“The hard truth of it all is that people like me rarely see outside their communities, never mind become part of an international art festival.”
Thomas Abercromby shares his experience as Senior Exhibition Assistant at the Venice Biennale, as part of the Scotland + Venice Professional Development Programme.
“As an independent curator from a working class community in North Glasgow, I usually collaborate with people living and working in that part of the city, focusing my efforts on establishing long-term relationships that find reciprocity with others also committed to positive social and cultural change. Recently I applied to take part in the Scotland + Venice professional development programme. It was a new opportunity for candidates outside of formal education, through an open application process, and is funded by SCAN. I’ve now spent several weeks as the Senior Exhibition Assistant for the 58th Venice Biennale.
The Venice Biennale is a large-scale international art festival showcasing the best contemporary artists and their work from around the world, or as some people refer to it as ‘the Olympics of art.’ I’m here for 10 weeks in total and my role is to lead the Scottish team and showcase Scotland as a leader in contemporary art. Having the opportunity to be part of Scotland + Venice 2019 has been vital for my professional development. It has given me the time to conduct research for a new arts programme for the North of the city and allowed me to make connections with international artists, curators and other art workers across various political, geographical and ethnic backgrounds. It has given me the opportunity to work with Turner Prize-winning artist Charlotte Prodger and to care for her new single-channel film piece ‘SaF05’. This experience will allow me to continue to develop an artistic platform for exchange and dialogue within my community. It will lead to an exhibition I’m curating for the Glasgow International festival’s ‘Across the City’ programme, allowing me to profile the area I’m from within Scotland’s major art biennial in April 2020.
Much of Charlotte’s work explores the subjectivity and self-determination of queerness. This has made me focus on my own determination and the ways in which we fail in order to succeed. I’m not from a conventional background, to say the least. I grew up in abject poverty in one of the UK’s most deprived communities in a hostile council estate where it wasn’t acceptable to be queer, and I experienced the death of a parent at a young age due to substance abuse. So for me these types of opportunities are not readily available and are few and far between.
We are often discouraged because of significant inequalities that exist in the cultural and creative industries, including those from a lower social class background encountering negative attitudes such as the difference in taste, the idea that everyone can work for free or low pay, creating further poor social mobility and adding to the myth of meritocracy that if we work hard enough we will succeed. The hard truth of it all is that people like me rarely see outside their communities, never mind become part of an international art festival.
To say I am where I am today without many failures would be an understatement. Although my life may not have a linear path and will continue to be filled with failure, exhaustion and trepidation, there’s an art to it, and there are creative ways to manoeuvre these inequalities in order to make space for others facing similar barriers through collaboration with the right people and organisations. The American literary and gender scholar Judith Halberstam sums this up perfectly by saying “Failure sometimes offers more creative, cooperative, and surprising ways of being in the world, even as it forces us to face the dark side of life.“
As a creative community we face deep inequalities, and we are all responsible for addressing these barriers. That’s why these rare opportunities are essential. They make a valuable contribution to the lives of those individuals that participate in them and allow us to develop different conversations about how art is experienced to further enrich Scotland’s vibrant contemporary art sector.