Taking (Back) Care

From 2017 to 2019 I ran a series of workshops on the crisis of care in the cultural sector. My motivation for the series was the sense of being over-stretched, under-resourced, and uncared for, which so many cultural workers experience.

While contemporary curators seem at pains to emphasise the caring nature of their work, often recalling the origins of ‘curating’ in the Latin ‘curare’ for care, where they direct their curatorial efforts is often less clear. A limited number of hyper-visible artists seem to receive unequal amounts of curatorial attention, yet the vast dark matter of artistic and cultural labour works for low or little recognition and reward. Curators certainly expend significant amounts of their emotional labour on developing relationships with wealthy donors and influential funders, who they hope will support their projects. Yet they rarely seem to acknowledge the low-status and infrastructural activities that sustain production across the creative ecology, let alone make efforts to extend care those working in adjacent fields.

I became concerned that this preoccupation with curatorial care was being used not to challenge but to perpetuate the status quo. In their feminised roles, curators and cultural workers risk being treated as sources of infinite care and support, reflecting extractivist attitudes that treat nature, just like maternal love, as a free, boundless resource. Cultural workers often find themselves in a double bind. Faced to deal with the consequences of cuts to programme and institutional budgets in the wake of austerity measures that have impacted many regions, they often take on the socially reproductive labour of maintaining an institution’s smooth operations and pristine public image. Needing to behave opportunistically and entrepreneurially – concerned that they are only as good as their last gig – cultural workers have little time for critical self-reflection, and less for acknowledging failure or exhaustion. Their passionate commitment to the artists and projects with which they are engaged only makes them more at risk of working excessively, thus risking burn-out and disillusion. This operates to the detriment of their own – and their collaborators’ – flourishing, while undermining their non-professional relationships and care responsibilities.

This situation calls to mind the feminist curator and community activist Jenny Richards’ warnings about the dangers of perpetuating the feminised image of the coping curator: ‘That woman who looks great, perfect lipstick, never needs to sleep and as Arlie Hochschild says [in her 1983 book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling ] offering only the clean house (gallery) and welcoming smile’. Richards concludes her conversational remarks, ‘But of course that figure doesn’t exist – well she doesn’t live in me! Instead, to meet the demand, one must split oneself, pushing – as Hochschild highlights – the messy, difficulty, undesirable work into the background, in order to leave a cleansed version of that role in the public.” ❨1❩

Many cultural workers share with Richards a recognition of the consequences of neoliberal pressure to be endlessly busy, hyper-productive, and in demand. We understand that the toll of staying au fait with the latest art world developments puts an unsustainable burden on our own as well as environmental resources. Having effectively diagnosed the unhealthy work habits with which we risk becoming complicit, we now must move beyond description to develop alternative ways of working and caring together. In the workshops the opportunity to talk in a non-judgmental environment amongst peers felt like a constructive step towards unlearning unsustainable work habits, and to imagine ourselves operating as part of a caring alliance.

Foregrounding where care and value are typically invested in the art world, workshop participants shared their experiences, of exhaustion and disillusion, solidarity and resistance. Thinking transversally, they tried to connect cultural labour with that of other care and service workers across global labour supply chains. In imagining how we might push back against exploitative working conditions, they developed propositions for new habits and structures in which care would be more equitably valued, remunerated, and distributed.

Yet while prompted by a desire to revalue practices and ethics of care, participants also recognised the ambivalence at the core of care, and the dangers that accompany its romanticisation. As Maria Puig de la Bellacasa reflects in Matters of Care:

To care can feel good; it can also feel awful. It can do good; it can oppress. Its essential character to humans and countless living beings makes it all the most susceptible to convey control. But what is care? Is it an affection? A moral obligation? Work? A burden? A joy? Something we can learn or practice? Something we just do? ❨2❩

Devalued and made invisible, we often only notice care when it has been withdrawn. The recent upsurge in discussions around care in the creative sector, of which these workshops are a part, results directly from how fragile and unsustainable our futures feel. The gesture of urging someone to ‘take care’ is at once bland and ominous, provoked by a fear of danger and the sense that the other person might not understand the risks they face. Children are placed ‘in care’ by the state when their birth parents are deemed incapable of looking after them. Meanwhile, the question of who will care for their birth parents is often pushed to the side. ‘Care in the community’ is euphemism for government cuts to social and psychiatric services, where necessary care work is outsourced to unpaid citizens and loved ones. Hard work and repetitive, care work disproportionally falls on the shoulders of feminised and racialised subjects, where it suffers a process of disavowal and devaluation.

The first workshop took place in Toronto in 2017 as part of the ‘Take Care’ exhibition circuit at the University of Toronto’s Blackwood Gallery. It accompanied an exhibition that I organised, ‘Habits of Care’, which highlighted forms of curatorial labour in order to query whom and what the art world typically invests with value. Developed with curator Christine Shaw, the workshop culminated in a presentation of workshop participants’ propositions at the ‘Care Crisis, Care Collective’ forum. Of particular concern to Christine was the question of how we might care with others, rather than imagining care in one-dimensional terms as something either given or received. This prompted discussions of how we might develop more reciprocal forms of care, based in friendship and the redistribution of resources, between curators and the artists, institutions, communities and publics with whom they work.

