kneading, resting, assembling

Angeliki Tzortzakaki, Enrico Floriddia, Jérôme de Vienne on behalf of bi-


Nevermore — Remix

Julian Zehnder


Garden Manifesto

Dora Đurkesac


Right to Breath as Shibboleth

Kim Córdova


Slow Burn

Katherine MacBride and Miriam Wistreich


The Jan van Eyck’s Stone of Folly

Bruno Alves de Almeida



Nina Kurtela


Towards Neuromodernism

Boris Klyushnikov

The Exhibition Format as a Vector for Institutional Change
Laurens Otto


Curating means making art public. Depending on the curator’s style, the emphasis lies either on what 'making', 'art', or 'public' entails. Arriving at a clear definition of any of these terms is a lifelong work, and for me the main challenge of making art public can be distilled to a single sticky question: How to make central what is normally pushed to the periphery? 

With this question in mind, this article articulates the bandwidth of institutional change that an exhibition can set in motion. As the exhibition that inspired this effort has been postponed due to Covid-19, I will use this opportunity to take some distance and reflect more broadly on how the format of the exhibition can be used as a vector for change within an art institution.1 

The problem is clearly not a lack of push on the level of existing policy. The leading guideline in the Netherlands is currently the 'Diversity and Inclusion Code'2 from 2019, which was commissioned by a federation of organisations in the cultural industry, representing performing arts, museums, libraries, art centres, and orchestras. Notably, this effort was funded by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and the national fund for each of the respective domains — the Mondriaan Fund in the case of the visual arts.

The purpose of the 'Diversity and Inclusion Code' is: "[…] for the cultural and creative sector to represent the broad diversity of Dutch society. A basic requirement is that the sector is equally accessible to everyone: as a maker, producer, worker and as public."3 This code primarily applies to those who work in the cultural and creative field, but extends to related organisations (such as research institutions and academies), and also funders, from both the public and private domain. The main terms are 'diversity', 'inclusion', and 'accessibility', which are rather apolitically defined. Diversity here is defined as the visible and invisible characteristics that make people different, instead of pertaining to specific groups which have historically been marginalised. The code defines inclusion as the degree to which the parties involved feel 'safe' and 'respected'4, not as the dismantling of the systemic barriers to participation faced by marginalised groups. Finally, accessibility should be understood here in all its possible meanings; physical, digital, social, financial, etc. The code does not specify to whom this accessibility is addressed (the public, artists, employers) so I assume that this includes all of the above. The reach of this code comprises “the four P’s”; programme, public, personnel, and partners. Its clout resides in the fact that organisations will need to comply with the code to be granted funds that take the code into account. This is an important deviation from the usual spiel, where codes are implemented in the cultural domain according to a 'comply or explain' approach. Previously, organisations were allowed to explain why they would not or could not comply with the standards set by the code. This new code, however, demands that organisations both comply and explain; not only reflecting on the code, but also adhering to it.

Even though the code is flawed in its political analysis of the unequal distribution of power, access, and representation, as a working document it remains surprisingly ambitious. It offers all the necessary inspiration and guidelines for an organisation of any size to become diverse on all its fronts. It is a concise clear-cut document, written with the support and involvement of an incredible array of experts, cultural institutions, and funders. However, the task here is not to critique the code itself, but to reflect on its implementation.5 The only comment I want to make is that it does not offer an analysis of the structural inequalities that make the cultural field so homogenous. But perhaps that is simply the limit of consultancy: it tends to reduce complex problems to readymade solutions. The only true malaise that I feel, is that I’m afraid that what is gained in empowerment is lost in urgency; the can-do attitude that radiates from the document disguises the fact that there is still a long way to go. If the near perfect Code has been written, offering a functional roadmap for change, then what are cultural institutions still waiting for?

