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by Helena Reckitt and Dorothee Richter

Instituting Feminism

Encompassing interviews, conversations, single and co-authored articles, and visual essays, “Instituting Feminism” reflects the efforts of curators, artists, and other arts producers to move beyond identifying inequities in the cultural industries to devising tools that can foster structural change. Across the contributions, instituting feminism is envisaged as an active, relational practice, rather than one that seeks to limit feminisms to predefined methodologies or forms.

‘Instituting Feminism” grows out of a collaboration between Elke Krasny, Lara Perry, Helena Reckitt, and Dorothee Richter that started in 2016 with the symposium “Curating in Feminist Thought.”[1] In the four conferences that followed—“Unsettling Feminist Curating,” 2017; “Movements in Feminism / Feminisms in Movement: Urgencies, Emergencies and Promises,” 2018; “Affidamento - Creating Feminist Solidarity in Art and Curating,” 2018; and “The Revolution of Digital Languages or When Cyber Turns into Sound of Poetry - A Symposium on Post-Cyber-Feminisms,” 2019—parameters for how feminist values could impact upon the curatorial field and the wider culture were proposed, shared, and discussed.[2]

An editorial Call for Submissions, circulated in 2019, built on these conferences’ momentum. Under the rubric “Unsettling Feminist Curating,” it sought contributions that explore alliances between feminist curatorial practices and struggles for ecological and social transformation. Noting how the integration of feminism into the art world has been critiqued as much as welcomed, due to the tokenistic “pink-washing” that often accompanies its mainstream embrace, the Call solicited articles that unsettle relations between feminism and conventional events and exhibitions.[3]

“Unsettling Feminist Curating” produced such a strong international response that the editors decided to expand their plan to edit one collection of essays, to develop three publications. Following this issue of OnCurating, two essay collections, Feminist Curating and Organizing and Curating with Care, edited by Krasny and Perry, will be published by Routledge.

As this issue of OnCurating reflects, feminist-inspired art, curatorial projects, and exhibitions have gained heightened visibility over the past decade. Although statistics reveal the continued dominance of white, Eurocentric male artists and agendas,[4] the interest in feminist artists and curatorial projects, and the growth of women in curatorial and directorial roles, cannot be denied. This profusion of activity should not, however, be taken at face value. For one thing, most women in positions of art world power are white and have been educated at elite Western institutions. This also does not solve the structural problem of the persistent gap between productive labour (not only affective labour of all sorts, but also labour for common goods, like clean water and air) and paid labour.[5] These structures depend on subjects that are divided along the lines of race, class, and gender.  It is also clear that, despite the radicalism of feminist artworks shown and programmes sponsored, the art world is beset with endemic problems. From the exploitation of low-paid feminised labour to the vulnerability of employees of colour, the environmental impact of cultural projects, and museums’ foundations in extractive colonial policies, the reality of how art spaces operate often differs widely from the progressive environments they may appear to be. The gap between public support for social justice and the working practices and conditions of most arts organisations was demonstrated during the recent #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter protests. While rhetorical statements of solidarity and support were prevalent, few signs of commitment to real progressive transformation and change have emerged.

Confronting the need for change, and building on instructive earlier examples of feminist instituting, contributors to this issue tend to be as concerned with process as they are with product. They pay as much, if not more, attention to internal institutional workings as they do public-facing exhibitions and programmes. Art world terms that are often bandied about, while remaining ill-defined, are pondered and critiqued. From “inclusivity” to “access,” “collaboration” to “care,” contributors scrutinise institutional statements and compare public rhetoric with actual practice.


