A Bigger Picture: why contemporary art curators need to get out more

Text of Arthur Batchelor Lecture delivered by David Barrie at the University of East Anglia on 6 May 2010


This talk tonight gives me the opportunity to bring together two interests that have strongly influenced my career: art and international relations. But let me start with a little bit of science. One of the clearest lessons of experimental psychology is that we are not like cameras that passively receive and record information. Human perception is a far more creative process than that. Our sensory organs and nervous system are highly selective and what we eventually perceive is highly edited, and to a large extent based on inference and hypothesis. This explains how we cope with a volume of sensory data that would otherwise overwhelm our processing systems – and how we are able to react so quickly to events in our environment. One consequence, however, is that we don’t always see what’s in front of our noses. Another is that we tend to see what we expect to see or want to see. And, I would suggest, what is true of our visual system, is also true of other aspects of our behaviour.

Tonight I want to talk about a high order perceptual failure, a form of tunnel-vision that operates at a cultural rather than perceptual level. Unlike the optical variety of tunnel-vision, this is an insidious problem of which the victims – all of us – may well be quite unaware. My aim – as a psychotherapist might say – is to bring this failure to awareness.

My starting point is a discovery I made more than ten years ago when, together with colleagues at The Art Fund and the Hayward Gallery, I was developing our plans for the exhibition in 2003 that marked the centenary of the Fund. The Fund has played a part in the acquisition by museums and galleries all over the UK of hundreds of thousands of works of art – of almost every conceivable kind, from every era, and from every corner of the globe. Our job was to choose a sample of about three hundred and we were faced with a real embarrassment of riches.

It was quite a challenge to decide which Raphael, which Rembrandt or which Rodin we would select. Or which Roman antiquity, which Indian watercolour, which Japanese print. But among all that wealth of material, we discovered that in one very significant respect our public art collections were extremely poor. Although there was no shortage of modern and contemporary work to choose from, nearly all of it was home-grown. There were works by Epstein, Wyndham Lewis, Moore, Hepworth, Riley, Hockney, Hodgkin, Gormley, Kapoor, Emin and hundreds of other British artists. But there was a dearth of works by modern and contemporary artists from overseas.

In part this came as no surprise. It is well-known if sad fact that in the first half of the 20th century the Tate Gallery missed many opportunities to acquire works by the great artists then working in Europe. Little or no effort was made to buy the likes of Picasso, Braque and Matisse – at a time when their prices were still within reach. This we knew already, and we also knew that The Art Fund had to take its share of the blame for this failure – which has left a now almost unbridgeable gap in the national collection of modern art. But as we selected works for the exhibition, it became clear to us that this historic failure of vision was part of a much bigger and more persistent problem. Very few museums or galleries in the UK had made any active effort to acquire works by any living artists from outside the UK. In a few cases, gifts and bequests from private collectors – like Robert and Lisa Sainsbury – had helped to make good the deficit, but very few significant purchases had been made. Hardly any curators had been seeking out works by living artists from overseas.

We speculated at the time about the reasons for this strange narcissism. Was it just another aspect of that British aloofness which has so often infuriated our European neighbours? Was it curatorial laziness? Or ignorance? It certainly wasn’t just about money or the lack of it. We reached no definite conclusions, but the issue emerged as one of the major themes of an international conference The Art Fund organised in 2003.

There are, I think, two distinct problems here. First, there is the insularity, which has allowed us to think that we are right to focus our collecting efforts on the home-grown. If resources are limited, then they should be devoted to saving what is ours, rather than reaching out to enrich our public collections with the best work from overseas. This is, if you like, the triumph of the ‘heritage mind-set’ which is enshrined in the phrase ‘saving art for the nation’, which has for so long – too long in my view – been the battle cry of The Art Fund.

