Daniel Bermingham is a curator and writer based in London. Their practice is concerned with the sick/crip/queer body in regards the urban, political and pedagogical. They are currently Assistant Curator, Young People's Programmes at Tate Britain and Modern, and 1/3 of Liquid. Formerly co-director of Basic Space, Dublin
Daniel speaks independently and opinions are their own.
Q: When did you realise you wanted to be a curator? When was your first understanding of what the word meant and how old were you?
I can’t remember the exact moment I knew I wanted to be a curator. It was a slow process of realising that this was a possibility for me. I’m not from a background where I saw people being artists, writers or curators. The first time I went to a gallery was when I was 15/16, as part of a youth collective - Red Bird - my art teacher referred me to at the Galway Arts Centre. There I met my mentor to this day, Maeve Mulrennan, who’s the curator at GAC. I don’t think I knew what a curator was before that, so that’s where the cogs must have started turning. Every Sunday we would collaborate with artists, designers and thinkers on public-facing projects, in addition to partaking in a youth board at GAC. It really helped me grow my confidence that this was something I do and had value in.
At the time I wanted to be an artist or a fashion designer but gradually I saw there were other ways to make work and be involved in art. From Red Bird, I began to see the social and political potential of a curatorial practice, and how diverse that work could be. Encompassing pedagogical, social and exhibition-making practices. Red Bird also gave me the opportunity to go to open days in art schools which I didn’t really know about either. We went to an open day at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and during a talk about the new Visual Culture BA, my friend whispered to me; “This is really boring, you should do it.” I started at NCAD to study Visual Culture that year and the rest was kinda inevitable.
Q: When you were growing up in Ireland, was there an LGBTQ+ art scene there? How would you describe it and how did you discover it?
Certainly not that I was aware of when I was a child. I’m from a very rural part of Ireland. There were barely queers or art to start with. I wasn’t really aware of a scene until I moved to Dublin to study at NCAD. It was a really exciting time for me, befriending more queers then I knew existed, many of them artists. During my time at art school is when Ireland experienced this enormous social transformation with the Equal Marriage and Abortion Referendum. I really hate that narrative that Ireland is or was a backward, zealously conservative Catholic place but since then, the landscape for queer artists has become a lot richer. The scene was in its infancy when I lived in Dublin, but you have so many queer artists from Ireland making fantastic work, such as Dylan Kerr, Eimear Walse, Emma Wolf Haugh Bassam Al-Sabah, Kevin Gaffney, Kian Benson-Bailes, Jennifer Mehigan, Padraig Spillane, Oisin Byrne, Maia Nunes and so many others.
Q: You're currently working as an Assistant Curator in Tate Young People's Programmes. What made you want to move to London and work in a major institution’s public programmes like Tate?
I unsuccessfully interviewed for seven Tate positions over two years before I joined the Young People’s Programme, so it wasn’t easy. Young people have always been involved in my practice so this direction made sense for me. Tate also has the only dedicated YPP team in the UK, so working with a team with that specialised knowledge was a big draw. The YPP team has a particular interest in social justice, creative careers, advocacy, equity and care, looking beyond Tate and the artworld. This greater investment and awareness of the context in which art is made in London and in the lives of young people is really important to me. I’m still in that demographic so I could speak directly to that experience.
Joining a youth collective was a vital escape for me from a traumatic and isolating educational system, where I learned about who I could be and provided a safety I hadn’t known. They can also be spaces for radical collective political and artistic action that empowers young people to value their voice and work and go on to make urgent work.
Besides that, the resources and infrastructure of such a large institution allow you to be ambitious, support artists and it opens doors that would be closed otherwise. Having an amazing AV team on-site, Visitor Assistants, the cleaners and catering team provide the wrap-around support so I can work with artists more deeply and be ambitious. As a disabled person, I can’t do a lot of jobs ables can do. As boring as it sounds, the security and stability of a permanent position at a large institution allow me to practice and take care of my health. I don’t think we can underestimate the importance of sick pay, annual leave and reasonable adjustments.
Beyond that, I just always wanted to move to London since I graduated. It’s where I felt I could engage with the discourse I needed to, develop my practice and meet the people I wanted. A lot of my friends live here as well. Since 2016, Ireland has become quite unlivable, with rent in Dublin higher than in New York and many people emigrating after graduating. There’s a big community of Irish practitioners here so it feels like home.
Q: I know you still find time to work on your independent curatorial projects outside of Tate. What are you currently working on at the moment? Is it hard to manage?