Section 1 proposes definitions of feminist instituting and feminised labour, and identifies the terrain for struggles to come. Angela Dimitrakaki and Nizan Shaked challenge the rhetoric of “inclusivity” within feminist and other cultural agendas, calling for a radical rethink of feminist terms of recognition. They argue that the focus on visibly different identities reinforces marginalised subjects, leading to a simplification and reification of collective identities which in turn encourages intolerance, divisiveness, and authoritarianism. By downplaying the politics of class and migration, this emphasis also prevents urgent discussions about the need for wealth redistribution. Nanne Buurman highlights the ambivalent histories associated with feminised cultural labour in the context of neoliberal biopolitical power relations. She cautions against a too easy association between curating, cure, and care, pointing out care’s governmental functions and complicity with (neo-)nationalist capitalism. Resonating with Buurman’s critique, and applying it to themselves, Secretariat for Ghosts, Archival Politics and Gaps (SKGAL) consider the potential self-exploitation of precarious cultural and academic workers. Their essay and relational map attempt to make visible the conditions of their labour, without becoming fodder for cognitive capitalism. In her bracing text, Dorothee Richter warns that feminist instituting will not come without a fight. Detailing the increased influence of wealthy collectors on the contemporary art scene in Zurich, she draws broader implications about the dominance of right-wing authoritarian and militaristic forces that masquerade behind private “support.” Unsurprisingly, the private collections for which the Kunsthaus in Zurich offers an exclusive platform encompass positions which are largely white and male, and which support the idea of an autonomous artwork.


Section 2: Theory into Practice: Feminist Instituting Then and Now explores various curatorial, activist, and organisational approaches, from working to transform existing art organisations from within to devising new institutions that learn from the precedents they build on. At the start of Emelie Chhangur’s tenure as Director of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston, Ontario, she speaks to Jennifer Fisher about her concept of “curatorial in-reach.” Contesting traditional one-sided practices of gallery outreach, “in-reach” seeks a more reciprocal, long-term relationship of learning and trust. Growing out of Indigenous consensus practices, this non-extractive model attempts a deep form of hospitality, where the host is transformed through their encounter with the guest. Similarly challenging dominant cultural and political rhetoric, Janna Graham, Husseina Hamza, Joyce Jacca, and Tracey Jarrett discuss their work building a community museum-in-the-making.  Contesting urban development schemes that undermine, rather than nurture, existing communities, activities they initiate and objects they gather act as means of collective learning and resistance. “Working from the pockets,” they seek to make visible the ghosts of the Transatlantic slave from which their dockland neighbourhood grew, as well as the feminised work of social production on which their project, and the wider community, depends. This emphasis on conditions of sustenance and sustainability characterises another emerging feminist institution, La Sala. Envisaging an arts organisation built around the table that is generative rather than extractive, to the planet as well as themselves, co-founders Alba Colomo and Lucy Lopez see feminism(s) as “an instituent practice: adaptive, porous, capable of making many worlds[…]. Rather than instituting feminism—fixing it in time, formalising it—we’d rather speak of feminist instituting as an ongoing praxis, something to live by and build with.”

Earlier instances of feminist instituting, alliance-building, and relationality inform the remaining articles in Section 2. Adele Patrick, in a roundtable with three other seasoned feminist cultural leaders, Nandita Gandhi, Althea Greenan, and Merete Ipsen, explores institutional endurance against the backdrop of instability and threat. Considering how the organisations they have built integrate learning and active engagement as their core, rather than “add-on” components, the women discuss their efforts to adapt and survive, to stay porous and open to discovery. This wide-ranging conversation also broaches issues of professionalism versus DIY, independence versus complicity, and physical versus virtual spaces and archives. Echoing Patrick and co’s concerns with feminist transmission and endurance, Alex Martinis Roe, in dialogue with Helena Reckitt, discusses the influence of second wave feminism on her artistic approach to building networks of affiliation and support. Presenting and creating a relational model of identity, where subjects come into being through their encounter with others, her long-term art projects aim to nurture intergenerational solidarity and personal and social transformation. A related concern with collective feminist process characterises Cornelia Sollfrank’s account of the cyberfeminist Old Boys Network, active from 1997 to 2001. As a network with an open membership and no fixed goal, the OBN inspired new subjectivities, artworks, and activisms that responded to the intersection of genders and emerging technologies. Berit Fischer also reflects on how art and curatorial projects can foster emancipatory formations. Her participatory art practice of Mestiza Consciousness and Sentipensamiento seeks to resist the neoliberal demands of both the event economy and the representational exhibition format, to forge “an activated, embodied and experiential critique.”


