Art historian Alice Procter is on a mission to decolonise museums and galleries in her ‘Uncomfortable Art Tours’ – ABC News

When you wander around a museum or a gallery, how deeply do you think about the legacy of historical artifacts and objects that are on display? Do you think about how they were acquired?

Or, how about how an object is displayed? How it is lit, or located, or labelled?

These are the kinds of questions that plague Alice Procter — a London-based Australia-raised art historian with a masters in anthropology, who curates exhibitions, makes podcasts and publishes under the name The Exhibitionist.

“The history of British art is also the history of empire and genocide, written by collectors who traded in landscapes and lives,” Procter writes on The Exhibitionist’s website.

Alice Procter has been running her Uncomfortable Art Tours since June 2017.(Supplied: Connor Harris)

A need to make that history more widely known led her to begin her “Uncomfortable Art Tours”: independent, guided tours in the public museums and galleries of London.

In those tours, which the Daily Mail has disparaged and which were called “sensationalist” by a British MP, she speaks about the hidden and dubious origin stories of both the institutions and the objects within them, highlighting histories of imperialism, nationalism and racism.

Procter was able to run her tours undercover for an entire year.(Supplied: Alice Procter)

“They were intended to be uncomfortable in that we touch on all the subjects people think of as sort of a little bit taboo in an art gallery,” Procter told RN’s The Art Show.

“I’m not saying people shouldn’t enjoy museums … But at the same time, you’ve got to learn how to ask questions.”

Now Procter has taken her tours to the page in a new book — The Whole Picture: The colonial story of the art in our museums and why we need to talk about it.

Exclusionary spaces

“I started my tours from a place of frustration. I had just spent three years on an art history degree that overwhelmingly ignored the colonial and imperial history that created the museums and galleries we were studying,” Procter writes in The Whole Picture.

The first Uncomfortable Art Tour she ran was in June 2017, as part of the Antiuniversity Now festival — and she’s run them ever since.

“I was able to get away with running my tours, essentially undercover, for nearly a year because the museum staff would look at me and think I was an official guide,” Procter says.

“I’m a nice white girl with an art history degree who looked the part and sounded the part.”

Procter wants to break the “hold” museums have over us and look at who actually feels comfortable in these spaces.

“When museums are invented, they’re invented to be spaces that are exclusionary and exclusive. And that means that they’re very racist and very sexist right from the beginning,” she says.

In her book, Procter explains that the first museums emerged from the private collections of wealthy individuals (the British Museum’s foundation collection belonged to Sir Hans Sloane) and were therefore based on those individual’s tastes, values and politics.

“Whether you’re deliberately collecting with a political agenda or not, you’re collecting in a political world. And so it’s always going to reflect that kind of status and worldview that you’re part of.”

She writes that curators, who still skew white and privileged, are continuing to determine what we value through what they collect and how they display it.

The Parthenon Marbles are probably the most famous contested objects in the British Museum’s collection, but many objects in many museums have similarly dubious origins.(Reuters: Dylan Martinez)

The Gweagal Shield

In The Whole Picture, Procter hones in on certain objects within collections and museums — for example, the British Museum’s Parthenon marbles.

But she says “the objects that we most need to spend time with, right now, are often the ones of first encounters and first contacts” between Indigenous peoples and European colonisers.

“[Those objects] are representing the kind of creation of colonial power,” the art historian says.

One example is the ‘Gweagal Shield’, an oval shaped shield made from red mangrove wood, which dates to 1770 when Captain Cook and Sir Joseph Banks arrived in the area now known as Botany Bay.

In that moment of first contact with the Gweagal clan of the Sydney area Cook shot one of the Gweagal men, who then dropped his shield before fleeing.

The Gweagal Shield sits encased behind glass the British Museum(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

“[The shield] becomes the first relic of south-eastern Australian Indigenous culture that makes it to the UK,” says Proctor.

