Cultural inquiry as curatorial strategy

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Some thoughts on the evolution of my curatorial practice from co-inquiry to cultural inquiry and curating the institution through a move between different scales and types of arts organisation.

In discourse around curatorial practice in museums and galleries, it is frequently noted that the word curator derives from the Latin verb curare – to care for. Without getting bogged down in debates about the appropriation of the word ‘curating’ to mean pretty much any form of intelligent selection, within the visual arts the nature and requirements of this care have clearly changed. Curating is no longer solely about looking after the object in a collection. It has been expanded to the care we give to artists, their practice and artworks, to creating bridges with audiences and bringing new audiences into a relationship with art, and to curatorial practice as a knowledge creating activity itself.

An audience in a small room look at a person making a point with interest.
Music and Migration, A Dreamed Native Ancestry (DNA) event for Radical Ancestry, Arts Catalyst 2018

I have long been interested in expanded notions of curating, especially cross-disciplinary curatorial practices – those that bring art into conversation with other disciplines. In my career and practice, this has been particularly focused on science and technology in relation to culture and society. My 2017 PhD thesis, Art and Intervention in the Stewardship of the Planetary Commons: Towards a Curatorial Model of Co-inquiry (2017), drew on ten years of practice with my previous organisation Arts Catalyst. It proposed a curatorial methodology of transdisciplinary co-inquiry: a model that could foster an ecology of practices, enabling curators, artists, specialist experts and people with situated expertise to co-produce knowledge around shared matters of concern. The co-inquiry model reconfigures curatorial practice as a collective, inquiry-driven practice, and provides a methodology for cross-disciplinary research. I situate this practice within an interpretive framework of the planetary commons .

Following my PhD, I developed two specific curatorial co-inquiries, which formed the core of the Arts Catalyst’s artistic programme from 2017 to 2019.

Test Sites was a direct application of the co-inquiry model. It was a set of inquiries employing the co-inquiry in relation to environmental issues, such as flooding, water pollution, and species loss, through the perspective of local communities. Our initial inquiry, in the Calder Valley in Yorkshire, developed into a four year project looking at water governance in relation to health, wellbeing, culture and the resilience of communities and ecosystems. It brought together artists, researchers and local people to consider governance from different perspectives, resulting in artworks, events and a publication.

Video about the Test Sites: Calder Valley co-inquiry (2017-2020)

The other inquiry that I initiated was a completely new direction. Radical Ancestry had started as a curatorial research project in 2016. It set out to explore how artists might transform new knowledge from discoveries in genetic science, evolutionary genetics, archaeology and other sciences into a re-thinking of race, identity and migration. It evolved as a connected series of inquiries, involving artist commissions, exhibitions, workshops and conversations. Radical Ancestry has now traversed two institutions – Arts Catalyst and FACT Liverpool. It hasn’t really followed the co-inquiry model, but instead has taken the idea of a collective curatorial inquiry in a new direction.

When I left Arts Catalyst in 2019 to become CEO of FACT Liverpool, Arts Catalyst was in the process of relocating to Sheffield. The co-inquiry model had been developed at Arts Catalyst and I felt it should remain with them. Arts Catalyst has continued to take the co-inquiry model forward – evolving and adapting it for its new artistic direction – in its work with communities in Yorkshire.

Moving to a much larger institution, FACT in Liverpool, required a rethinking of my practice as a curator. As CEO of a relatively significant institution with hugely new challenges for me, rather than a curator of projects within a small organisation that I founded, my curatorial practice has had to change. Although sometimes I feel I do very little curating now because of the demands of the job, on reflection my curatorial practice has simply evolved in two new closely connected directions.

I believe strongly that arts institutions have an important role to play in helping to shape cultural discourse, drawing in research from science and other areas and working with artists to develop experiences and conversations with people. The notion of cultural inquiry as a curatorial strategy is to draw together artists, researchers and different groups and individuals in society to explore issues and share ideas that are important and relevant to the contemporary moment through interconnecting series of research, commissions, exhibitions, discursive events, participatory projects, and reflective publications.

Groups of people talk within a visually rich, neon-bedecked installation.
People gather in the installation Merseyside Burman Empire (2022) by Chila-Kumari Singh Burman at FACT.
Photo: Gary W Smith

I was fortunate to join FACT in a year when the team had chosen an annual programme theme for the first time, Gender and Identity, and so it was timely to propose a cultural inquiry, The Living Planet, for our 2020 theme. Later, the programme team decided that we should adopt Radical Ancestry as our 2021-2022 inquiry.

Intertwined with this, I now tend to see my curatorial practice as engaging in ‘curating an institution’ – a further act of care – which involves an interconnected series of structural decisions about how the organisation operates, how we curate and produce a programme, how we develop an ‘artist-centred’ organisation (more on this in due course), how we care for our staff and workers, how we govern ourselves, and how we engage with our various audiences (not a homogenous group but many different people, groups and segments of the population).

I say intertwined because the focus on a particular programme theme, say The Living Planet, also enabled us to have a parallel focus on developing our environmental policy, and Radical Ancestry has interwoven with the strong work done by the team on our equality, diversity and inclusion policy and action plan.

In later blog posts, I want to talk about Radical Ancestry as it unfolded at Arts Catalyst (although it feels a long time ago now) before discussing the Radical Ancestry inquiry at FACT, which has run throughout 2021 and 2022 and upon which I am now trying to reflect and draw together our learning in a new FACT journal, to be launched later this Spring.

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