The second problem is, I think, even more serious. If living artists from the European and North American mainstream have been largely ignored, those from other parts of the world might just as well not have existed. When our collecting habits have not been insular, they have been profoundly Eurocentric. Despite our long colonial history and our rich links with countries in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, despite the fact that so many people from those regions have over the years made their homes here, visitors to museums and galleries in the UK have remarkably few opportunities to see art that is being produced in countries that lie outside the narrow confines of the so-called ‘international contemporary art world’. This is the problem I want to focus on tonight.

Now before I go any further I must acknowledge that some progress has been made in the last few years. One of the last initiatives I oversaw as Director of The Art Fund was the launch in 2008 of Art Fund International, a special £5 million fund to encourage the purchase of non-British contemporary art by five regional museums and galleries working in partnership with temporary exhibition venues and commissioning agencies. This five-year project is now in mid-career and a number of works have already been acquired under its auspices – some from outside the European mainstream. Some of our major public galleries are also working hard – within the resources available to them – to broaden the geographical reach of their permanent collections. Tate, in particular, has since 2000 started to build a collection of modern and contemporary art from Latin America, and more recently it has launched parallel collecting initiatives in the Asia-Pacific and Middle East, as well as sub-Saharan Africa. India is due to follow. And temporary exhibitions of non-British art are, of course, increasingly frequent. The Artes Mundi Prize in Cardiff is also setting a good example.

These are steps in the right direction, which should be warmly applauded. But we have a very long way to go before our public art collections even faintly reflect the richness and diversity of the art currently being produced around the world. This is a matter that is far too little discussed outside specialist circles, and it is one about which we should be seriously concerned. I shall explain why in due course, but first I want to explore the some of the complex challenges that confront curators who may wish to put it right.

First let me go back a little. Leaving aside the Sainsbury Centre here at UEA – which being based on a private collection is a very special case – the two museums in this country that offer the richest and most cosmopolitan mix of art are the British Museum and the V&A. And I’m not just talking about old art. Both museums also now actively collect international contemporary art, though the resources they devote to this process are necessarily limited. The BM, for example, has made determined efforts over the last fifteen or twenty years to collect outstanding examples of art by living African artists, some of whom, like the Ghanaian, El Anatsui and the Beninois, Romuald Hazoumé, are now well-established international figures. The two museums, with encouragement and financial support from The Art Fund, have recently started collaborating on the development of a shared collection of modern and contemporary Middle Eastern photography. This is an innovative venture that promises to open our eyes to aspects of Middle Eastern culture that might otherwise be largely invisible to us.

The new collection will, of course, benefit greatly from its association with the older – sometimes much older – works of art from the Middle East housed in the two museums. This is an important point because, of course, new or ‘cutting edge’ art cannot escape its origins, even if, as is so often the case, the artist seeks to reject or challenge them. Context matters. The new collection will be all the more instructive precisely because the two museums are in a position to make such interesting comparisons between the new material and their holdings of historic art from the same region. Indeed, the BM and the V&A would probably not be amassing the new collection if there were not solid historical foundations on which to build.

To that extent, these ‘encyclopaedic’ historic collections have a distinct advantage over those, like Tate Modern or MOMA New York, that are exclusively devoted to modern and contemporary art. But the problem facing modern art galleries is not just that they lack the historical context that the BM and V&A can provide. The large majority of works they contain derive from a limited range of sources, predominantly Western European and North American. Although supposedly ‘international’ in character, their collections are actually very narrow both in geographical and in cultural scope. In fact, oddly enough, a map showing their origins would closely correspond with that of NATO membership. The consequences of the Cold War were not just political and military but also cultural – they run much deeper than we normally recognise or admit!

The range of artists represented in such collections has, it is true, widened a good deal in recent years and, in addition to Japan, it now often includes China, South Korea, India, South Africa, Mexico and Brazil. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is not a misleading one, because artists from outside Europe and North America still represent a very small fraction of the total.

The very narrow scope of our modern art collections should not really surprise us. It is just another reflection of the massive inequalities that continue to divide the world so deeply – and dangerously. How can an artist working in a very poor country hope even to be visible, let alone gain recognition in the wider world? It is almost impossible for such an artist to reach an audience beyond his or her home country without the support of an energetic and commercially successful dealer. But dealers of this kind – almost by definition – operate almost exclusively in countries that have ready access to a significant body of private collectors. And where do those collectors come from if not the rich countries?