Section 3: Curatorial Herstories explores the related projects of curating feminist or women’s art and curating with a feminist agenda or perspective.  The section opens with an illustrated essay by Romane Bernard, Sofia Cecere, Thelma Gaster, Jeanne Guillou, Barbara Lefebvre, Séraphine Le Maire, Oksana Luyssen, Rose Moreau, Jeanne Porte, Laurence Rassel, and Miska Tokarek. It documents their steps to organise an intersectional feminist exhibition during COVID-19 that embodied values of inclusivity and collectivity: from widely circulating an Open Call to inviting potential exhibitors to take part in a group visualisation exercise. In Feminist Curating as Curatorial Activism, six leading curators—Ann Sutherland Harris, Daria Khan, Rosa Martínez, Camille Morineau, and Catherine de Zegher—join Maura Reilly to reflect on the challenge their ground-breaking projects have posed to dominant curatorial strategies in which a disproportionate emphasis on white, Western cis-male artists perpetuates inequality.  Their conversation touches on the difficulties they have faced as feminist curators, the influence of their work, and the dominance of white women in earlier periods of feminist curating. Looking ahead, they discuss the need to widen the public for feminist curatorial projects, and for structural changes that inaugurate meaningful change. Also taking stock of the ethical dimensions of their work, Ève Chabanon, Anna Colin, and Madeleine Planeix-Crocker consider the complexities of socially oriented art and curating. While sharing their positive experiences of collectivity, support, and creative growth in collaborative art projects, they nonetheless air concerns about the challenges facing social practice. In a culture such as that in the UK, where the government pressures arts organisations to compensate for shortcomings in social care, do arts workers risk taking on responsibilities with under-served groups that exceed their training and experience? How to productively disrupt the conventions of the monographic exhibition is the focus of Erin McCutcheon’s essay. She reflects on how an exhibition devoted to the practice of feminist artist Monica Mayer replaced the notion of the “retrospective” with that of the “retrocollective.” By embodying the participatory, collective, and grassroots energies out of which Mayer’s art emerged, and the questions and uncertainties that drove it, the exhibition became an active, and activist, space. In her appreciation of the work of Black feminist curator Natasha Becker, Sharlene Khan explores how Becker confronted the profound sense of discomfort and exclusion that many people of colour experience visiting museums and art spaces. In contrast, by embracing the South African concept of ubuntu—“I am because we are”—Becker has devised curatorial projects informed by empathy and love, which assume the position of being part of, and in community with, others. Curatorial strategies of inclusion are also the focus of the essay by The Two Talking Yonis. Taking issue with the curatorial rhetoric and methodology of group exhibition of contemporary women’s art from the Global South, they argue that its emphasis on bodies, identities, and hybridity ends up reinforcing the limiting and fetishising categories to which racialised women have too long been subject. Instead, they argue for the need for a more concerted commitment to exhibitions of Black women’s art in all its complexity, beyond one-off tokenizing and sweeping gestures. In the final essay, Elena Zaytseva looks back in order to look forward. Constructing a genealogy of archivally based art by women in Russia, including during the 1980s when feminism was barely spoken of, she shows how the speculative installations of Irina Nakhova imagined futures for art that did not yet exist.

These searching contributions reflect the challenges facing art workers committed to progressive change. Their efforts are necessary, given the resistance to feminist, anti-racist, environmental, and anti-capitalist cultural projects that is now underway. The visibility of these issues, manifest in powerful social movements including #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #RhodesMustFall, and Climate Emergency, has provoked a conservative backlash, what the UK right-wing media calls a “war on woke.” This new culture war is exacerbated in many regions where widespread cuts to public funding, and increased private influence, place a disproportionate burden on feminised, racialised, and classed subjects to carry out important yet under-valued background cultural and activist work. Anti-feminist obstacles and challenges do not, however, just come from feminism’s external foes, as feminists battle amongst themselves. The divisive struggles around trans-exclusion in feminist space and white-dominance in the art world show that what constitutes “safety” and “access” for one group or person can represent violence and exclusion for others. The feminist projects and perspectives highlighted in “Instituting Feminism” reflect the new subjectivities, caring alliances, and support structures needed to counteract toxic contemporary labour conditions, including those endemic to art and curating. By imagining and implementing new visions for art and the broader society, they hold out promise for more equitable and reciprocal ways of working, producing, and coexisting.


