Who cares? The new radical in the Arts is to care, but some of us have been doing this for years.

A head and shoulders shot of artist Sonia Boue. She is a white middled aged women with closely cropped salt and pepper hair. She is wearing large black rimmed glasses, a black jumper and, a light coloured beanie hat and a gold watch. She is holding a collaged bloc with a photo of an eye on it over one eye.

This blog post has been inspired by three excellent Curating Institutional Change, panels organised by DASH, which have focused on the subjects of care and change-making for arts organisations and curatorial practice. These radical conversations and DASH’s brilliant collaborative curatorial initiative give me hope, because they are genuinely pioneering change. The panels (which are available on the link above) are also thought-provoking, because inequity remains a barrier when we talk about care. To experience a gamut of emotions must surely be the hallmark of a really well curated series, and I felt both uplifted and disgruntled.

My blog post will be a personal view from the lived experience of invisible disability. I have also chosen to equate care with access, for me they are interchangeable, and abled people often don’t understand how systemic bias’ enable them and provide access. We need to pay more attention to language.

The need for more caring approaches is emerging in the wake of the pandemic, which has torn through our sector like a house fire on a grand scale. Talk of care for artists, and care within arts organisations must feel shiny and new in this context. I welcome talk of care, but as the Curating Institutional Change panellists intimated, care alone will not take us where we need to go without structural change.

I’m also sad that its taken a pandemic to make this subject feel relevant to ‘mainstream’ Arts.

Many marginalised creatives – including disabled artists and our allies – have been talking and practising care in our work for a very long time. We’ve pitted ourselves against hostile systems to develop our ideas and methods to create innovative and transformative projects. These practices have been essential for us to survive and make work for ourselves and our communities. Care has been woven into our work deeply and holistically, not as an afterthought or because times are suddenly hard. As DASH’s artistic director Mike Layward suggests in the final panel of the series, tokenism is still rife and the very language of inclusion requires interrogation.

Some of us have thus needed to combine practice with various forms of care (including advocacy), while collective eyes have looked the other way on ableism. As I write, I am supporting an artist who is being shown a lack of care so extreme that she is actively disabled. I can barely contain my rage at her treatment, or my grief that she might lose her opportunity to participate in this high profile project because she is not being properly accommodated, despite her disability being known. How can this be in 2021?

In such a case an absence of genuine care is pernicious, and care cannot be a casual add-on without perpetuating serious harms. We have yet to come to the subject of who can talk about and define what care is, and what it looks like when it’s successful. Care may be contextual or structural, for example, and it often needs to be quite individual. I always like hearing Aidan Moesby (chair of these panels) talk about access and care as a proper welcome, which doesn’t need to imply monetary cost. A failure to care (provide access) ‘due to lack of funds’ is a weak and unimaginative excuse, probably borne of lack of exposure to our culture. We know how to improvise because we have to.

I think this is why grassroots activity can be so important in leading on care. We have the responsiveness and flexibility required to create effective bespoke models of care, which less agile systems and institutions couldn’t conceive of. A lack care can be bureaucratic as well as political, or embedded within a society for want of thought or consideration. Our main disadvantage at grassroots level is that we tend to lack resources. Redirecting resources and de-centring power are obvious solutions, but what I loved most was Morag Ballantyne’s emphasis on process, and personal reflexiveness and empathy. This is what I meant when I (somewhat clumsily) asked the Care and Compassion panel whether my thought that access is in people’s heads resonated with them. Increasingly I feel that this is about changing minds. De-centring requires a conceptual leap and new habits of thought.

And it should be acknowledged, I feel, that for some of us caring and the lack of care is not a new subject, and that the absence of care can also kill us. The pandemic has shown us that no-one is immune, which is why we’re suddenly hearing the word care openly spoken about in hitherto silent and complicit spaces. Disabled people know that official systems of care will break us if we can’t resist their inbuilt harms and oppression. We often survive by pulling together and organising, but the very energy to resist in this way subtracts from the strength needed for active participation. I’m not sure this reality is properly understood within the ‘mainstream’.

But I do hope the sector is waking up to its own historic lack of care in the area of disability. A first step in the right direction could be acknowledgement and reparation. It’s high time to de-centre abled people in the Arts. We know many of you care and have done good work too, but the time for structural change has come.

The elephant in the room is that the very existence of a ‘mainstream’ in the Arts is fundamentally uncaring. There’s no going under it, over it, or through it. The concept of a ‘mainstream’ must be dismantled if we are to make any sort of progress at all.

It’s also true that while we don’t have all the answers, we have a knowledge base that’s invaluable. So let’s talk. The door is open.

Published by soniaboue

I am an artist.

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