Whether we like it or not, the commercial art market is a decisive factor in the shaping of public and critical taste in the visual arts – and nowhere more so than in the field of contemporary art. The lavishly catalogued shows that the big dealers put on, the grand art fairs and auctions, the champagne receptions, the media coverage, the books, the TV and radio programmes, the websites – all of these help not only to sustain public interest, but also to determine which artists will get the solo museum exhibitions, win the awards, get the big commissions and fetch the highest prices.

Publicly-funded bodies, including major museums and galleries, cannot ignore the market – not least because dealers and auction houses are important sources either of direct funding or valuable discounts. They can also help in less obvious but equally important ways – for example by making introductions to private collectors, or encouraging private sales on advantageous terms. And of course private collectors are intimately involved in the art market as buyers and sellers, as well as often being major supporters of museums and galleries. The commercial art market is a complex ecosystem that supports a rich variety of animal life. To pursue the analogy, the biggest beasts within it are very powerful, and the ecosystem itself is global – in exactly the same limited sense as the financial markets may be described as ‘global’. Indeed the art and financial markets are themselves closely linked.

The complex and often opaque relationships between the various different players in the so-called ‘contemporary art world’ is a source of endless debate and speculation. Exactly who is doing what to whom, for whom, and why, is not always clear, and certainly not as clear as it should be! What price did that work of art really fetch? Did it in fact sell? Who actually bought it? Who owned it? These are the kinds of questions that often arise. That the art market remains entirely unregulated is an enduring puzzle – bearing in mind that so many billions of dollars change hands in it every year. After all, it has not exactly been scandal-free. When the Chairman and Chief Executive of a major auction house both end up in jail – as happened not very long ago – you are entitled to wonder whether self-regulation works very well. Many artists are disturbed by the way in which their work is turned into a ‘commodity’, and still more by the casual brutality with which dealers, auction houses and rich private collectors sometimes treat them. Yet the reality is that few artists would be rich or widely collected were it not for the investment made in them by the commercial art world – in all its many obvious and less obvious forms.

There are grounds for concern about the extent of the market’s influence over what kinds of art get bought and shown by public galleries. If curators were to get too friendly with dealers, or perhaps accepted too many favours from them, could this possibly affect their judgement? What if major players in the commercial art market were to sit on gallery boards – a not-unknown occurrence? Might this in any way influence the choice of works to be acquired or which exhibitions were put on? Even if these (and other) risks could be avoided, it remains very hard for the curator to ignore the massive presence of the art market. Not to know what the market is doing is to be an outsider, and to be an outsider in the contemporary art world is to be an outcast – it is a kind of death. On the other hand, being an art world insider carries a heavy cost too. You have to run hard to keep up with the merry-go-round, and that leaves little time for anything else.

It may be objected that an indigenous commercial art market already exists in some parts of the developing world, but my understanding is that these local markets are still small and relatively undeveloped. I wonder how many collectors or curators travel from Europe and the USA to attend the Dakar Biennale?

Two important lessons can now be drawn. First, our knowledge of the art being produced around the world is to a large extent determined, directly or indirectly, by the activities of the market. An artist undiscovered by the market is virtually an unknown artist. (I use the word ‘undiscovered’ with full awareness of its irony.) Secondly, artists in countries that have not yet been grasped in the octopus embrace of the market are largely invisible to us. An artist working in one of those countries and who wishes to achieve international recognition has little choice but to travel– typically to Europe or North America – and perhaps to settle there. Both for economic and political reasons, these options are not widely available. Migration from poor to rich countries is not getting any easier.

Does any of this matter? If so, what can we do about it?