I was the Co-Director of Basic Space, an independent art organisation in Dublin from 2016 - 2018, curating exhibitions, residencies and public programmes throughout Ireland. After moving to London, it took me a while to settle back into working independently whilst working full-time. I really wanted to find my space, meet people and grow into the scene before I rushed in with the same way of working as in Dublin.
I began to make work with friends Roisin Agnew and Rosa Abbott quite naturally at the end of 2019. We all wanted a space to test and make public ideas we had shared but mainly find time to work together outside of our professional lives. Friendship was very important in that process. In March 2020 we launched Liquid, a curatorial project that explores expressions of intimacy with an evening of readings and discussion by Close, Beam Me Up Softboi and Jacques Baumgartner at Raven Row. We did have four events lined up until July that we have had to postpone for obvious reasons. In the meantime, we’ve started a newsletter, Warm Yourself By My Trash Fire sharing not-very-serious correspondences, writing, interviews, deranged voice notes and images. I’ve been writing about the end of the world at the gym, queer sex in late 19th century Ireland and being read to.
In terms of managing independent work, it can be challenging to find the time and energy, whilst balancing work, self-care, commitments and social life. What I found helpful is setting parameters for you which involves learning your capacity and realistic timelines to produce work. Independent work is supposed to be joyful, so finding ways to work with friends is key for me. Always reach out, there’s a lot of people and spaces that are willing to support and collaborate.
Q: There's been a strong consciousness amongst art institutions and wider society to platform artists from LGBTQ+ and POC backgrounds. How does a public programme respond to this and make itself relevant to match what's already happening in these communities?
The momentum in the last few years has certainly been growing, thanks mostly to a grassroots effort to pressure institutions to reflect the reality of life in the UK. This is still very much in its infancy but it needs to move away from tokenism and “representation” and allow for deeper more nuanced discussion by queer, POC and disabled artists and to access artistic realms beyond identity. Conversations around identity are valid and urgent but they mustn’t be the only parameters. Our lives and experiences go beyond identity and public programmes must give way to that. This firstly begins with hiring queer, disabled and POC curators that hold this knowledge, experience and relationships and getting them into senior positions. I am skeptical of the intrumentalisation of relevancy within the museum, which can leave it off the hook for larger failings. Public programmes can be an active space to reflect our lives back to us but also serve a role of deconstructing these realities and imaging alternate futures. A barrier to these possibilities is the continued privatisation and marketisation of the museum as public space. The museum is occupied by neoliberal forces and interests, motivated by exponential growth and monetisation. With the withdrawal of public funding, museums are dependent on donors whose wealth is dependent on continued tax evasion, exploitation and resource extraction. I don’t advocate for a return to the paternalistic post war model of museums, but if museums are to attempt to be relevant, it must open up itself as a public space and a common - a space where economic, social and political hegemonies are brought into question and that supports moments of solidarity to address these injustices.
Museums have the potential to be sites of democracy and collective action, in a future that will force us to address questions of how we live, and how our societies function. To achieve that, the current model of reproduction must be tossed aside and a whole new museum built on its ruins.
Q: What's the hardest thing about getting a job in an institution as a young LGBTQ+ curator? Any advice for anyone reading this wanting to break through the institutional wall?
I was unemployed for two years after I graduated, not for lack of interviews, and it was really disheartening, especially when I know being trans and disabled had a lot to do with it. It was seeing the gap in the work I was doing and opportunities I would get compared to others who had more privilege than me. I felt like it took everything I had to prove I knew what I was doing and that it had value. I think a lot of queer people know that we have to constantly prove ourselves. Constantly hustling, onto the next project, no breaks. It was really exhausting. Saying that, queer people do face barriers in accessing curatorial positions but are still much more represented then black, brown or disabled curators, especially in institutions. If you are a white, cis, able-bodied, middle-class gay curator you stand an equal chance to your straight colleagues.
If you are not these things, you’ll be seen as a ‘risk’ or a ‘development opportunity’, that does not have as much practical experience but would bring new ideas in and diversify the team. I’m being sardonic, but these are the conscious or unconscious attitudes you’ll face when applying for institutional positions, like in most sectors.
I’m not saying I’m an expert or know all the answers but this is what I've found useful:
Gain substantial administrative and logistical experience. Curatorial positions are mostly admin and logistics, so getting that experience is vital. I worked as an admin assistant at a Uni for a year before I started at Tate, which made a big difference.
Do as much independent work as possible, be that as small or ambitious as you can manage. Show you know how to bring your ideas into the public and can work with others.
Create a network of peers that can be critical friends, collaborators and educators.