Again, I want to stress the importance of bureaucratic steps and the necessary institutionalisation in any reformation process. But unfortunately, these guidelines are not the sedimentation of years of practice. They remain prescriptive: they come before any possible action. From the propositions of such a policy paper, you would instead think that the battle has already been won, that true diversity, accessibility, and inclusion are finally on the horizon. The question therefore remains what these guidelines might possibly instill. On the level of annual reports, mission statements, and funding applications, cultural institutions are in a rat race proclaiming their achievements with regard to 'inclusivity' and 'diversity'. So much so, that one starts to wonder if much of the current dialogue is a politically correct front keeping the status quo in place, rather than informing change. Does such policy have any material ramifications, or is it only rehashed into further manifestations of policy? As an even more sobering thought, it brings Sara Ahmed’s observation in On Being Included to mind: "It is as if having a policy becomes a substitute for action."6

So, how can such forms of policy become productive, operating beyond the level of policy alone? If taken seriously and if it aims to exceed the level of policy, the 'Diversity and Inclusion Code' should have different implications for each of the stakeholders involved. Everyone should fight their own battle according to the demands of their profession. For me as a curator, it is the exhibition-form that can act as a vector for change. The exhibition must be to the curator what the policy paper is to the policy maker.

The question how we make central what is normally pushed to the periphery, only offers a little more clarity to the conundrum that is synthesised by the vague terms of 'inclusivity' and 'diversity'. However, the challenges that suddenly emerge with that minor precision are seemingly massive. It does not only mean asking 'how to include what is diverse?' — but it also acknowledges a power dynamic between what is central and what is not. I hope to make two things apparent with that clarification. Firstly, engaging with marginalised groups is not about validating positions ('giving a platform to...'), as these communities already have their respective platforms and constituencies; they are just not operating on the more mainstream institutional level that now grants them access. Secondly, I hope that this clarity reveals that 'becoming diverse' should be an act, not just a message. If an institution opens up to include different bodies, identities, and positions, this should generate a productive moment, for the artists, the visitors and the wider institution (beyond the PR-department alone). Cultural institutions have long prioritised politically correct statements over taking long-term efforts to produce actual change. In short, the easy solution of solely having progressive wall texts should never be the end result. Something should change on a deeper level.

I will try to make these statements more concrete by describing the set-up of a recent exhibition. Together with the writer Simon(e) van Saarloos, I tried to expand on the question of how to make central what is normally pushed to the periphery, through an artistic programme, pertaining also to the handling of the budget, hospitality, communication, and the involvement of external expertise.

This project was prepared for Het HEM, a space that opened mid-2019 as a home for contemporary culture in Zaandam, on the borders of Amsterdam. As a former 9.000 m² munition factory, it houses an exhibition space, a restaurant, a hi-fi music bar, and several artist’s studios. Het HEM presents three large scale exhibitions – dubbed Chapters – annually. Each Chapter is developed in conversation with a specific guest; someone deemed visionary in their field but not necessarily operating within the visual arts. This set-up sees that the resulting programme is malleable and can fully transform with each iteration. For instance, the first Chapter made with streetwear entrepreneurs Edson Sabajo and Guillaume Schmidt was not only an exhibition, but also a boxing clinic with a resulting boxing gala.7 Another Chapter, made with the Chilean-American composer and DJ Nicolás Jaar, presented an installation, numerous concerts, and a research project.8

The fourth Chapter, with writer Simon(e) van Saarloos as guest, would have taken place from mid-May to the end of August 2020. With my assistance as a curator, the programme departed from their writings, which have insistently aimed at questioning the limitation of constructs based notably on gender (Playing Monogamy, {2015} 2019), and history writing (Herdenken herdacht, 2019). 

This exhibition departed from Van Saarloos' focus on 'Abundance'. This concept allows us to think of multiple frameworks that can be disrupted when abandoning thinking from scarcity. Part of curatorial working text read:

What would happen if we think from abundance instead of scarcity and competition? Which frameworks are disrupted, and which infinite stage can arise when thinking beyond scarcity as a prevailing theory? What if accessibility becomes reality and there is equal attention for everything and everyone? What if we consider the world as a place where we are all ‘central’?