Let me start with the second question before returning to the first. I want to acknowledge at once that expanding the scope of the contemporary art collections in our public museums and galleries to embrace these ‘undiscovered’ artists will not be easy. In fact it poses many challenges. Not only will it require a determined change of collecting policies, but it will also call for a sustained intellectual investment in research and, more importantly, in the development of new relationships with artists and communities in the source countries. There are few curators today who have much first hand knowledge of the ‘undiscovered’ art I am talking about – and ironically they tend not to work in contemporary art galleries!

A new breed of curator is needed – one who is prepared to travel and travel often to places that may not necessarily have all the comforts and conveniences of London, Paris, Berlin, New York or Tokyo. Whether a training in art history at the Courtauld is the best preparation for this task I leave you to decide! It is one that has in the past often been left to anthropologists rather than art historians. I wonder whether our contemporary art galleries should open their doors to more of their number? Here at UEA, the new Sainsbury Institute for Art has just been established, bringing together the School of World Art, the Galleries, the Sainsbury Research Unit into the Arts of Africa, the Pacific and the Americas, and the Sainsbury Institute for Japanese Art and Culture. It is, I understand, already starting to produce curators of just the kind I am calling for. This is very good news.

I should also mention the Triangle Arts Trust, set up by Robert Loder and Anthony Caro almost thirty years ago. This is a remarkable alliance of organisations that now extends across the world and brings together artists from different backgrounds and cultures in creative workshops and residencies. It has done much to break down the barriers between artists working in rich and poor countries by encouraging artists’ mobility and professional development. Although there may not yet be many museum curators who really know what’s going on outside the mainstream contemporary art world, thanks to Triangle there are many artists who do. They should be actively encouraged to contribute to the process of building the new collections.

Finding the right people and doing the research will, however, only take us part of the way. There will be many fascinating and difficult choices to be made in building the new collections – choices that have ethical as well as aesthetic dimensions. I wish I had time to explore this subject more thoroughly tonight, but let me make a few basic points.

First, though we cannot avoid our own prejudices, we should try our hardest to be aware of them. Great care needs to be taken in applying our own canons of taste to work from radically different cultures. To dismiss a work of art that we don’t immediately like or understand would be arrogant, to say the least. On the other hand, it makes no sense to try to escape our prejudices by collecting indiscriminately. As I have said already, resources are limited, and judgements have to be made. The question is: how and on what basis?

Although I am not an expert in these matters, I think it is salutary to contrast two very different curatorial approaches.

On the one hand there is the romantic attitude typified by Jean-Hubert Martin, the director of the huge exhibition Magiciens de la Terre – Magicians of the Earth – first shown in Paris in 1989. This show, which sadly I did not see, brought together an astonishing variety of living artists from all around the world, and tried to present them on, as it were, a level playing field. For the first time, it was possible to see works by artists with established international reputations like Anselm Kiefer or Tatsuo Miyajima, presented alongside – for example – the visionary drawings of Frederic Bruly Bouabré from the Ivory Coast, or the utopian city models of Bodys Kingelez from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

For all its ambition, or perhaps because of it, Magiciens de la Terre was apparently not a big popular success, but it did trigger the formation of Jean Pigozzi’s now famous private collection of art from sub-Saharan Africa. According to André Magnin, its lead curator, When the collection was first established in 1989, not a single African artist was truly well-known. The western art world was either unaware of, or had overlooked, contemporary artistic creation on other continents, and particularly in Africa. Under Magnin’s direction, the Pigozzi Collection has grown steadily and now includes several thousand works. Selections from it have been shown in galleries all over the world – including Tate Modern.

Magnin is suspicious of western influence. The goal in building the Pigozzi collection has apparently been to find works of art that exhibit a certain kind of ‘authenticity’, works that are uncontaminated by colonial or post-colonial influences. In other words, a kind of ‘innocent’ art practiced by artists unsullied by the teaching of western-style art schools or the influence of ideas imported from the western art world.

