On Artists and Institutional Stigma
A text by Mays Albaik
A friend and a colleague–an independent cultural practitioner–once told me in a meeting that “institutions are also made up of people.” While evident and undeniable, the statement can also be contested;patterns of western institutional critique have drawn institutions in our imagination as inaccessible fortresses of systems that are almost hopelessly rigid. In a place with a shorter history of institutionalized cultural production, we need to rethink this perception and trust more in artists’ abilities to infiltrate, if you will, these structures.
What do institutions want from artists? I want to use this opportunity to think beyond this antagonistic dichotomy. Art institutions are made up of individuals who want to make art happen. The question should be, what do artists, collectively, want from a collectively organized group of creative practitioners?
This might seem like an abstract train of thought to follow in comparison to the brief I received for this article– to spell out to artists what institutions want from them– but it doesn’t need to be. To think of institutions as a group of people would affect how an artist can approach any relationship with institutions. Applying for a grant? Think of the selection jury reading your application as a group of individual creative professionals, not as a faceless and nameless mass of regulations and bureaucracy. An application is an argument to convince people that they want to work with you on achieving what you want to achieve.
Think of open calls as the start of a conversation. The text of the open call is that first email that asks you for something. Are you interested in X, Y, and Z? What would you be interested in doing if you were given the resources? How are you qualified to do this thing? And how will you do it? These are the usual questions, but just like in a conversation where you listen to the words the other person is saying and you naturally start finding them in your speech, pay attention to the terms used in the open call. Different institutions have different priorities. Do you need to ask a question? Go ahead! Email them or call the office. You might not get an answer if it’s a large program, but you also might actually get someone on the other line who can help.
This, like any other shift in perspective and practice, is easier said than done, for the variables that come into play are countless. Investing organizational and creative energies in the workplace is exhausting; individuals are not, in fact, always generous and caring, and a structure built under a capitalistic productivity-obsessed economy lends itself only to the appearance of community support. But this shift allows us to ask a new question: how can we as individuals (whether institutional workers or independent practitioners) support each other using the power lent to institutions without reproducing their harm?
I’ll start by specifying what type of institutions I’m using in this thought exercise. I work in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and my experience is definitely focused on the non-profit sector of the art ecology here. I will focus my thoughts on exhibition and granting institutions as they operate in this context, whether they are collecting or non-collecting.
A few weeks into my current job as a programs manager at an art institution in Abu Dhabi, I sat on a conference call with other programming professionals in peer institutions as we all attempted to introduce the UAE art ecology to a new colleague. I stayed quiet for most of it;I wasn’t yet very familiar with the other faces in this room and my Internet connection was a little splotchy. I thought I mostly could cruise in the back of the call, until the topic of artist visas came up. A colleague from a different institution used me as a case to make a point: “If you could be a full-time artist, you wouldn’t be with us here.”
There’s definitely a common presumption that employed artists, unlike other institutional professionals, only work at institutions because they can’t sustain themselves through just their practice. This is an oversimplification of the context in which artists make work, but also a casual dismissal of our agency and experience as both artists and institutional workers. It’s time we had a more transparent conversation about artists in cultural institutions, both in the UAE and beyond.
This is a difficult conversation because both parties, artist-workers and institutional leaders, tend to want to keep each other within their respective delineated borders, and in some cases whole institutional structures are set up on this hard separation. At previous positions I’ve held, my work as an artist was not only never meant to bleed into my 9-5, but it felt to me as a protective tactic–the energy I spent at my day job was separate from that which I poured into my art practice. The compartmentalizing felt easy and simple – it made it easy to leave at 5, to block out spring as the season for the office and summer as a season for my practice. It also made it simple to not think like an artist while at work in an institution, but rather as a resource to be extracted. From nine to five, I would set aside the ways of interrogating the world around me that I learnt through my practice, those that center curiosity and care rather than productivity and outcomes. I would work within the structure set up for me as an employee: the institution’s invited artist as client, and my labor as replaceable and reproducible, myself as dispensable. This meant I could give labor, but not spirit. I could give hours but not energy.
And so, this setup felt protective of my finite creative energy. It was something I pushed for and reproduced. It was also reflected in how curators treated those of us with multiple hats if they met us first as artists, or as institutional professionals. Institutional professionals existed in this ecology only to service the “creative class.” Their input is expected to be administrative and facilitative. I found myself only revealing my creative practice on rare occasions, and thus restraining any of my input during my institutional work (to what I imagine is frustration of many artist “clients”).
While on break from graduate school, I was having lunch with my old manager and telling her that I don’t see myself relinquishing institutional work even as I was optimistic about my growing practice. When she asked why, I had to think about it for a second. It would have been easy to say “because I need a residency visa.” That answer applies whether in the UAE or anywhere else in the world for me. It also would have been true, and continues to be mostly true. As a Palestinian refugee, my stability is strongly tied to my ability to be productive. It’s something shared to a large extent with most migrant communities across the world, yet the Palestinian unmooring often feels uniquely profound when thinking of capitalist structures that profit on it: “If you aren’t valuable enough, no country would let you stay, and you will have nowhere to go” was not an uncommon saying in my childhood household. And yet, it felt like a weak answer, depriving me of owning this decision. These days, I can see friends and colleagues able to arrive at the same level of stability without direct institutional employment– freelance visas are not as unattainable as they used to be, for example. So I knew that there was something else driving my desire to be working with an institution. I answered: “Because I want to be part of something larger than myself.”
I find the circularity of artists protecting their practices from their employers and the art worlds’ unfavorable look on employed artists feeds off of an extractive view of institutions– as spaces of bureaucracy, production, and even moral governance. These are concepts that are built on an economy of scarcity rather than generosity, both materially, intellectually, and most importantly, in regards to care.
In recent conversations with friends, an important question came up: what do we as artists want from institutions?
Is it for them to be abolished completely? Perhaps certain types of institutions do need to, those with colonial strategies, which cannot operate without oppressive international and local infrastructures, but those are not the only types of art institutions there is. Can we look at institutions as more than monolithic and stereotomic masses of solid brick, and instead as organized spaces (potentially of care) that are made up of people? Is this possible with the level of opacity often associated with the operations of an institution, and is it possible with the kind of restrictions and regulations imposed on groups of people organizing together to become an institution?
I don’t know if it is, but I think it’s a quest worth striving towards, and the work needs to be begin on three fronts: 1) institutional leaders need to acknowledge that they are part of a symbiotic relationship with their artists, they need artists as much as (if not more than) artists need them, 2) institutions should not be mere service providers, but rather space- and care-providers for creative practices to flourish, and 3) creative practitioners should engage with institutional workers as more than policed and policing regulators of cultural production, but rather as comrades, creative workers, and professionals with as much stake in a strong and generous community of artists as anyone.
Mays Albaik is a Palestinian artist with an interdisciplinary practice, and the Program Manager at Warehouse421, a creative center in Abu Dhabi, UAE. In her practice, she explores the triangulation of place, body, and language through video, sculpture, and installation next to expanding into collaborative methods of art production. At Warehouse421, she focuses on researching, setting, and executing the broader vision for programs that prioritize the needs of the creative community, while working towards a horizontal approach to institutional operation. Mays holds an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, and a BArch from the American University of Sharjah.