Abundance is an exercise to overcome set boundaries, frameworks, and limits and explore a new form of expansiveness. It centralises the perspectives of those who are normally excluded; the bodies, identities, and disruptive perspectives that, for various reasons, are outside the norm. It invites a physical presence of bodies that are normally excluded from an art space. In the first invitation emails, I made the mistake to frame this as follows: "[the exhibition] will aim to create an arena of radical inclusivity with regard to gender identities, sexual orientations and body shapes and abilities." This statement raised three problems. Firstly, does 'radical' mean anything? As it is impossible to go to the root (if we take 'radical' from the Latin 'radix': root) of inclusivity, this is an unnecessary big word, an empty calorie in the cuisine of art speak. Secondly, from whose perspective is the word 'inclusivity' presented? Who is granted inclusion by whom? If the goal is to open up the institution, to decentralise its authority, then the word still presupposes and accentuates a centre. It's similar to the term 'tolerance' in that respect; jargon that keeps centralised power in place. Inclusivity, like tolerance, is a term that suggests a step forward, but rarely does anything to change the underlying power structures responsible for exclusion and discrimination. Finally, the sentence regresses into a discussion of identity, which might be urgent from an institutional standpoint, but disregards the need to go beyond different categories, easily falling into tokenism. There is a long history of modern and contemporary art’s quest to 'represent' marginalised communities without having to actually engage them. 'Abundance' should instead offer a framework to think from a non-normative queer perspective, without centralising the artist’s identity as the primary institutional landmark.

The curatorial implications are therefore vast. How to create a situation allowing people who are normally excluded through power taxonomies based on racism, sexism, heteronormativity, and ableism to set the norm within the space of an exhibition — without once more reifying those categories? Our tentative answer resulted in a 14-week programme consisting of an exhibition, a theatre play, body salons (a series of workshops on practices of care), and film screenings. I will go into a few decisions that were made — even if some might have ultimately been more effective than others, this will give an idea of how certain resolutions can materialise. As the programme was cut short and postponed to a later date due to Covid-19, these elements remain only starting points: they have not crystallised into the more murky reality of exhibition making. One could argue that these are only intentions, just as policy is only talk. But at the very least, they offer action points — not wishful thinking alone.










This is by no means meant as a prescriptive list, just as an example of how the exhibition format can trigger change into other domains on a practical level, because that transition must be made. It is important to keep a disclaimer from disability-rights activist and scholar Kevin Gotkin in mind here: "Accessibility is less a checklist than an interface, less a set of tools than a system, less a badge than a mode of relations. Thus, feeling confident that you've 'achieved' access might be the clearest indication that you've fallen short."11

I drew attention to the Dutch Diversity and Inclusion Code to show that in the Netherlands, existing guidelines are not the central problem. The existing code is ambitious, clear, and most importantly, can exert compliance. However, while necessary regulations can be a force of institutional change, it seems that cultural institutions may risk responding to such policies simply with the language of bureaucracy itself (self-congratulatory annual reports, inclusive job descriptions, revolutionary sounding funding applications, woke mission statements) — rather than actual change. The art world has such a refined palette of progressive-sounding terms ('systems of care', 'hospitality', 'communality', and in my case 'radical' and 'inclusivity') that they might come to stand in lieu of the more boring day-to-day operations needed for actual change. In addressing the question how to make central what is normally pushed to the periphery, I tried to put emphasis on the making, by providing a brief survey of how an exhibition can help achieve a more pluriform centre by employing several simple but effective acts.

Two major difficulties remain. First, how can an exhibition have an afterlife, and can the changes it induces become perennial? Change propelled by a one-off moment (an exhibition) does not necessarily offer more leeway than something aiming for permanence from the outset. Paradoxically, even if the exhibition-form might be a swift testing ground to change things much more quickly than via the bureaucratic track, it might be halted prematurely with the same scrutiny as a multi-year plan. For fear of losing face if changes would need to be retracted later on, an institution can simply not afford to implement things temporarily.