There is something appealing about the desire to preserve, and indeed protect, art and artistic communities that may be threatened by the impact of a homogenised, global visual culture. It is reminiscent of nineteenth century musicologists’ efforts to preserve unrecorded folk melodies. Sometimes when I wander around the big contemporary art fairs or biennales I have the feeling that I could be anywhere: I see work by the same limited group of mostly-western artists, and I would find it very hard to guess where they came from if I didn’t already know the answer. That’s globalisation for you! Pigozzi and Magnin are, I presume, not very happy with this state of affairs and, if so, I would have some sympathy with them. The world would be a poorer, much less interesting place if all art ended up sharing a strong family resemblance with what’s on show at Basel or Frieze – but I would hope that some at least of the many indigenous artistic traditions are strong enough to resist this outcome.

Pigozzi and Magnin have brought a lot of previously unfamiliar African artists to the attention of the outside world, some of whom have no doubt done well out of the transaction. However, their approach to collecting is vulnerable to the charge of primitivism – the patronising enjoyment of the exotic and quaint, coupled with the infantilising desire to arrest development. They would, I am sure, hotly deny that they are holding any of their artists back, or treating them with any kind of condescension. But for their critics, this is just a new imposition by the rich on the poor: in short, neo-imperialism, pure and simple.

Whether or not this criticism is justified, Magnin’s curatorial approach is based on an aesthetic article of faith that is worth examining. He maintains that a work of art can be read and understood anywhere, and by anyone, regardless of its provenance, even if it bears some features that are distinct to a certain culture, set of beliefs, and specific context and history. This is a big claim, though a vague one. Jean-Hubert Martin, who curated a show appropriately entitled Against Exclusion at last year’s Moscow Biennale, has put a bit more flesh on this idea: All artists, he argues, are humans who share the same condition and can communicate it…It would be incorrect to assert that we cannot understand foreign cultures. A minimum of information is usually enough to arouse interest and inspire the viewer to understand and interpret works of art from a foreign place…Today there are no contexts and issues that are entirely foreign to us. The implication seems to be that we can all, given a bit of contextual information, understand what the artist is trying to express.

I would like to believe that this is in some sense true, but of course the very notion of ‘understanding a work of art’ is notoriously problematical. Do works of art have fixed meanings at all? Is it not more likely that each individual’s ‘understanding’ of a particular work of art is to some degree personal, and fluid, reflecting their own memories, feelings, attitudes and so on? And surely our personal circumstances – where we live, what we do – will also affect our understanding of a work of art?

I have no doubt that works of art have multiple, unstable, shifting meanings – even to the artists who create them. But in fairness to Magnin, I think he is onto something when he says that artists everywhere ‘share the same condition and can communicate it’. It’s very hard to say how this works, and it’s certainly complicated, but I share his belief that works of art can and sometimes do speak to us across wide gulfs of space, and indeed time. This is a point to which I will return later.

A very different curatorial attitude was reflected in Africa Remix, a touring exhibition that came to the Hayward Gallery in 2005. Here the goal was to include a sample of art produced by artists with roots in many different parts of Africa, including white South Africans, and actively to embrace artists who had been trained in the west, or indeed lived and worked there. This show attracted plenty of criticism, but here the main complaint was – bluntly speaking – that the art on display was just not very good:

The ever-outspoken Brian Sewell commented in the Evening Standard:

This is a thoroughly depressing exhibition. We are presented with, largely, a bunch of no-hopers whose work is on view because, and only because, they are African. “Look, look,” they say, “we can do it too.” And so they can, but it is not worth the doing, for in following the West they mimic it in witless parody, or ape in modern materials and terms what little they know of a genuine African past.

Even Jonathan Jones in The Guardian had little to say in its favour:

Africa resists this kind of exhibition because it is one vast and terrible reminder that life and death are more real than art – more real than video, anyway. By insisting on the urban and the technological, Africa Remix misdescribes the continent. What do we say about the masses who live outside the city and have no art magazines? That they are the objects of history, and only city-dwelling elites are its makers?

Obviously it’s hard to please everybody, and no doubt Africa Remix had its shortcomings, but it surely cannot be the case that no art worth seeing is being produced in the continent of Africa – or, following Jones, that Africa is such a terrible place that ‘urban, technological’ art just cannot comprehend it. Yet it is hard to avoid the suspicion that such an attitude lurks somewhere in the minds of many western art critics and curators, even if not consciously recognised.