It was first displayed in Banks’ private museum and then the British Museum, where it has been referred to as the “Cook Shield”.

“Its history has always been about this myth of … this perfect continent waiting to be conquered and discovered,” Procter says.

The shield’s history has been subject to research and debate, and Rodney Kelly, a Dharawal and Yuin man who is a descendant of the Gweagal warrior Cooman — the man who used the shield and was shot by Cook — has long been campaigning for it to be repatriated.

Procter says the British Museum’s explanatory label on the shield reduces a contentious and complicated history to this one sentence: “First contacts in the Pacific were often tense and violent.”

Restitution and representation

Before COVID-19, Procter was running Uncomfortable Art Tours a few times a week at six London sites, including the British Museum, the National Gallery, and Tate Britain.

Fine art and art history students were her first tour attendees, but now whole university classes and museum staff attend her sold-out tours (which cost $13–$20).

“Most of these institutions recognise they’ve got problematic histories,” Procter says.

“A museum knows that it’s got a contested object in the collection because the museum staff are the ones that are cataloguing and researching.”

Procter encourages you to give feedback to museums and galleries about their labels using these postcards, available on The Exhibitionist website.(Supplied: The Exhibitionist)

She wants museums and galleries to “display it like you stole it” and make the acquisition history of objects transparent.

When it comes to restitution of objects to their original communities, she says decisions must be made on a case by case basis.

“But overall, and overwhelmingly, I’m massively in favour of restitution,” Procter says.

“When you return an object to its community of origin or the descendants of its community of origin what you’re doing is acknowledging that they have a kind of expertise that you can never imitate,” Procter says.

She says her work as an outsider is enhanced by those working inside institutions to create change; she appreciates the work of UK groups Museum Detox and Museum as Muck, which provide support to museum workers from marginalised backgrounds

The tipping point

Procter says that in the UK there’s been “an amazing shift” amongst smaller museums and university collections towards the repatriation and restitution of ancestral remains and sacred objects.

Among these are London’s Natural History Museum, Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum, and the University of Manchester’s Museum, which has recently agreed to return 43 items belonging to four language groups across Australia.

There is an ongoing process of repatriation of Aboriginal ancestral remains happening in Australian museums too.

“This isn’t a new conversation by any means. There’s been some amazing work in Australian museums, particularly led by Indigenous educators and activists and curators,” Procter says.

This group includes Nathan “Mudyi” Sentance, a project officer in First Nations programming at the Australian Museum, and others who are working towards better storytelling around the objects, bilingual labels, and curation by communities.

Another key part of Procter’s vision of a “decolonised museum” would be a flexibility within institutions to make corrections when mistakes are pointed out.

The book is divided into four sections that deal with different types of museums and collections.(Supplied: Hachette)

She thinks we’re at a “tipping point”: “suddenly, someone decided that it was now in the public interest to have these conversations.”

This shift extends to who goes through the doors, with new accessible tours being introduced at many museums, and Procter says many museums are considering ways to diversify their audiences in terms of age, socio-economic background and race.

She says these institutions have been “resting on this idea for the last 300 years that we represent the world and we represent our community”.

“But actually, we should probably be doing some work to make sure that that so-called community is real.”

Although museum closures due to COVID-19 are hurting workers, Procter also sees an opportunity for more of the UK’s national institutions to catch up to what’s happening in smaller spaces and in Australia.

“We have this quite exciting chance to think about what kind of stories museums tell, how they serve us, and how they represent … national identity,” she says.

“When it comes time for these museums to reopen, I really hope people will actually take advantage of the fact that we’ve almost had a bit of a reset.”

The Whole Picture is out now through Hachette.

Art Gallery of NSW commissions new lockdown-themed exhibition – Sydney Morning Herald

Marikit Santiago’s drawing, with help from Maella, 5, Santiago, 4, and Sarita, 1.Credit:Marikit Santiago

“This drawing collaborates with them directly,” she said. “My drawings and the kids’ drawings are entangled in each other, which is an authentic reflection of our experience in lockdown.”