The second problem is more fundamental. In the introduction, I signalled that one should never forget that marginalised groups already have their respective platforms, so more mainstream institutions should not pretend to offer one under the guise of inclusion. Although I can engage with this realisation on a superficial level, the deeper implications lie beyond the scope of this article, and perhaps even beyond the scope of most curators's expertise. The problem is that even though it has been widely demonstrated that the public sphere is neither neutral nor homogenous, the exhibition space is still often operated as such.12 Even though the ideology of the white cube as a neutral container has long been demystified, its public is still addressed as a singular entity. This presupposition makes most debates (also the present article) on 'diversity' and 'inclusion' focus on accessibility. It leads mostly to designing tools that facilitate the access of marginalised groups to a hegemonic centre, rather than deconstructing the very concept of a centre. In these cases, the public sphere is misconstrued as a sort of a bubble that will progressively envelop smaller bubbles.13 While such centres are presumed homogenous, different groups have different needs. An institution might cater to different needs on top of its normal functioning (making the space wheelchair accessible, having slots with sensory-friendly programming for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder). But what if the various needs mutually exclude each other? Can an art institution give a platform to a community if this requires the exclusion or sidelining of another? The current institutional understanding of the public sphere is not adapted for the necessary mind shift to deal with such questions. We still have a public sphere that operates according to a set of ideas on identity that are incommensurable with the specific needs of most marginalised groups. It will take more than exhibitions alone to change that pre-established logic.

I thank Simon(e) van Saarloos for propelling many ideas expressed here. I also thank the entire team of Het HEM and notably Rieke Vos for their guidance.


About the author

Laurens Otto is a curator and critic. He serves as editor-in-chief of RESOLUTION Magazine, a print magazine that explores the impact of the digital image. Previously, he has worked with Het HEM, Zaandam (Netherlands), Human Activities, Lusanga (DR Congo) and Council, Paris.

  1. I do not hold any illusion that this adds something significant to the already existing discussions that aim at levelling power structures within the art world. What this short essay nonetheless hopes to provide, is to address tacit contradictions and inherent challenges that emerge within the scope of the day-to-day work as a curator.

  2. Code Diversiteit & Inclusie. Note that this is not 'inclusivity' but 'inclusion'. See: Code-Diversiteit-Inclusie_DEF1.pdf

  3. Code Diversiteit & Inclusie, p.3 (translations to English are mine).

  4. "Inclusion is the extent to which creators, producers, workers and the public with all identities — visible or not — can be themselves and feel safe and respected." Code Diversiteit & Inclusie, p.6

  5. I don't even want to mock the typically Dutch appeal to 'respect' as the highest goal, or the ten business incentives it offers on its first page to convey its relevance, such as 'Access to new markets' and 'A more positive image'.

  6. Sara Ahmed, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012) p.11

  7. hethem.nl/en/Chapter-One/

  8. hethem.nl/en/Chapter-Two/

  9. The Queer Sign Glossary is a collaboration between the queer Deaf communities, the Nederlands Gebarencentrum, Instituut Gebaren, Taal & Dovenstudies at University of Applied Sciences Utrecht and the Van Abbemuseum. See: vanabbemuseum.nl/en/collection/queering/queer-sign-glossary/

  10. A commonly used widget to achieve this is Userway. See: userway.org

  11. See: kevingotkin.com/accessibility/

  12. The historical analyses of respectively Joan Landes, Mary Ryan, and Geoff Eley have led Nancy Fraser to question Habermas's analysis of an idealised liberal public sphere, asserting that: "We can no longer assume that the bourgeois conception of the public sphere was simply an unrealised utopian ideal; it was also a masculinist ideological notion that functioned to legitimate an emergent form of class rule." Nancy Fraser, Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy. Social Text, no. 25/26 (1990) pp. 59-62

  13. Nancy Fraser highlights and debunks precisely this assumption in Habermas' reading of the bourgeois public sphere. Fraser calls into question "The assumption that the proliferation of a multiplicity of competing publics is necessarily a step away from, rather than toward, greater democracy, and that a single, comprehensive public sphere is always preferable to a nexus of multiple publics." Ibid. p. 62 In my view, the end of the 'diversity' and 'inclusion' discussion would not mean a wider inclusion of diversity, but that there is simply diversity existing tout court.