Sylvester Ogbechie, an art history Professor at the University of California, raises similar issues in a slightly different form. He reports a curator at a recent panel discussion on African art acknowledging that ‘Western museums will never agree to show contemporary African art which is not produced by an artist already validated by Western discourses’. Ogbechie himself has been trying to produce an exhibition focusing on aspects of modern Nigerian art. He complains that he has been ‘pointedly turned down by curators who see this sort of practice as outrageously incompetent’.

Most of the leading actors in the contemporary art world no doubt see themselves as impeccably liberal, so there is more than a little irony in the fact that they do not always appear to be entirely open-minded about art from sources outside the mainstream. I have myself observed the tendency of contemporary art curators not merely to neglect art that does not fit comfortably into their intellectual categories, but to dismiss it. I have, for example, heard modern and contemporary Aboriginal art from Australia disdainfully described as being merely ‘decorative’ – perhaps the most damning indictment in the curatorial lexicon. I don’t know for sure what thought processes lay behind this judgement. The most charitable interpretation is that it reflected the primitivist view that the only ‘good’ Aboriginal art is that which is untainted by western influences – ideally the ‘pre-contact’ tribal art that commands such a high premium in the market place. But perhaps the speaker was simply baffled by an art-form that seemed to occupy an unfamiliar space somewhere between the traditional and the modern or post-modern.

I mentioned earlier Tate’s ambitious plans for collections of art from Latin America, the Asia-Pacific, Middle East and India. Speaking recently to Frances Morris, the senior curator in charge of these projects, I learned that the key factor in deciding what Tate will collect is connectivity. The aim is to find works that stand in some kind of demonstrable relationship with Tate’s existing collections. A good example would be the Brazilian, Hélio Oiticica, whose abstract compositions and installations have close affinities with works by European Modernists like Mondrian and Malevich.

This cautious approach is understandable, but it is not without risk. If art that is less obviously connected with western artistic traditions is excluded, the resultant collections are likely to have a strongly Eurocentric feel. It is not difficult to imagine the kind of criticisms that such an outcome would evoke, especially bearing in mind the reactions to Africa Remix. But once Tate has started to explore these new collecting areas, a new momentum will perhaps develop and the parameters will be adjusted to permit a more inclusive approach. I hope so.

Much more could be said on the subject of interpretation and selection. The development of new collections of art that reflect the creativity and the experiences of communities in countries with which most of us are very unfamiliar obviously gives rise to many challenging problems. These deserve to be debated more openly and actively. Outside the museum world, organisations like the British Council, ACE, and INIVA surely have an important role to play in this process, though to be honest I am not sure that they have yet risen to the challenge.

You may however wonder whether it’s worth making the effort. Would it really matter if our public art collections continued to be dominated by work, most of which is produced in rich countries for rich collectors under the powerful influence of the commercial art market?

Yes, I think it does matter, but in order to explain why I’m going to have to take a few steps back and talk about the origins of art.

We know from the archaeological record that people have been making art for at least 50,000 years. I don’t want to get into a debate about what we mean by the word ‘art’ because, although there is room for argument around the edges, I think we actually have a fairly clear operational idea of what the term applies to, even if we cannot define it very satisfactorily. (Needless to say, in what follows I am using the word ‘art’ to refer only to visual art, though the arguments could be applied more widely.)

We also know that the propensity to make art – in all its different forms – crosses every cultural and ethnic boundary. Like language, art-making is a very deeply-rooted part of the human behavioural repertoire. Everybody, everywhere makes art – whether it’s carved walrus ivory among the Inuit, or video installations in Tokyo. Well, that may be a slight exaggeration. Josef Beuys wanted everyone to be an artist, but his vision has not yet been realised! Nevertheless it is true that pretty well everyone enjoys looking at art.