Reach out and ask for help. Speak to someone who is in the position you want to be and ask how they got there.
There’s also a lot of great support out there for young people who want a creative career such as the Creative Society, which provides mentoring, training and shares opportunities.
Be persistent, and apply for everything.
Once you get the job, make sure you keep that path open. Make your voice heard when your team is recruiting, share it amongst your networks, challenge discriminatory attitudes, get yourself on interview panels and work with HR to make the interview process inclusive.
Q: What's the biggest change you've seen in the way public programmes are curating around LGBTQ+ arts in the last couple of years?
I find it difficult to contextualise artistic and curatorial practice in the UK prior to 2018 as my knowledge was very localised to Ireland before I moved here. My experience so far is that there is a generation of queer artists that are making incredibly exciting work and are receiving support and recognition to continue a sustainable practice. There’s a lot of great things happening in Scotland and NI in particular.
Cis-hetero curators are definitely more aware of us and what we’re doing and that has been reflected in programming. Queer artists have made themselves unignorable and curators are responding to that. It’s taken time, but larger national institutions are making space for queer artists and their work. I think what has really changed is that it is no longer viable not to hold space for queer artists. We are too valuable. You have big shows like Kiss My Genders at Hayward Gallery, Zanele Muholi at Tate Modern and Gay Semotics at GOMA. They are learning the knowledge, adopting methodologies and holding space.
With that being said, it can feel tokenistic and surface. It’s very Queer 101. I long for deeper, messier and expansive work. E.J Scott, the Queer and Now Curator at Tate said something that really struck me when thinking about queer artists in musuems. I’m paraphrasing, but he said, “You want to queer the museum, not museum the queer.” That was in response to Ajumu X referring to his cock as an archive during for What Does A Queer Museum Look Like. Is the museum a space where the embodied archive can exist? It’s difficult to see where queer practices can be an active forces within museums, but considering how our work is positioned within institutions could be a queering process.
Beyond the large institutions, there are some smaller spaces doing interesting things. I particularly enjoyed Pual Clinton’s Militant Desire film and consciousness-raising programme based around the work of Lionel Soukaz at Gasworks. Patrick Staff’s The Prince of Homburg at Dundee Contemporary Arts is certainly a highlight. The Auto Italia public programme around Hot Moment, Gran Fury and Army of Love was really exciting. You also have places like the ICA hosting performances by Christine and techno performance night Inferno. I think it’s independent collectives/platfroms such as BBZ, Languid Hands, Radclyffe Hall and ofc QueerDirect that are the real champions of queer artists today and have become instrumental to the community.
Q: What do you think institutions need to keep doing in order to keep their program relevant and innovative? What needs to change?
I think we need to trust artists and allow them to lead. Often when institutions bring in young artists there are a lot of parameters and conditions put around that work, especially with queer, disabled, working-class and POC artists. This can be well-intended but when you have an institution dominated by white, middle-class, abled cis-hetero people, it forces unnecessary compromises on the artists. Curators need to step aside and trust artists to make innovative and relevant work. It’s our jobs to support artists in making that happen and mediate their relationship with the institution, removing any roadblocks.
With that responsibility, comes money and investment. Artists need to be paid fairly and given the time to develop, plan and implement work. This means research and materials budgets and to be adequately paid for the time it takes to deliver. Emerging artists are often brought in for one-off events but for institutions to be fertile ground for artists, that relationship needs to become more long-term and sustainable. Creating open-ended, long-term paid collaborative opportunities for artists in public programmes is the kind of environment we should be looking to achieve.
This also means taking risks and allowing for failures, which should be welcome and supported. Risk can include what artists you’re working with, what they are addressing, the geography in which they work and how that may be disruptive. I think we also have a question around education and access with many curators working with artists they were educated with at RCA, Goldsmiths, Slade and UAL. With such a small pool of essentially ‘accredited’ artists, we have to ask ourselves is this really the full scope of artistic practice we can be showcasing?
Q: What's next for you after the coronavirus pandemic ends? What are you working on?
The only thing I have planned is to see my friends and family. My dad is already planning a family road trip around Ireland when this is all over, which would be dreamy.
Beyond that, I want to continue this direction of writing more and focusing on my independent practice. I’ve been very fortunate to have had the space to develop and learn from many artists and curators at Tate, so I feel it’s the time to give my energy to that. I’m also thinking of finally starting my MA, which I have been delaying for 4 years now.
Lots of kissing.
Photo credit: Lucy Pullicino
Published: 08/04/2020 by Queerdirect
Edits by Tamar Clarke-Brown