Looking Back 2017: Listening and Learning

Margaret Lee thanks those who have helped her gain a deeper understanding of how to be more empathetic in difficult times

It’s been a noisy year but don’t take that as a complaint. Throughout 2017, artists, activists, writers and journalists have brought to the forefront important conversations that have been sidelined for too long. For those of us who are generally conflict averse but who want to be on the right side of history, this was – and continues to be – our time to listen and learn. My highlights of the past year can be read as a list of thanks to those who, in what might go down as one of the most awful and contentious years in recent memory, let us all know what it takes to build, sustain and extend real care and understanding. The voices I’ve cited here are not those of the newly enraged, but rather those who have been steady in their vigilance and who have been waiting for the rest of us to catch up. Without these voices, I’m not sure how I would have carried on in 2017 and, for that, I’d like to acknowledge and thank them, in no particular order.


Launch of the People's Cultural Plan at Artist's Space, New York, 18 July 2017. Courtesy: People's Cultural Plan

Launch of the People's Cultural Plan at Artists Space, New York, 18 July 2017. Courtesy: People's Cultural Plan

Spearheaded by New York-based artists and activists, The People’s Cultural Plan taught us that ‘housing, labor, and public funding injustices cannot be addressed in isolation, because all three factors intersect to create the inequities we experience.’ In her public endorsement of the plan this September, artist and public practioner Chloë Bass, asked artists: ‘to engage as neighbors first and to understand that if our needs are not being met as neighbors, it’s unrealistic to expect that some higher level of artistic need is being met.’ She went on to note that she ‘does not believe art comes from suffering […] when we allow a certain kind of suffering to be part of who we are as people, we’re really also allowing for the suffering of others.’ I gained a much deeper appreciation of Chloë’s empathetic and intelligent perspective after attending ‘What is shared, what is offered’, an Independent Curators International conversation between Bass and Tiona Nekkia McClodden in June that asked: How do we grow within limitation? What is the aesthetic of restraint? How do we navigate the current political chaos?

In a speech at the Triple Canopy Benefit to honour his work in October, writer Hilton Als succinctly described the discipline of care that has been so important to many of us this year: ‘What the discipline of care gives us is an ability to relate to others while not negating others. Those others with all those stories. Those others who are not us but who are as responsible for our care as we are for theirs. This has nothing to do with borders or sanctions but the extended hand and the ear bent in the hard work of understanding.’

In April curator Howie Chen turned an invitation to speak about his practice at the Museum of Chinese in America, New York, into an open discussion that pushed his audience to honestly answer the questions: ‘What are our ethical responsibilities to each other?  Can we resist cathexis with institutions – can we take positions and speak as individuals? Can we just be real?’


Howardena Pindell, Free, White and 21, 1980, installation view, Whitney Museum of American Art. Courtesy: © the artist, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; photograph: Ron Amstutz

Howardena Pindell, Free, White and 21, 1980, installation view, Whitney Museum of American Art. Courtesy: © the artist, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; photograph: Ron Amstutz

In an extract from her forthcoming book Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating – published in April, 2018 by Thames & Hudson – Maura Reilly did not mince her words: ‘If you don’t believe that the art world is sexist and racist, it’s time for you to come out from under your rock.’ On a related note, Charlene Carruthers reminded us on Twitter that ‘identity politics, when divorced from radical and liberatory political commitments get us more liberalism, white nationalism and misogyny.’  And the inclusion – and perhaps more importantly, the placement – of Howardena Pindell’s Free, White and 21 (1980) in conversation with Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Guerrilla Girls and Martha Rosler at the Whitney Museum’s ‘An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940–2017’, which opened in August, expanded the feminist dialogue along more intersectional lines while confronting the movement’s exclusionary past.

In the early part of the year, Tamar-Kali and Helga Davis’ electrifying performances closed ‘Tomorrow Will Still Be Ours’, the ‘three-week festival of visionary idea, activism and arts’ at Gavin Brown’s enterprise. It had been awhile since I was so blown away by a live music performance but it was a privilege to experience these performers in an intimate space and to be so close to such artistic power and excellence. I left the evening buzzing, believing very much that tomorrow will still be ours.

Main image: Chloë Bass and Tiona Nekkia McClodden speaking at Independent Curator’s International as part of the series ‘what is shared, what is offered’, October 2017. Courtesy: Independent Curator’s International, New York

Margaret Lee has organized and exhibited work at numerous venues around the world including Misako & Rosen Gallery, Tokyo, Japan, ‘Concentrations HK: Margaret Lee’, curated by Gabriel Ritter, ‘Duddell’s x DMA’, Hong Kong, China, ‘Made in L.A, 2014 Hammer Museum Biennial’, Los Angeles, ‘2013 Biennale de Lyon’, ‘de, da do...da’, Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, ‘Caza’, curated by Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, Bronx Museum, New York, ‘NO MAN’S LAND: Women Artists from the Rubell Family Collection’, Rubell Family Collection, Miami, ‘New Pictures of Common Objects’, curated by Christopher Lew, MoMA PS1, New York, and ‘Looking Back’, White Columns, New York. In 2009, Lee founded the artist-run space 179 Canal, New York and is currently a partner at the gallery 47 Canal, New York. 

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