Of course there are many puzzles. Why people make art, what if any social or other purposes it may serve, whether it makes us feel better about ourselves, or behave better – these are some of the important questions to which we still have no clear answers. I am trying to establish an interdisciplinary research programme at the University of Leicester with the aim of exploring some of these questions. Yet even if we lack clear answers, I still think we can state with some confidence that art exercises a strange power over us. Art – and the making of art – fascinate us. When we want to understand a foreign culture, whether a contemporary one or one that is remote in time, we soon turn our attention to its art.

You can probably guess where this is going. I believe that art gives us a window into the lives of others. It is not a perfectly transparent window – there are plenty of problems of interpretation. This is true even within our own culture. But if we want to get to know another culture, it is not enough to accumulate statistics, to study the history, to read the newspapers, or even to learn the language. We need also to explore its expressive life – the language, if you like, of its art. We all do this, of course, when we travel. Sometimes it feels easy, as when we visit countries with which we have close ties. Sometimes it is much harder. Our fears and prejudices can and often do get in the way. I can remember some people telling me when I was working on the Japan Festival of 1991 that they simply could not bear to look at any Japanese work of art because of the atrocities committed by the Japanese in the first half of the 20th century.

If we make the effort to understand the art of an alien culture, we will learn many things, but there is one important outcome that can almost be guaranteed. However hard the struggle, we will find that, beneath all the superficial differences, we are all pretty much the same. People everywhere share the same human characteristics and face the same fundamental challenges – of living, loving and dying – even if their circumstances may vary enormously. Art really can help us to recognise our common humanity, and perhaps art can achieve this more effectively than any other medium – apart from direct face-to-face contact. This is, I think, the point that lies behind Jean-Hubert Martin’s claim that artists everywhere ‘share the same condition and can communicate it’.

Travelling to a foreign country is not always possible, of course, and this is one of the reasons why museums and galleries matter so much. Through their temporary exhibitions and more still through their permanent collections they give us all the chance to encounter and explore the expressive lives of other peoples. In doing so, they enable us to recognise our common humanity.

Let me illustrate this point. News coverage of the developing world is very patchy and usually dwells on war, famine, pestilence, corruption and incompetence. Of course there are terrible problems out there, and we need to hear about them, but there is clearly a danger that the endless tales of misery and failure may dull our senses and mislead us about the true nature of the living reality. It is vital that we should not adopt a patronising pose or lose sight of the fact that the people of let us say, Sudan or Colombia, are still people, just like us. They may lead lives that are in some respects very hard, but they are not lives of monochromatic misery or degradation. In some ways perhaps they may be richer than our own. If we had the chance to see more of their art, we would, I believe, gain a much livelier appreciation of what life in those countries is really like – both the light and the dark. This would in turn encourage us to think more carefully about what our responsibilities towards them might be, and also to reflect more deeply on our own priorities.

I would go further, though you may think that I am being fanciful.

I hardly need say that the world is a complicated and dangerous place. Rifts between cultures and religions – and the gross inequalities to which I referred earlier – bedevil international relations and contribute to many of the most serious problems that we face today. And yet the inexorable processes of globalisation are at the same time making this an increasingly inter-dependent world. If we are going to solve our problems, we have no choice but to do so by working together. My question then is this: how can we successfully cooperate against a background of misunderstanding, fear and mistrust – let alone open warfare?

Now I don’t want to make preposterous claims for the power of art. But I do wonder whether art may have an oblique, but significant part to play in helping to build bridges between cultures and peoples – especially those divided by mutual fear and suspicion. Unfamiliar kinds of art can be very disturbing, and even the most open-minded of us can sometimes fall victim to a comfortable aesthetic torpor from which we prefer not to be awakened. By challenging the imagination, art can overturn such complacency and thereby expand the range of our sympathies. Is it possible, then, that by giving people access to the artistic achievements of other cultures we might help to build a more robust awareness of our shared human fellowship? If so, the prospects of solving some of the world’s biggest problems might be improved. I would certainly like to think so.

