How do you create an inclusive exhibition?

  • Published 4 June 2018

We look back on our Student Art Pass members’ visit to Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender and Identity, and share some insights on creating community-led exhibitions and safe spaces.

Coming Out at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Coming Out at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

On our recent trip to Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender and Identity in April, learning officer Jon Sleigh chatted to us about putting together exhibitions that could be inclusive and sensitive to all audiences, and creating safe spaces.

Coming Out looked at the queer experience since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 through the work of well-known artists such as Grayson Perry, Andy Warhol and Sarah Lucas – and when visiting the exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG), audiences were invited to consider the challenges of presenting these works in a space that felt welcoming to everyone.

Currently working with BMAG and the Arts Council Collection, Jon is a specialist in producing events and exhibitions in collaboration with communities, and in engaging people in innovative ways. We thought we’d share some of his tips.

On creating a community-led exhibition

Jon explains how, working closely with local groups and activists on everything from curation to marketing, the team ‘created an exhibition with communities rather than for communities’ – letting the audience lead.

‘It gives the exhibition an authorship and credibility beyond the experience necessarily of the people that work in art galleries and museums,’ he says.

There was also the question of how to create a Birmingham identity in an exhibition first presented in a different part of the country. A touring exhibition, Coming Out started out at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and then transferred to Birmingham.

‘Brumming it up’ was the first challenge, tackled in part by bringing local partners into the space, ‘populating it with amazing artists and creatives where the dialogue is between communities themselves and not filtered by the organisation’.

This made sure that the exhibition arrived in the region ‘already with an identity, already with heart and with feeling,’ and Jon hopes this will establish a legacy for future relationships.

On reading a work of art

Adding works from Birmingham’s own collection to the show was another vital element ‘in finding a regional voice’.

Standing in front of Francis Bacon’s Figures in a Landscape (1956), Jon shared his fascination with the painting and how an audience might read it both within the context of the exhibition and when it was first displayed in 1957.

Painted by an openly queer artist when homosexuality was still illegal, and with its homoerotic associations, Figures in a Landscape was an amazingly brave statement. What’s particularly interesting for Jon is ‘how abstraction in mid-20th century art could be used as a legal function – not just as a vogue in art’. If Bacon were accused of homoeroticism, he could argue it was the viewer’s interpretation of an abstract painting and not his own intention.

This ‘symbiosis’ of what a viewer brings to a painting and what it actually contains intrigues Jon. ‘It almost becomes a detective game where you’re pulling together a story and narrative in your own mind,’ he says.

There’s just enough in the composition of Figures in a Landscape to suggest nudity, privacy and more than one person, but nothing is definite. Some visitors shared that they saw the lack of visual information as a message – ‘they’re drawing parallels with covert sexuality’ – even though the painting doesn’t make that explicit. So in 1957, Jon suggests, this abstraction could have been recognised and read by other queer people as a ‘coded conversation’.

On creating a safe space

How we read and respond to each other in a gallery space can be as important as how we read the art. Aware that some people may feel exposed and objectified at certain art shows, and also that the pieces in this exhibition could trigger strong emotions, Jon asks, ‘For an organisation like ours and for an industry, how do we create spaces where people feel safe enough to express themselves, and to question what’s going on?’

‘Inclusivity,’ he says, is the answer – not just committing as a gallery to respecting the individual and their right to self-identify, but asking visitors to be accountable too.

‘I think asking people from the start, “Are you coming into this space with a willingness and openness to experience something new or would you prefer not to?” gives people control and authorship’, Jon explains. And at Coming Out, for anyone with questions they were unsure about asking, the writing was literally on the wall with suggestions of how to begin a conversation with kindness and sensitivity.

Ultimately, Jon points out, we are ambassadors for ourselves. He notes that it was important to acknowledge that one exhibition couldn’t possibly represent every individual, and to turn that into an opportunity for the future. Feel something is missing or over-generalised? ‘Brilliant, you’ve said we didn’t address this here; let’s see how we can address it in future programming so the dialogue continues.’

On getting visitors engaged

From soap carving to life drawing, BMAG experimented with different ways to get people responding creatively to the exhibition. When we visited with Student Art Pass members, we were invited to take part in Drag and Draw, a life-drawing class with drag queen Lacey Lou as our subject.

If you’re moved by the themes documented here, why not join in and share your own art with us, inspired by Lacey? Just use #StudentArtPass @artfund @BM_AG.

Find out more about Lacey Lou's story.

All photos © Andy Smith, taken at the Drag and Draw event, part of the public programme for Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender and Identity at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, a touring exhibition conceived by National Museums Liverpool in partnership with Birmingham Museums Trust as part of the Arts Council Collection National Partners Programme, April 2018.

Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender and Identity ran at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, 28 Jul – 5 Nov 2017, and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 2 Dec 2017 – 15 Apr 2018.

Tags: Student Art Pass