Lilli Whitham

Statement

I am an artist and educational professional based in Birmingham. This past year, I have been involved with research exploring the role of public arts and developing ethical engagement strategies for arts organisations. My interest in socially engaged work stems from my working experiences and previous career path in arts education. I view the arts as a powerful political and social tool to express the emotions and struggles of shared human experience. It is important to break down cultural barriers and use the arts to open a channel of communication.

Contact

Lilli.Whitham@mail.bcu.ac.uk

lilliwhithamillustration@outlook.com

Degree

Arts and Project Management

How do arts organisations apply ethics in the public display of art, in order to reflect changes in cultural and social attitudes?

Report, 2020

Following from my research undertaken in Research in Practice and my interest in socially engaged work, I wanted to explore how ethical considerations are applied by organisations in the commissioning and supporting of artists’ work that is participative yet pushes boundaries. The findings from my Research in Practice resulted in the following areas of potential further research:

  1. To examine if ethics can be separated from aesthetics in participatory practice and the impact this has on arts organisations in terms of funding policies and commissioning new works.
  2. To explore the role of the artist in socially engaged practices – should artists be working for societal benefit as educators and facilitators or is the role of the artist to be antagonistic and divisive, to unsettle cultural and societal notions of economy and exchange?
  3. To examine how best is social change and justice realised – through education and representation or politicizing the public?

My current research is following on from this exploratory topic – Can ethics be separated from aesthetics? This question will inevitably have an impact on arts organisations’ decisions regarding curation and programming, funding policies and new commissioning available to artists.

Initially I was interested in how arts organisations considered ethics in commissioning transgressive work and the impact this has on artists producing transgressive work with participants. This proved to be difficult to gather primary research; the topic is sensitive, and participants were reluctant to engage with the research question. My research aims, on reflection, were too binary for this complex subject.

Following the interview with an NAE former creative producer, I became more focused on how arts organisations relate to audiences and the ethics of engagement in museum practices:

  • How does this affect curating decisions, programming and the public display of artwork?
  • How do arts organisations consider ethics when evaluating art for public display, in order to be accountable to their audiences/users?

This led to a re-development of my research aims and finalisation of the research title:

Most of this research has been informed by reading materials, desk research and critical analysis of case studies. More primary research could have been utilised, however, due to the Covid-19 pandemic many arts organisations were closed with their staff on furlough. I received several apologetic replies from organisations unable to contribute to my primary research at this present time. A detailed evaluation of the research methodology is available in the appendix of this report. I have used Harvard referencing. Numbered footnotes are included.

How do arts organisations apply ethics in the public display of art, in order to reflect changes in cultural and social attitudes?

This report examines ethical considerations in the public display of art by arts organisations and museums. First, I have evaluated ethical philosophies and their applications to art, outlining the distinctions between ethics and morality. I have critically examined the ethical responsibilities of arts organisations to audiences as they respond to moral attitudinal shifts and how this can influence decisions on curation and context within temporary exhibitions. Further to this, the ethical duties of arts organisations to be accountable to audience’s social and cultural needs have been considered and how this is reflected through an ethics of engagement, representation and authentic authorship. I have addressed how arts organisations can respond to changes in cultural, social and moral attitudes to re-contextualise problematic biographies and histories of collections using progressive educational strategies of ethics.

 My research has developed an exploration of how four recommendations of progressive educational ethics could be applied within the arts organisation/ museum to respond to social and cultural shifts and contextualise historical art collections on public display (adapted from (Hein, 2010) (Dewey, 1916):

  1. Arts organisations (and practices in the public realm) should question and represent dualisms in order to address social inequalities. 
  2. The goal of education should be further education. Art should provide the resources for repeated and continued inquiry and alternative methods of enquiry; Arts organisations should be spaces for open ended questioning and interpretation.  
  3. Arts organisations (and practices in the public realm) need to reflect, challenge and examine their practices continually in order to respond to the needs of their audiences. This practice should enable opportunities for meaning making and feeling. 
  4. Connect educational work and exhibition programming to life and contemporary struggles in culture and society. Exhibition programming (and art practices in the public realm) should centre life experiences and connect to situations outside the arts organisation that reflect complexities in live human experience. 

Factors such as exhibition programming and audience demographics can influence the social and cultural ethical considerations in the display of contemporary artworks. As custodians of collections, arts organisations need to exercise a certain level of objectivity that enables them to evaluate a work’s contribution to knowledge and education. However, ethical responsibility in their display necessitates consideration of human social interaction. As society’s moral attitudes shift, the contextualisation of collections also needs to be responsive. This research is extremely relevant to the contemporary issues faced by museums, who are increasingly being required to address Britain’s colonial past. I have outlined how these progressive educational ethics can be deployed as a working strategy for a current solution to contextualising Britain’s historical public statues. Currently arts organisations respond to social and cultural changes using reactive practices, how could these four educational ethical principles be used instead to develop strategies of pro-active responsible action and influences social change – to develop activism? Tate is currently conducting a programme of research, ‘Reshaping the Collectible: When Artworks Live in the Museum’ (Tate, 2018), to consider new models for the conservation and management of contemporary works of art. Research on the development of collective memory ecologies, I feel is particularly relevant to the cultivation of activism within arts organisations. Could the four principles of progressive educational ethics be implemented as a framework for the continuous re-interpretation of our collections that proactively challenges historical collective memory, therefore developing and influencing memory ecologies and engaging publics with activism? This topic could be explored further in a PhD proposal.