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Embracing care: a case study on care-based approaches to curation

In the heart of Birmingham, ORT Gallery is reimagining how cultural institutions can operate

By Sanika Sawant and Jean McLean Guest Author · 11th July, 2024
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Image: National Cancer Institute / Unsplash

This blog was published as part of our Global Research & Action Network for a New Eco-Social Contract, a joint project with UNRISD, supported by funds received from the European Union. We’d like to thank Josie and Aaisha for sharing their experiences with the Gender Justice Working Group. This case study is a translation of what the authors heard, and as such doesn’t fully represent their experiences.

A Paradigm Shift in Cultural Management

In the heart of Birmingham, ORT Gallery is reimagining how cultural institutions can operate. Josie Reichert, Finance and Fundraising Lead at ORT Gallery, shares her experience and the organisation's insights as they embarked on a journey to place care at the centre of their organisational ethos. This shift not only changed the internal dynamics of the art gallery but also reshaped their relationship with the community they are situated in and wished to invite into their spaces.

One of the catalysts for this paradigm shift was WARMTH, a working methodology developed during covid, deeply rooted in care methodologies and anti-racist principles. Warmth is a concept and language understood by the community as the goal for their work which is why they selected it. This new approach started a long process of inquiry around policies, working practices and organisational fundamentals such as working hours.

Shifting power requires more than just good intentions – it needs infrastructure and resources.”

Equity was an important goal for the organisation, as represented by the radical restructuring of their governance structure. As a co-founder of the organisation and then acting CEO, Josie recognised her power and how the dynamics around her identity were embedded in the role, and the work of the organisation. As a result, they replaced the traditional senior leadership role of artistic director to ‘artistic lead,’ moving to a less hierarchical, more horizontal structure that embraced consensus-based decision making. The new post was also designed to rotate every four years, to ensure fresh perspectives and prevent the stagnation of power.

This transition was also designed to be care-based. As Aaisha Akhtar took on the position of the artistic lead, Josie supported with the handover and continued to share knowledge, insights and resources where wanted. However, both principals soon realised that this would entail continuous work, as they learnt about the external people responded to Aaisha, a visibly Muslim, young-looking woman heading up the organisation.

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The impacts of these changes have been profound thus far, including but not limited to— a changed work programme, a more diverse audience that is more representative of the community it is located, different exhibitions and an expanded to incorporate new forms of expression like poetry. New funders were also attracted to the new work of the organisation and that support was transformative for the income of the organisation.

Intersectionality and Power Dynamics in Institutional Change

However, ORT’s journey to change wasn’t without its challenges. The transition highlighted deeply ingrained biases within art community. The presence of Aaisha, the Artistic Lead for the gallery, “in the room” triggered people and made them reflect on their privilege and entitlement in helpful and more challenging ways. While this had been anticipated to a degree, they were still surprised by the consistent deferment to Josie, and dismissal of Aisha’s expertise opened up crucial conversations about white supremacy in the workplace and sector, leading to revaluation of nonce around issues, like timekeeping and ableism.

The gallery also grapples with the complexities of implementing a care-based approach. While creating a warmer, more open environment encourages trust and sharing. It also presents challenges in managing boundaries and emotional labour, especially in instances where there is no capacity or expertise to support these situations. The team had to learn how to balance being supporting with maintaining necessary professional limits. They are recognising there are trade-offs between how to manage and who carries the emotional burden when resources are limited and learning to create signposts around boundaries.

Critical Insights and Lessons

Through this process, ORT Gallery gleaned valuable lessons. They recognized that shifting power requires more than just good intentions – it needs infrastructure and resources. The team learned the importance of taking time for deep, reflective work, even when external pressures call for quick wins. They also acknowledged the personal toll this work can take on individuals, highlighting the need for support and resources for those leading such transformative processes.

‘How do we create the environment for shifting power? What are the levers for shifting power? How can we make commitments around care and power shifting in a deep and sustainable manner?’ — are important challenges that also allow for moments of inquiry and self-reflection.

For example, the implementation of anti-oppression work presented significant challenges, as exemplified by the process of developing a safeguarding policy, which took over a month. Despite having a template policy, the consultation process proved invaluable in raising awareness and understanding of the complex issues involved. This resulted in a more robust and tailored policy that authentically reflected the ORT Gallery’s values and eliminated exclusionary language. The recognition that activities such as taking walks are integral to the reflective nature of this work underscores the need for a deeper, slower pace that fosters genuine reflection and transformation. However, this approach can conflict with political pressures for rapid progress and quick wins, rather than sustainable changes.

A persistent challenge in this work has been overcoming the scarcity mindset. Addressing expansive agendas with limited resources creates ongoing tensions and necessitates difficult choices. Navigating the asymmetry between available resources and desired impact remains a constant struggle.

ORT Gallery's experience underscores that true change goes beyond surface-level adjustments. It requires a commitment to questioning and reconstructing the fundamental norms and beliefs that underpin an organization's practices.”

Beyond organizational costs, Josie states, there are significant personal costs for individuals leading these processes. The emotional burden on these leaders must be acknowledged and addressed. It is crucial to provide resources that support individuals in various ways, whether it's learning to de-centre oneself, adjusting expectations and privileges, or creating space to recover from triggering experiences or repeated questioning of one's expertise.

An Ongoing Process

ORT Gallery's experience underscores that true change goes beyond surface-level adjustments. It requires a commitment to questioning and reconstructing the fundamental norms and beliefs that underpin an organization's practices. And when undertaking this change, from the board level to funding sources, from event participation to community trust-building, every aspect of the gallery's operations came under scrutiny.

As cultural institutions worldwide grapple with questions of relevance, inclusivity, and social responsibility, ORT Gallery's journey offers a compelling case study. Their experience demonstrates that placing care at the centre of organizational philosophy can lead to profound and positive changes. It's a reminder that in the quest for equity and justice, how we work is just as important as what we produce.

In embracing care, ORT Gallery isn't just changing itself – it's contributing to a broader reimagining of the relationship between cultural institutions and the communities they serve. As they continue to learn and grow, their story serves as an inspiration and a roadmap for others in the sector looking to make meaningful, lasting change.

Sanika Sawant and Jean McLean, based off a presentation by Josie Reichert & Aaisha Akhtar

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