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May 22, 2017 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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How to Learn?

A week ago now I went to How to Learn? A Discussion on Emerging Curatorial Education in Aotearoa at Enjoy Public Art Gallery. The panel, chaired by Sophie Davis, was made up of four emerging/mid-career curators: Andrea Bell, Curator of Art at Hocken Collections; Tendai John Mutambu, Assistant Curator at Govett-Brewster Art Gallery; Melanie Oliver, Senior Curator at The Dowse; and Balamohan Shingade, Assistant Director at ST PAUL St Gallery. They talked about how they got to where they are and what options are out there for emerging curators.

A meme stayed projected on the wall for most of the talk, leftover from Mutambu’s presentation. I don’t know where the image originally comes from, but it’s a 21st century mise-en-scène with the Instagram tags visible:

“Artist”, wearing trackpants and a crop top — her face is out of frame — twerks on “Gallerist”, also in trackpants and crop, her pierced belly button exposed, who is bent backwards in a bridge. “Gallerist” is being propped up by “Unpaid Intern”, who is using her entire body to keep the other woman from falling. “Collector”, wearing pink and grey pajamas and a cute pink sleep mask on her forehead, has got her hand on “Artist’s” ass, her mouth agape in what looks like excitement. “Curator” sits away from the action, clad in all black, taking photos on a huge iPhone.

It’s funny, in that meme-y way of being an exaggeration of real life, drawing on associations that aren’t obvious until they are. Really, the most unlikely aspect of the image is that all the characters are black, and all are women. Everything else is possible after a few too many drinks. Mostly, I like the image in the same way I love reality TV: never guiltily, always totally immersively. How much fun! To imagine yourself in each and every role. How would you live if you lived a script? Would you be Kylie or Kim? Paris or Nicole? Surely no one would pick “Unpaid Intern”.

There’s a scene in the 2012 Bravo series Gallery Girls where Maggie Schaffer confronts her employer, the gallerist Eli Klein. It goes something like this:

Maggie: I just can’t keep doing these internships for you…

Eli: I don’t want you to intern forever, and we only ever ask for a 30 day commitment from our interns. Do you think it’s been more than 30 total?

Maggie: [whispering and crying] I’ve done this since college. [She left university three years ago]. That’s all I wanted to say.

Eli: Okay, well I appreciate your hard work and dedication. I will see you on Monday.

The unpaid intern propping up the rest of the ridiculous scene is often praised for hard work and dedication, which is their contribution in a deal with an employer that usually promises to return experience, maybe a reference, and rarely — but ideally — a paying job. In a society like ours, where Pākehā women earn 13% less than the average male, Māori women 13% less than that, and Pasifika women 7% less again, to be able to accept a position which pays only in cultural capital is a luxury. An industry in which some kind of volunteer-work-as-experience is necessary to get a foot in the door leads inevitably to an industry that is lacking in diversity. That’s not to say that unpaid work is the only means of entering the sector, just that it seems one of the most common. It’s also not to say that unpaid work is necessarily exploitative, although it can be, but that it’s often hard to say no to any opportunities — unpaid or paid — for fear of missing out on the experience. The problem is not that the system doesn’t work — it does, whatever its pitfalls — but that by its very nature it excludes people who can’t afford to risk working for nothing in the hopes that it will lead to something more.

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