Why Look Back? Contemporary Art & Institutional Memory

Boundary Encounters installation view, 2023. Copyright Modern Art Oxford. Photo by Oxford Atelier.
Boundary Encounters installation view, 2023. Copyright Modern Art Oxford. Photo by Oxford Atelier.
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We invite participants for a workshop exploring the practice, potential and value of working with the histories, archives, and memories of contemporary art institutions.

An ‘institutional memory’ formed by archives, recollections, and wider collective knowledge has particular importance for art institutions whose longevity, identity, value and stake in history is not secured by a permanent collection. Across Britain, non-collecting institutions including 198; Arnolfini; Bluecoat; Chisenhale; CCA; Ikon and Modern Art Oxford have engaged with their pasts to recover marginalised histories, commission new work, confront connections to regimes of power and violence, engage publics, generate new institutional narratives, and reflect on their present day practices. ­­­­

Why Look Back? will allow collective consideration of innovations, limitations and further debates that arise through practices of reflection, retrospection, and re-activation. By bringing together participants working within art institutions and those engaging with institutional memory through research and curatorial, educational and artistic practices, it aims to foster a diverse network that is collectively invested in exploring the value of institutional memory through longer-term work. Questions we are interested in addressing include:

  • To what extent has engagement with institutional memory both broadened our understanding of histories of contemporary art and revealed the historical conditions under which creative practices and public art institutions are valued?
  • How has institutional memory formed a basis for artistic and curatorial innovation, education, public engagement and organisational development within organisations of diverse size and scope?
  • How do shifting social, political, economic, and public policy circumstances influence the ability and demand to care for and engage with institutional memory?
  • Should memory practices become a more consistent and sustainable area of work, especially within non-collecting contemporary art institutions?
  • How could greater attention to institutional memory contribute to the sustainability of arts organisations and support a diverse, representative, equitable and inclusive arts sector?

Convened by: Isobel Whitelegg (Art Museum & Gallery Studies, University of Leicester) and Ben Cranfield (Curating Contemporary Art, Royal College of Art).
Supported by: the British Art Network, the ESRC and Nottingham Contemporary

Isobel Whitelegg is an art historian, curator and Associate Professor in Art Museum & Gallery Studies, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester. She specialises in art in and from Latin America (especially Brazil); the history & historiography of contemporary art, and the dynamically-formed legacies of non-collecting arts institutions. Exhibitions curated include Signals, if you like I shall grow (kurimanzutto / Thomas Dane, 2018) and Cinthia Marcelle: a conjunction of factors (MACBA, 2022-23). Recent publications include ‘How to Talk About Biennials That Don’t Exist: Reassembling the Twelfth São Paulo Biennial’ (Tate Papers 34, 2022) and 'Histories of the Present: Proposições Contemporâneas at the 14th Bienal de São Paulo’ in Paulo Miyada, The Bienal de São Paulo, Since 1951 (2022).

Dr Ben Cranfield is Senior Tutor in Curatorial Theory & History, Curating Contemporary Art, Royal College of Art. His research focuses on the relationship between the curatorial, the contemporary, the archive and forms of instituting, asking what it is to produce queer and non-normative ideas of timeliness and history. In Spring 2024 he will undertake a Paul Mellon Centre Mid-Career Fellowship working on a book project, With Time: Curating the Contemporary in Post-War Britain. Recent publications include, ‘Performing gestures towards the archive: queer fragments and other ways of mattering’ in The Materiality of the Archive: Creative Practice in Context (2024) and ‘On (Not Being with) Time (Queerly) in Post-War Britain,’ Performance Research (2018).

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