The Art Gallery’s assistant curator Lisa Catt said the exhibition came at a “critical moment we’re living through”.

“Right now, trying to see or make sense of the big picture can feel overwhelming so in this project we have turned to small pictures,” she said. “These are intimate scenes of comfort and contemplation, of uncertainty and change, of lost routines and newfound joys. Each work is as much about looking inwards as it is looking outwards.”

The other eight artists featured in the exhibition are Thea Perkins, Mitch Cairns, Tom Carment, Emily Hunt, Jumaadi, Tom Polo, Jude Rae and Jelena Telecki.

Santiago drew the view from her bedroom window looking out, and from outside looking in. Outside the window lies a patch of grass her family “never really used” before the shutdown. Now the space is used as a soccer field and it hosts family picnics. Similarly, the long shared driveway will be remembered as the location of her eldest daughter’s first bicycle ride without training wheels.

With the family of five cramming into a two-bedroom apartment, “we’re very much in each other’s spaces,” Santiago said.

“It was pretty hard to adjust at first, just having everyone at home,” she said. “In the first couple of weeks I just had to abandon my studio work.”

Like many people, Santiago has found the shutdown stressful professionally as her work dried up and responsibilities at home increased.

Tom Carment’s artwork, entitled ‘Out the front door’.Credit:Tom Carment

“I’m a person who doesn’t like uncertainty,” she said. “It’s been an anxious time not knowing what deadlines I’m working towards. There’s just a lot of uncertainty around the whole arts industry, more than most. If we didn’t have kids I would be so productive, and so fit as well. I think the kids suck lots of time out, but they’re delightful at the same time.”

Santiago says her artwork will help her look back and reflect on this period in her life. “It’s a bit of a time capsule drawing for a very specific, weird time for everyone,” she said.

From My Window launched on Wednesday on the Art Gallery of NSW website.

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Artist conversations ‘dig deep within the soul’

The place of the arts within Australian cultural life has become a recurrent topic of discussion for journalists, arts administrators and commentators in recent weeks, with the threat of insolvency prompting impassioned calls for additional government assistance and a renewed recognition of the central role that works of art can play in our quest for self-understanding. One chorus of voices who have often been excluded or overlooked in these debates, however, are those of the artists and creators whose livelihoods and lifestyles have been most radically affected by our current circumstances.

With ‘Artist Voice’, a new series of audio-visual and written conversations with contemporary artists around the world, curators at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) in Sydney seek to remedy this situation. This ambitious program offers an alternative platform for leading artists who are currently isolated in their homes and studios to share their strategies for dealing with lockdown and their thoughts on the issues now facing the arts sector globally. The series also showcases the close working relationships that MCA curators enjoy with many contemporary artists, capturing moments of great empathy and intimacy that provide a welcome antidote to the existential anxiety with which many of us are now struggling.

In the first conversation of the series, Anna Davis speaks with Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro at their home in the Blue Mountains, where the scarred and blackened landscape still bears witness to the catastrophic bushfires that seemed incomparably devastating earlier this year, but which have now been all but eclipsed by an even more overpowering crisis. Surrounded by such devastation, but comforted as well by the rapid appearance of new growth, Healy and Cordeiro share their hopes that the pandemic will be ‘a wake-up call to our relationship with the environment’, that politicians and policy-makers around the world will recognise the increasingly urgent need to safeguard the health of the planet as well as that of the people who call it home. On a personal level, they confide that our enforced isolation could provide an opportunity for self-reflection, ‘to dig deep within the soul’, finding in art, music, books and film not only some refuge from the tragedy unfolding around us but also inspiration and hope.

