Art Institutions Curating is Power

Curating is Power
© Claudia Casarino

Important positions in Brazilian art institutions are often occupied according to a fixed scheme: male, upper class, white. This affects the collections and programmes; Afro-Brazilian and Indigenous positions are underrepresented. But an opening to more diversity is emerging,  Anna Azevedo observes.

By Anna Azevedo

In May 2020, the Brazilian art scene was surprised by the opening of the position of artistic director of the Museum of Modern Art of Rio de Janeiro (MAM). Three months later, social networks celebrated the result. For the first time since it opened in 1948, a woman is the head of the MAM: 41-year-old Keyna Eleison from Rio de Janeiro. She shares the directorship with the Spaniard Pablo Lafuente. The fact that Eleison has now taken over the leadership of one of the most important art institutions in Brazil was hailed as an important step in the reformation of the centuries-old structures on which the world of the visual arts is still based. This appointment, so the perception, would trigger the reshaping of a territory whose power structures are clearly defined: male, member of the elite, white. Eleison is Black and Rio de Janeiro is a city whose colonial past is still clearly visible in the social fabric.
But the enthusiasm that gripped young artists in particular shows how unequal the territory still is. “The enthusiasm demonstrates that we still have a lot to fight for. Nobody celebrates when a white man takes over the leadership of an art institution,” says Eleison. You only have to look around to see the reality: The patriarchal structure is only dissolving very gradually. “I see myself as the result of a breach in the social fabric, but I’m not yet satisfied. The presence of Black artists must be normalised to such an extent that Black artists are simply artists and I’m no longer a Black female curator, but simply a curator,” she says.

Power Games

Within a market shaped by aristocratic patterns, curating is the throne from which power is exercised. But it’s not the only one, for, as the 54-year-old visual artist and lecturer Rosana Paulino notes: “We have sponsors, advisors and patrons, the game is complex, and the power of curators is expressed in many ways. Curatorial expertise determines, for example, who gets access and who does not, and also when and in what way: labels, differentiations, the hierarchy of assessments of high culture versus popular culture are demarcations of social spaces and a further exercise of power.”

Paulino explains that in a diverse country with colonial traces of segregation like Brazil, the decolonial occupation of a position as curator means understanding that knowledge production is related to the way in which society has developed and been perpetuated. “That’s why it’s important that curators don’t come from the financial and cultural ruling class of the population. So that we also understand art as the production of knowledge, because otherwise we will remain forever attached to what others produce, as eternal reproductions that do not advance the world in terms of knowledge,” she says.

Traditional Patterns

This discussion also has an impact at the international level. Brazil faces two types of criticism of its anachronistic model of curating: In the country itself from those who, as outsiders of the art bubble, have managed to penetrate and thus electrify the market. Abroad, it is not uncommon for the lack of art reflecting the diversity of Brazil to be criticised. This pressure forced the institutions to take a few steps towards decolonial curators, who now even take Indigenous art into account. But it was not until 2018 that the São Paulo Art Museum, founded in 1947, appointed Black curators for the first time with Horrana de Kássia and Amanda Carneiro, and in 2019 Guarani Sandra Benites as a member of the advisory board.

“I see myself as the result of a breach in the social fabric, but I’m not yet satisfied. The presence of Black artists must be normalised to such an extent that Black artists are simply artists and I’m no longer a Black female curator, but simply a curator.”

For Paulino the institutions are obligated to take the production of this new generation of artists into account in order not to fall behind at the international level, not to mention the lost works. “Work of the highest quality is being taken out of the country. If the museums aren’t careful, we will have to research this period abroad.” The artist warns that institutions must understand that renewal has come to stay. “The curators urgently need to think about the gaps in the collections,” she emphasises. The new director of the MAM says of her agenda: “Part of my attention as a curator has always been and will continue to be directed towards research funding. But it offends me, when I ask where the Black artists are, to hear the answer ‘there aren’t any’.”

Passing Fad?

The artistic director of the MAM advocates sure instincts when evaluating reports about the increased occurrence of female-perceived and racialised bodies in structures of the art business, stating: “We have to be careful whether this is a fad or a lasting result of micro-explosions that we could actually cause.” A remark that is justified given the low distribution of non-white curators in Brazil. A survey carried out in 2020 by the educator Luciara Ribeiro via social networks identified 76 Afro-Brazilian and 20 Indigenous curators. Her data matches a more comprehensive study by the exhibition curating research and training network, which, according to Ribeiro, has counted 300 curators across Brazil to date.
Keyna Eleison Keyna Eleison | © Fábio Souza
Of Black curators, 54 percent are women and 3 percent are non-binary, among the Indigenous curators 45 percent are women. Most work in south-eastern Brazil and 80 percent have no institutional affiliation. Small numbers considering a population of 220 million, 55 percent of whom define themselves as Black and 0.5 percent as Indigenous. For Ribeiro it is “fundamental to understand who is working as curators here in order to rethink art, its spaces and authorship. Understanding that this authorship is not neutral, but rather marked by, for example, social factors such as class, gender and ethnic-racist relationships is an urgent need in Brazilian art.”

Malleableness of the Institutions

Bodies articulate discourses. It is clear to Keyna Eleison that her person at the top of the MAM also raises expectations outside of it. “The ball is now in my court, but it’s not my ball. There are expectations that also include situations that I didn’t create, such as racism, classicism and machismo. I didn’t come to solve them, but to make it easier for questions to come onto the agenda that are there, normalised, as the result of power relations. I hold a position from which I can show how we can change some things.” The ball Eleison speaks of is shared by seven women in leadership positions at the MAM. “It’s not just about paying a historical debt, but about making the institution more malleable, giving it a different intellectuality if we can get more women in leadership positions,” says Eleison.

The fact that more women are in positions of power is also an indication that they are losing their fear of surviving in the market. According to Eleison, it can also be tiring and stressful to be the first woman and also first Black woman at the top of the MAM all by yourself. On the other hand, this shows other women a real opportunity to get there as well. “The negative signals that female-perceived bodies receive are so numerous, and even more so when they are racialised, that one finally gives up playing along. Now everything is a bit more defined; we are now looking at entire biographies and that is wonderful.”

Ribeiro recognises the efforts of art institutions in Brazil to promote diversity from an ethnic, gender, or class perspective. But despite good intentions, she says, there is still a lot to be done before this also brings about decisive changes at the grassroots level, for example commitment to non-white people as curators. It is crucial that the art institutions understand that the anti-racist struggle goes beyond the topics of their programmes. “If we feel a change, it’s not because the spaces reserved for art decided to change, but as a result of demands. There is a struggle and the demand for something to happen.” A struggle that, albeit in small steps, will turn into power.

This article was initially published in the “Macht¨ issue of the Humboldt Magazine.