Art Almanac revisits some of last year’s entries for ‘Looking Ahead’; responses by arts workers that showed the uncertainty, vulnerability, and angst felt during such unprecedented times. 2020 changed us all, hopefully for the better. Artist Sophia Halloway expresses her thoughts on how 2020 has reframed her creative focus and how she has moved forward into 2021.
I have always been drawn towards the arts, and consequentially the museum, even before I understood its cultural significance or power. As a teenager, I moved to Paris alone and with very little money. Museums were free to residents under a certain age, so I spent my days in the Louvre and Pompidou and just about every art museum I could find. It was during a lone visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona, my travelling companion sleeping late, that I decided to study art history. I wasn’t necessarily cognisant of any creative connection at this time. Rather, I liked how everything was organised so neatly in their white cubes, the quietude of the gallery soothing my anxious mind. Museums had become a refuge and a home. Yet, over the course of 2020, I found myself withdrawing from the home I had made in the museum. There is a growing disillusionment with the colonial legacies of institutions, articulated by Instagram accounts such as @changethemuseum and @cancelartgalleries. I became increasingly frustrated by account after account revealing the blatant racism and inequity in the sector, and its mistreatment of staff and collaborators (many of them artists, the very people we purport to champion in our work). There is also the simple fact that I had not only made a home in the museum, but a career, overstepping the tenuous
boundaries of work-life balance (especially when my home itself became a full-time office during lockdown). Far from the refuge I had initially found in the museum, the site was becoming increasingly contested – personally, professionally and politically.
This estrangement led me to reconsider my relationship to the structures surrounding the arts and my role within the institution. The trick with pursuing a career in a field that you love is that your personal and professional identities inevitably merge so as to become indistinguishable. Being an arts worker is not just what I do, it’s who I am. Throughout 2020, I increasingly found that who I am is no longer – indeed was never – represented by the institutions I work within. Much work is being done to ensure that our cultural institutions are more inclusive and representative of the societies they exist within. There is a lot of work to do yet, and certainly more than I can attempt to discuss here.
This is not to say my relationship to the museum is irreparably damaged, but rather my perspective has shifted. I am reminded that the significance of art does not come from the institutions it is housed within, but the social, political, historical and human contexts in which it was created. Despite the museum’s failings, the human contexts are what make the work worthwhile and which provide the impetus to make the institution better. The people who have the passion to do so are already showing up, they just need the power to move us in the right direction. Which makes me think that perhaps we aren’t so far from home after all.
Sophia Halloway is a critic and writer based in Canberra. She works in philanthropy at the National Gallery of Australia.