Other thoughts and visions for the future take form in conversations with Rushdi Anwar at his home studio in Chiang Mai; Sydney-based artists Mitchel Cumming and Gemma Smith; Karla Dickens and Megan Cope in Lismore, New South Wales; and Lee Mingwei, speaking from one of the most heavily impacted epicentres of the virus, downtown New York. The full series of 17 conversations is scheduled to unfold over the next few weeks, covering a range of topics and a broad spectrum of experiences.

The impact of COVID-19 for the visual arts will also be the focus of Art Monthly Australasia’s upcoming Winter bumper edition, featuring the work of Brian Fuata, Pat Hoffie, Giselle Stanborough and Jemima Wyman, among others. With the future of the arts and cultural industries in Australia and across the planet looking increasingly uncertain, the importance of attaching a human face to what can too easily become a spreadsheet of facts and figures assumes vital importance. Now more than ever, even while we may seem isolated by the need to distance ourselves from others, the value of our human connectedness and the role that art and artists play in communicating this mutual empathy have become all too clear.

Dr Alex Burchmore, Publication Manager

The Art Gallery of South Australia Will Reopen in June, Extend the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art – Broadsheet

The Art Gallery of South Australia will reopen its doors to the public on Monday June 8, in line with phase two of the state government’s winding back of Covid-19 restrictions.

AGSA will adhere to physical distancing, capacity limits and increased hygiene measures.

“While attendances will be diligently monitored and the safety guidelines outlined by Government adhered to, we are so pleased to welcome a limited capacity of visitors back into the Gallery, reopening windows to other worlds through art,” AGSA director Rhana Devenport said in a press release.

The gallery closed temporarily on March 25, cutting short its 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Monster Theatres, which opened a month earlier.

Today AGSA confirmed it will extend the exhibition, giving visitors until August 2 to experience the Biennial’s 30th anniversary year. The exhibition was originally scheduled to run until June.

“We are delighted to extend the life of the 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres, said Devenport. “Visitors are welcomed back into the arena to experience the re-emerged monsters of our time in this prescient exhibition.”

In the meantime, AGSA will continue to offer its digital experiences to engage audiences at home. There are online workshops for educators; daily activities for kids and teens; virtual tours; and podcasts featuring curators and artists. You can even operate one of the biennial’s showpiece artworks, Reclining Stickman, a nine-metre-long robot by performance artist Stelarc.

Keep an eye on AGSA’s social media channels and website for further updates.

How Border Art Prize winner stood out from hundreds – Tweed Daily News

DESPITE many art prizes around Australia being postponed or cancelled due to COVID-19, Tweed Regional Gallery’s Border Art Prize 2020 entrants embraced their chance to shine online in an exhibition featuring almost 400 works.

This year’s Border Art Prize winners were announced online and through social media channels last Saturday with guest judge Director of Grafton Regional Gallery Niomi Sands recording her message of congratulations to prize winners and entrants alike.

The $3000 first prize was awarded to Oksana Waterfall for The girl from Kyiv, with second prize going to Megan Puls for a ceramic vessel from her SURGE series.

Jenny Kitchener received third prize for her unique print linocut collage Out of kilter.


Megan Puls, 2020 Border Art Prize $1500 winner, “SURGE” series 2018, stoneware recycled clays / Black Scarva clay, 35 x 17cm


Ms Sands also awarded Highly Commended to seven artists including Michelle Dawson, John Pitt, Konstantina, Shannon Doyle, Tim Fry, Susan Jacobsen and Trish Tait.

The online ‘opening’ featured a number of videos, including a Welcome to Country sung by Aunty Deidre Currie; a performance by local musician Peter Koro; and video messages from Tweed Shire Deputy Mayor Chris Cherry, Director Sustainable Communities and Environment Tracey Stinson and Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre Director Susi Muddiman OAM.

People can now view all 392 works in the online catalogue on the Gallery’s website.

Many of the artworks are for sale and anyone interested in buying a piece should contact the artist direct via the links in the online catalogue or contact the Gallery.

