by Maura Reilly. Thames & Hudson, April 2018. 240 p. ill. ISBN 9780500239704 (h/c), $32.95.
Ethics is a hot topic right now for cultural communities. It is a call to arms; the building of activism; the awareness of bias and the creation of change around marginalized and underrepresented groups. This book provides a good foundation for how the visual arts community, curators, and those studying the art world should address and expand ethical shortcomings by recognizing, presenting, and researching counter-hegemonic exhibitions that challenge the very male-dominated Western art world.
Early on in this book, Reilly cites Griselda Pollock, from Differencing the Canon, arguing that attempts need to be made to rectify gaps in the archive. Pollock’s argument is to discuss the cultural work of women by feminists. Her critique is highly applicable to the presentation of topics and exhibitions in this work, such as tackling white privilege and western centrism (Magiciens de la Terre at the Pompidou in 1989); resisting masculinism and sexism (Sexual politics: Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” in Feminist Art History at the Hammer Museum in 1996); challenging heterocentrism and lesbo-homophobia (Great American Lesbian Show, multiple exhibition venues in 1980); and at the end of the section “A Call to Arms: Strategies for Change.”
Reilly’s overall goal is not to provide critical analysis of the exhibitions but to present overviews that might prompt further scholarly and critical research by others. Each exhibition featured follows the formula of presenting key images, an overview of the show’s theme, the curatorial aim, and a summary of the critical reception (meaning media reception and review of key texts by critics).
As with most books about exhibitions, more pictures are always desired to show all aspects of how the works were hung and if curatorial text was presented to viewers at the exhibition as a didactic panel (or is available in an exhibition catalog as an essay).
Even with the solid thesis and text presented by Reilly, she is quick to point out that this is all a work in progress. Exhibitions focused on counter-hegemonic content create forward steps away from the canon; following these periods there are backsteps to the old standards. Reilly calls on curators to be self-critical about the criteria for exhibitions, considering why works are included or excluded and how they are being presented. She encourages curators and exhibition attendees to look beyond the blockbusters to see where and how exhibitions are presenting non-white western male art. Overall, readers gain ways of identifying bias in exhibitions, examining critique by media, and the role a curator can play as an advocate with museum and gallery board members and acquisition committees.