Currently Reader in Curating in the Art Department at Goldsmiths, University of London, Helena Reckitt has worked as a curator, a public programmer, and an academic editor in the UK, Canada, and the US. She has developed exhibitions, public events, and discursive programmes for organisations including the ICA, London; the Atlanta Contemporary Art Centre, Georgia; and the Power Plant and Nuit Blanche in Toronto. With a longstanding interest in feminist art, writing, and collective practice, since 2015 she has coordinated the Feminist Duration Reading Group, which meets each month to explore under-recognised feminisms. She has recently completed an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, and is applying approaches from life writing to her academic and curatorial essays.

Dorothee Richter
is Professor in Contemporary Curating at the University of Reading, UK, and head of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, CAS/MAS Curating at the Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland; She is director of the PhD in Practice in Curating Programme, a cooperation of the Zurich University of the Arts and the University of Reading. Richter has worked extensively as a curator: she was initiator of Curating Degree Zero Archive, Curator of Kuenstlerhaus Bremen, at which she curated different symposia on feminist issues in contemporary arts and an archive on feminist practices, Materialien/Materials; recently she directed, together with Ronald Kolb, a film on Fluxus: Flux Us Now, Fluxus Explored with a Camera. She is executive editor of OnCurating.org.

[1]“Curating in Feminist Thought,” Migros Museum and ZHdK, Zurich, 2016. Concept: Elke Krasny, Lara Perry, and Dorothee Richter with fCu (feminist curators united), followed by issue 29 of OnCurating on the same theme: www.curating.org/symposium-curating-in-feminist-thought/.

[2] “Unsettling Feminist Curating,” 2017, Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, curated by Elke Krasny, Barbara Mahlknecht, Lara Perry, and Dorothee Richter, www.akbild.ac.at/portal_en/institutes/education-in-the-arts/conferences/2017/unsettling-feminist-curating?set_language=en&cl=en; “Movements in Feminism / Feminisms in Movement: Urgencies, Emergencies and Promises,” Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, and Belvedere 21, curated by Elke Krasny with Lara Perry and Dorothee Richter, 2018, http://stories.belvedere.at/de/aHN31h4j/movements-in-feminism-feminisms-in-movement/; “Affidamento - Creating Feminist Solidarity in Art and Curating,” 2018, Migros Museum and ZHdK, Zurich, https://migrosmuseum.ch/en/events/affidamento-creating-feminist-solidarity-in-art-and-curating, initiated by Elke Krasny, Lara Perry, Helena Reckitt, and Dorothee Richter; and “The Revolution of Digital Languages or When Cyber Turns into Sound of Poetry - A Symposium on Post-Cyber-Feminisms,” 2019, Migros Museum and ZHdK, Zurich, organised by Dorothee Richter and Heike Munder, https://migrosmuseum.ch/en/events/symposium-the-revolution-of-digital-languages-or-when-cyber-turns-to-sound-of-poetry-a-symposium-on-post-cyber-feminisms-1.

[3] “Unsettling Feminist Curating,” 2019, https://arthist.net/archive/21679.

[4] See Maura Reilly, “Taking the Measure of Sexism: Facts, Figures, and Fixes,” ARTnews, (May 16, 2015),  https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/taking-the-measure-of-sexism-facts-figures-and-fixes-4111/

[5] See Nancy Fraser, “Contradictions of Capital and Care,” New Left Review 100 (July-August 2016): 99-117.

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Issue 52

Instituting Feminism


by Helena Reckitt and Dorothee Richter

by Secretariat for Ghosts, Archival Politics and Gaps (SKGAL)

Emelie Chhangur interviewed by Jennifer Fisher

by Husseina Hamza, Joyce Jacca, Tracey Jarrett, and Janna Graham

by la Sala (Alba Colomo & Lucy Lopez)

by Alex Martinis Roe and Helena Reckitt

by Romane Bernard, Sofia Cecere, Thelma Gaster, Jeanne Guillou, Barbara Lefebvre, Séraphine Le Maire, Oksana Luyssen, Rose Moreau, Jeanne Porte, Laurence Rassel, and Miska Tokarek

by Ann Sutherland Harris, Daria Khan, Rosa Martínez, Camille Morineau, Maura Reilly, and Catherine de Zegher

by Ève Chabanon, Anna Colin, and Madeleine Planeix-Crocker