In 2018 I adapted the workshop as part of the in-waves feminist curatorial residency in Helsinki. The emotional labour of the organisers, curatorial duo nynnyt (Finnish for “cissies”), created an atmosphere of intimacy and trust that encouraged vulnerable self-exposure and exchange. Three further versions took place in 2019. For the launch of the Freeland Artists Programme I led a session at SITE Gallery in Sheffield around Productive Refusals. Originally developed with artist Alex Martinis Roe, the proposition explores the idea that refusing an invitation whose terms are impossible to fulfil would make the impossibility of that invitation visible and open up conversations about alternative ways of working or relating. With Studio Voltaire in London, I worked with artist Grace Ndiritu to develop a two-part workshop in tandem with the exhibition ‘Rand/Goop’ by Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley. Grace punctuated the second day with guided meditation and movement sessions. Helping us digest the workshop’s often intense and personal subject matter, these moments of calm encouraged us to become more aware of our bodies, minds, and energies, as well as those of the other participants. A one-day programme in Paris, again developed with Christine Shaw, accompanied a different iteration of ‘Take Care’ at the Ferme du Buisson in 2019. Propositions developed during that workshop are included below.

While the workshops aimed to foster an atmosphere of reciprocity and respect, it was important that they did not discourage or suppress discordant or divergent views. In Toronto, for instance, some participants chose to present their disagreements with the group-authored propositions in marginal notes. Making questioning and dissent visible, these annotations prevented the illusion of consensus. Some participants also rejected my proposal that we protect our affective energies and relationships by distinguishing between ‘work’ and ‘life.’ They did not want to separate their labour from their passion and love. This prompted a discussion, which was subsequently developed with participants in Sheffield, about if we may draw a line between professional activities that are considered labour, for which we should demand for fair pay, and those carried out for other reasons (social justice, community-building, self-understanding, and expression, or simple pleasure).

What participants across the different groups did agree upon was the need for more transparent and honest discussions of work conditions in the notoriously unregulated art world. Such a move to transparency could encompass everything from the adoption of clear fee structures to an honest evaluation of time and productivity requirements, and questions about from where funding sources come and on what terms. Attempting to account for the environmental cost of cultural projects, from the carbon footprint of exhibition visitors and art transport to the recyclability of installation supplies, goes hand-in-hand with this drive for transparency.

Tactics developed across the workshops reflect a frustration with a certain performance of radicalism and criticality that is prevalent in the art world. Too often curators and institutional directors fetishise social movements and radical ideas in their writing and programmes without challenging or taking steps to change the conditions under which their projects occur. These propositions put pressure on cultural institutions to make good on the radical content of the art and ideas that they promote, to walk the walk and not just talk to the talk.

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The propositions here came out of a one-day workshop Take (Back) Care, which I developed with Christine Shaw in tandem with an iteration of the exhibition ‘Take Care’ at Ferme du Boisson in Paris. The workshop took place at the Cite de Culture. Staff from Ferme du Boisson joined with artists, curators, activists, students, and educators. Propositions were written collectively by Diego Aristizábal, Florence Cheval, Anne Degroux, Florian Fischer, Aurélie Gravelat, Marina James-Appel, Lucie Ménard , Léna Monnier, Terah Noll, Julie Pellegrin, Pusha Petrov, Septembre Tiberghien, and Yves Tixier.


May 17, 2019

Our proposition is that we create structures that find a place for every individuality. This recognises that everyone has their own skills, which can be shared with others in more productive ways than if you work individually. This creation of an environment of reciprocity – rather than a strict economic exchange – increases our collective capacity to do.

Our proposition is we trust the intelligence of the group rather than only push our own ideas, and find structures for supporting this collective process.

Our proposition is that we understand care as a finite resource, and value (price) it – and redistribute it (taking back care) – accordingly. Bearing in mind that the Global South is the region most expropriated for its caring resources, as well as so much else.

Our proposition is instead of agreeing to provide to what is demanded, we turn the conversation around to work on what is really needed.

Our proposition is to understand care as a good that increases when you apply it. It multiplies itself.

Our proposition is that we allow space for people to speak out, learn to listen to people who do so, and recognise and appreciate that their response is a form of emotional labour. In so doing we recognise that the curatorial gesture is not complete, but is itself a work-in-process.

Our proposition is that we understand care as not only representing critique – and gaining cultural capital in the process – but applying care to the structures in which we work, ideally in ways that cannot be easily rolled back. E.g: Christine’s example of securing funds for gallery staff, who are unionised and whose jobs cannot be easily dissolved.

Our proposition is that we promote practices of working together, and rethink care as a collective project, among students (and others) above those of the domineering author ego.

Our proposition is that we attempt to acknowledge those whose work contributes to a project, whose labour might be invisible or under-valued, and to explore ways of doing so that go beyond being a token gesture (perhaps by questioning the logic of authorship and/or intellectual copyright).

Our proposition is to envision our projects as assemblage in more-than-human worlds, and that we make those assemblages visible, instead of foregrounding individual actors and agents.

We propose a system by which representatives of a group present managers with grievances that are anonymously levelled, rather than identifying individuals.

We propose to develop contracts that stipulate we will not work under conditions of under-payment, to which all signatories would adhere.


  1. In Victoria Horne, Kirsten Lloyd, Jenny Richards, Catherine Spencer, ‘Taking Care: Feminist Curatorial Pasts, Presents and Futures,’ On Curating, 2016 https://www.on-curating.org/issue-29-reader/taking-care-feminist-curatorial-pasts-presents-and-futures.html

  2. Maria Puig de la Casa, ‘Introduction: The Disruptive Thought of Care’, Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2017, p. 1.

feminism care institutions curating arts organising