critical thinking across the board. Artists were seen as holding expertise, not just for facilitating an understanding of art, but also for fully exploring its potential as a site for meaningful discussion and critique. Our creative and critical insights were actively sought by managers keen to break down monolithic interpretations, hierarchies of power; authority and access. We were invited to the table and listened to. Today, we are, more often than not, confined to the materials cupboard and paraded on the shop-floor as proof of the institution’s commitment to authentically engaging its audiences, and its not-quite-yet-audiences alike. We are observed by stakeholders when evidence of best practice is needed and marketed as professional artists facilitating critical thinking, when beneficial to institutional and managerial agendas. If, however, we turn that self-same critical thinking onto the institution itself, we are labelled as difficult. Whether we choose to challenge the ethics of an entire programme or softly ask if there may be a better way of doing things, we may see our share of commissioned work fall, or entirely disappear. As most artists lead a precarious existence, it’s easy to understand why some choose to ‘keep quiet’ about their concerns when complex, critical workshops are replaced with those that simply produce pretty outcomes for display.  Easy to understand, but the consequences of doing so are self-evidently detrimental to the intentions of critical practice and education.

Since we’re no longer invited to discussions taking place within education departments, never mind the institution as a whole, it’s not easy to understand managers increasing unwillingness to engage in the same critical self-reflection that they promote. We can, however, speculate. We know that since New Labour instrumentalised art as an apparatus for social inclusion, institutional focus has shifted from providing genuine learning towards achieving increased audience numbers and measurable outcomes. In addition, the current Government’s continued cuts to public funding has resulted in institutional competition for money provided by private corporations, philanthropic organisations and individuals with potentially reactionary agendas, but pockets deep enough to fund a project or two. We know that there are real consequences to this. As reported from the Index on Censorship’s conference on artistic freedom in the UK: in relying on private money there is a real danger “that we self-censor and deliver up what the rich and the funding bodies find palatable and are not threatened by.” [1] It seems, “They got us by the balls!” Those holding power by the purse-strings “don’t want a population of well educated well informed citizens capable of critical thinking … They want obedient workers, people just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork and just dumb enough to passively accept increasingly shitty jobs.” [2]

Gallery education is not a ‘shitty job’. Not yet. It may hold a subordinate position inside the institution, separated from curatorial departments and overall decision-making processes. Outside the institution, it’s often dismissed, misrecognised or misunderstood as simply facilitating mediated interpretation and audience enjoyment [3].  However, those of us who have invested years in honing our skills within gallery education as a critical practice know that it offers powerful models for democratic dialogue and transformation. Consequently, to negate its full potential in favour of programmes designed entirely to follow the money, is a ‘shitty job’!

There’s been much talk about the potential for artists who work within programmes where managers refuse to participate in the questioning of anything to exploit their invisibility; to operate critically ‘under the radar’. A well-respected education director has suggested that we find the channels where knowledge and experience can be ‘smuggled’ between departments and areas of practice. However, these channels already exist! Opening them up to include differing opinion, experiences and expertise is simply a question of will. It is also only a question of will for gallery education to practice as it preaches. Without much ado, we can all stop insisting that information needs to be ‘smuggled’ and artists forced to ‘go under the radar’. We can commit, as we say we do, to open, honest and direct dialogue. Mature managers do this. Artists with a genuine interest in education do this. Knowing that new insights and possible solutions to persistent problems may come from anywhere, we listen carefully to anyone who has something to say: more so, we encourage them to speak, even when, or especially when, this includes opposition and controversy. We know this is where the potential for change lies, so do not ask us to be silent. Invite us to the table and listen carefully, we have something to say and we’re saying it: the threat is real and there’s a choice to be made. Ignore it at our peril.

 

  1. Julia Farrington, Taking the offensive: Defending artistic freedom of expression in the UK, Conference Report, Index on Censorship, 2013
  2. George Carlin, Why Education Sucks, Life Is Worth Losing, HBO, 2004
  3. Carmen Mörsch, Alliances for Unlearning: On Gallery Education and Institutions of Critique, Afterall 26/2011

This article was originally part of Pamphlets, a publication by Artquest in 2014, where artists and art world professionals were invited to write anonymously about what’s wrong with the art world.

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