Celebrating awkward bastards

Rebecca Atkinson, 18.03.2015
Diversity conference shows that change is slow
The speakers at the Awkward Bastards Symposium, which took place last week at mac birmingham, took great delight in the conference’s name. It reflected a theme underpinning the day – that people who are considered “other” and outside the mainstream in some way, are difficult.

They are difficult to accommodate, they are difficult because they make “normal” people feel uncomfortable and they are difficult because they won’t shut up about it. They campaign and push the diversity agenda forward on their quest for equality.

The symposium, which was designed to celebrate diversity, was organised by Dash Arts, a disability-led visual arts organisation, with support from Arts Council England and mac birmingham . The line-up of speakers included Tony Heaton, the chief executive officer of Shape Arts, a disability-led organisation; Skindar Hundal, the chief executive officer of New Art Exchange in Nottingham; the curator and artist Matt Smith, who was behind the 2012 exhibition Queering the Museum at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery; and Gemma Marmalade, a provocative performance artist whose work is partly informed by sexual politics and feminism.   

Great care was taken in the programming and by the speakers themselves not to ghettoise difference; the shared challenges, and differences, by all “awkward bastards” were highlighted throughout the day.

More importantly, the discussion didn’t shy away from controversial or sensitive areas – four artists each responded to the provocation “why is it so difficult to define yourself as a disabled artist?”, with delegates sharing their own, very different, experiences.

One of the key points to come out of the event was a sense of how slow change is.

David Turner, a professor of history at Swansea University, started the day with a keynote exploring disability in a historical context, particularly the long-standing association between disability and disorderliness.

Marlene Smith, the research manager for Black Arts and Modernism collaboration, discussed how dialogue around diversity has changed since the 1980s, when she was involved in setting up the BLK Art Group.

She said policy and funding is still focused on episodic initiatives: “Curious initiatives are created in response to some urgent crisis, some urban disturbance such as rioting. What happens is that there is some kind of policy change, a scheme set up for three or five years. Lots of interesting projects happen as a result, but what doesn’t happen is systemic change.”

It’s a topical point, considering Arts Council England’s recent announcement that its funded organisations must become more diverse or risk losing funding.

The arts council’s senior manager for diversity, Abid Hussain, took part in a panel discussion at the end of the day. “Diversity,” he said, “is an opportunity not a problem.”

What a fantastic sentiment, and attitude, to move forward with. As another delegate pointed out, diversity is the process but the goal is equity – the next step is to decide what that looks like.

The Museums Association is holding an MP seminar, Opening doors: Rethinking disabled access and interpretation in your museum, on 25 September that will explore access to institutions and collections, diversity in the workplace, and reinterpreting collections.

I’d be interested to hear from museums that are making access and equity a priority in their institutions, so share your views and experiences in the comment box below.


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30.09.2015, 21:33
Very interesting, although using the ‘shock title’ marketing tactic, understandably introduces debate and genuine issues of sensitivity for some. Whatever the rights & wrongs, clearly museums are bending over backwards to re-think just about everything… often with some sort of financial hook trawling behind.
However, neatly stage-managed curatorial cosmetics of interpretation and re-positioning, merely draw a veil over the hesitancy of many institutions to address inherent systematic failures. Sadly, I fear longer-standing issues are not entirely localised.
Museums are run by people. People on Trustee Boards, Directors, Departmental Heads, Middle-Managers, Curators & countless others. Were more of these individuals to spend greater time in galleries with the public and front of house staff, their own personal agendas would be laid bare, open to challenge and perhaps even modified.
When that inspirational & educational nirvana is achieved, ‘awkward bastards’ like me (able-bodied & outspoken) will find it far less easy to deliver ranting broadsides to museums, suggesting that they can be even better than they are now - and of course, they should be!
01.04.2015, 14:35
All this does is to re-enforce discrimination, stigma and prejudice in an industry which is dominated by the White, middle classes. I don't see much evidence of diversity in the workplace and as someone who is "different", I have faced considerable discrimination, bullying and being ostracised in large museums most often by management. The title of this conference is offensive and I will be reporting Dash Arts to the Arts Council who fund them and to my local MP.
20.03.2015, 23:24
I'm sure whoever came up with this title thought they were being "provocative" and "clever". As a, so-called "awkward bastard" with autism I find this extremely offensive. I appreciate the dialogue about diversity but this is not the way to go about it and I find it to be very stigmatising.
Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
01.04.2015, 12:33
Hi, the conference was developed and run by Dash Arts, a disability-led visual arts organisation, and the name was something they decided on.

I can’t speak for them, but having attended the conference it was clear that the name was intended to provoke discussion and debate.

We explored the meaning of both words, and why “awkward” in particular is often applied to people with disabilities.

There were people from all walks of life there, and many of those I spoke to felt that the conference name resonated with how they had been treated – the conference attempted to reclaim that.

It is provocative, but I understand the intension was to provoke discussion not offend.
08.04.2015, 11:37
As an awkward bastard myself who suffers from more than one disability, I love the reclaiming of the phrase. Suits me down to a tee. ;)