“The Border Art Prize offers artists of our region a great opportunity to get their artwork out there,” Ms Muddiman said.

“One benefit of the online exhibition is that interested buyers won’t have to wait until the exhibition finishes to receive their purchased artwork, but we do need to remember that social distancing restrictions still apply and it’s important to look out for one another. Artists and buyers should practice safe payment and delivery options.”

The biennial Border Art Prize is open to residents of Tweed, Ballina, Byron, Kyogle, Lismore and Gold Coast City council areas.


Jenny Kitchener, Border Art Prize $500 winner , Out of Kilter, 2019 framed linocut, collage, (unique print), 53 x 35cm. Picture: Supplied.


Entries this year included textiles, sculpture, ceramics, oils, acrylics, mixed media, watercolour and photography.

The subject matter is varied, but includes landscapes, portraits and self-portraits, as well as themes related to social isolation and the devastation caused by recent bushfires.

The $3000 first prize is funded by Tweed Shire Council, with the Friends of Tweed Regional Gallery and Margaret Olley Art Centre Inc. funding the second prize of $1500 and third prize of $500.

To find out more about the online exhibition and to view the Border Art Prize 2020 catalogue, visit

Artspace announce first wave of Australian artists for 52 ACTIONS series

Sydney’s Artspace has announced the first wave of Australian artists, creatives and collectives set to participate in their new 52 ACTIONS series, launching this month.

The selected Australian artists and creatives will receive $1,000 for the development and presentation of new work and will see the creation of 52 artworks including live performances, photography, video, sound and text-based work, interventions and digital public programs. Each week for a year, a different creative will present a new commission shared globally across Artspace’s digital platforms. The first selected practitioners include Abdul Abdullah, Brook Andrew, Bankstown Poetry Slam, Archie Barry, Johnathon World Peace Bush (Jilamara Arts), Rainbow Chan, Erin Coates, Ruha Fifita, Henri Papin (Meijers & Walsh), Hayley Millar-Baker, Jason Phu, Stelarc, Tyza Stewart, Shahmen Suku | Radha, James Tylor and Kaylene Whiskey.

Kaylene Whiskey, Do You Believe in Love, 2019, acrylic on linen, 167 x 198cm. Courtesy the artist and Iwantja Arts

The project expands upon 52 ARTISTS 52 ACTIONS, Artspace’s year-long Instagram project that ran from 2018-19, inviting 52 artists and collectives across Asia to respond to important concerns in their local contexts. Utilising the digital framework established by 52 ARTISTS 52 ACTIONS, this new iteration centres around the social and cultural importance of artistic practice and art as action in times of uncertainty and transformation.

Artspace’s Executive Director Alexie Glass-Kantor said, ‘We’re very excited to be launching a new iteration of our 52 ARTISTS 52 ACTIONS project. Designed originally to explore how artists across the broader Asian region could utilise online platforms to create politically engaged art outside of the institution, it makes sense to revive the format at a time when we find ourselves locked out of institutions entirely. This time around we shift the focus onto Australia, highlighting the practices of 52 artists across the country. Through this expansive new commissioning series, we are not only aiming to provide stimulus for Australian artists, but to offer insight into artistic practice here as we move through a period marked by uncertainty.’

James Tylor, Grey Leaf Saltbush, Instagram post for 52 ARTISTS 52 ACTIONS, January 2019. Courtesy the artist and Artspace, Sydney

52 ACTIONS will launch on Monday 18 May 2020 with James Tylor, the last artist to contribute to 52 ARTISTS 52 ACTIONS, as a way of connecting back to the original project. Tylor’s multidisciplinary artistic practice focuses largely on Indigenous and European colonial history and its continual effect on present-day issues surrounding cultural identity in Australia.

52 ACTIONS will be staged on Artspace’s website. The project will also be broadcast through Artspace’s Instagram (@artspacesydney) as well as the 52 ARTISTS 52 ACTIONS Instagram (@52artists52actions).