Lastly, I want to make a very simple, selfish point. We already know of some brilliant artists who come from poorer nations or oppressed minorities, and, unless I’m much mistaken, we must be missing out on many more. I am genuinely curious to see their work and I’m frustrated that it is still so hard to do so.

If you too feel this sense of frustration, I hope we may make our voices heard, and that together we can initiate the public debate that this subject needs and deserves. One thing is certain: if there is to be change, we had better not rely on the art market to deliver it. Our public art institutions will, I am sure, have to provide a lead. Yes, there are encouraging signs of progress, but our museums and galleries, and those that support them, still have to do a lot more to overcome the ethnocentric tunnel-vision that has for so long afflicted them – and indeed all of us. If they are to offer a truly cosmopolitan view of today’s art world, they will have to devote far more energy and more resources to establishing links with those parts of the world that they have for so long largely ignored. Contemporary art curators will, as I have suggested in the title to this talk, need to get out more. And if this means that we cannot to do so much to preserve what we’ve already got, so be it. I would happily trade yet another Old Master costing tens of millions of pounds for the chance to find out what the many ‘undiscovered’ artists around the world are doing – right now.


11 Responses to “A Bigger Picture: why contemporary art curators need to get out more”
  1. Mr. Barrie, The art world needs more people like you.
    It is not hard to discover artist, you just need curators that not follow trends,
    that is the challenge.

  2. Lara Evans says:

    There is a lot of interesting work being done by contemporary Native American and First Nations artists in the United States and Canada. If you’re interested, I write about this kind of work and have links to other sources and artists’ sites on my blog Not Artomatic at http://www.travelpeapod.wordpress.com

  3. Karen Duffek says:

    Bravo to David Barrie! And thanks for circulating this speech. I think there’s a lot of creative potential in the interplay and clashes between the perspectives of anthropologically-trained and contemporary-art trained curators. See the exhibition “Border Zones: New Art across Cultures” at the UBC Museum of Anthropology for a move in this direction (www.borderzones.ca).

  4. suelin says:

    The artists of the english speaking Caribbean islands also hold opportunity for discovery. This article tells of the potential of small island art.


  5. Lesley says:

    Thank you David for such a frank, reassuring article. All of your comments resonate strongly with many of my own experiences over the years, particularly where art, international relations and anthropological insights interact. I’d like to send you a longer response .. is that possible? From a grateful curator out on a limb in southern spain.

  6. Gemma says:

    Interesting article with many points that I recognise. I’m always rather stumped though, by the fact that it’s the art, institutions, galleries and the curatorial trends that are seen as the cogs of this international machine, yet the place of writing, (academic, critical, historical, biographic, monographic), is rarely included within the debate. The Documenta Magazines project provides an interesting (though flawed) example of some attempt to apprehend the place of magazine-based writing within these problems. I’m always surprised by how little it comes up in articles like this one!

    Writers like yourself might have a lot to say about WRITING within this axiomatic, while taking a reflexive turn on their being necessarily a part of it. Your quotes from critics of Africa Remix show that the writer’s role of ‘speaking after’ and ‘on behalf of’ is deeply problematic, often suffering from limits of knowledge that render their criticism or comment uninformed or misguided. I often think that critics are chasing the heels of this new art world, and not really apprehending it sufficiently, (this apprehension is what we understand to be their ‘job’!)

    Perhaps the critics are really the ones who should be ‘getting out more’?! Or indeed, it’s their editors who should?!

  7. cdobarrie says:

    Thanks v much – was there more of this? It seems to end in mid-air!

    Best wishes

    David Barrie

  8. cdobarrie says:

    OK – thanks. I’ve found it now. Glad you liked it. Do keep spreading the word. It’s a subject that needs wider discussion.

    Best wishes

    David Barrie

Check out what others are saying...
  1. Pick ‘N Mix #39…

    – David Barrie recently gave a thought-provoking lecture entitled “A Bigger Picture: why contemporary art curators need to get out more”. He describes why a heritage-oriented mindset can result in constrained collections, noting that: “Despite our l…

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