The Value of Meticulousness

At the invitation of Platform BK, Zippora Elders wrote a striking column on fair practice, which she read last Friday at the Fair Practice Symposium in Groningen.


One of my mentors, a senior conservator at a large museum, only addressed herself to me once on the subject of low salaries and lots of overtime in the arts sector. Namely, the following: ‘I feel so blessed that I’m allowed to work with art and artists that it’s never occurred to me to complain about that.’

You may think that she must quite privileged to be able to say that, and she said so herself as well, or even better: she called herself ‘blessed’. I repeat her basic principle to myself at difficult moments: it is a privilege to be allowed and to be able to work with art.

It is also a privilege that nowadays we largely do so with a Fair Practice Code, a Diversity & Inclusion Code, and a Culture Governance Code. Across our sector, we feel responsible for codes intended to make society more pleasant in general, and we can be proud of that.

How this resonates can’t always be measured, but it can always be felt by those who are sensitive to it. And that’s what you are. That’s even what you’re specially trained in: in hearing the undertone, in manipulating material, in making the invisible visible, in creating far-reaching vistas, in restructuring compositions, in moving within space, in recounting the unimaginable; in short, in turning the everyday into something special. The desire to make the world look better, with beauty, with balance, with rest, with jokes, with disruption, with concept, with confusion, with confrontation, with being different. Failing, needling, living.

But what do you encounter in practice? In practice, I should have sent in this column last Tuesday. That didn’t work out because I couldn’t find the space for creativity. I’m tired. It was a week of political and business struggles, on and off screen. And struggling takes energy. After having seen countless artists and colleagues crash and burn, it’s clear to me: burn-outs aren’t caused by the work; burn-outs are caused by the noise. And the noise we make ourselves.

Because just as our beloved codes are clear, the unfairness, underpayment, sexism, racism, and class and age discrimination in everyday reality are murky in equal measure.

You’re against sexism, but when you see the rich donor put his hand just a little bit too low on your junior developer’s lower back, well, that just comes with the territory. You’re all for inclusion, but actually sharing your position with someone who has a different view on quality is pretty damn hard after all. And you enjoy the attractive young woman who speaks in proper Dutch about feminism and diversity, but when she addresses you about a concrete situation, then that’s actually pretty annoying. You even think it’s unprofessional, because sure, it’s nice and all, an ambitious girl like that, but she really should understand that sometimes that’s just how things are in the real world, and the bigwigs didn’t mean anything by their clumsy remarks.

Well. We want honesty and transparency, but at the same time it’s also considered professional not to air your dirty laundry. If you do, then there will doubtlessly be a number of ‘colleagues’ who are ready to criticise you. And they won’t just do that at the corner grocery; they’re on the commissions of the funds you just sent out applications to. The art world is not unfamiliar with both vanity and a lack of money, and the combination of these two quickly bring competition and envy into play. And next time your client might prefer someone who’s not so ‘difficult’, because making trouble isn’t so helpful for business contacts who have too much money to worry about fair work and inclusivity codes. What’s more, this business has been flourishing for centuries on unfair work and exclusivity.

And so we all contribute intentionally or unintentionally. You want to hire employees, but you expect them to do 150% as much work. You pay freelancers for a half-day per week job, but you do want them to be available anytime during your 40-hour week at the office.

What ‘arts professional’ can say that their inbox hasn’t become their nemesis? A hundred emails per day that actually need to be answered, that you can just feel coming in during those rare hours when you try to read a book for your studies… Knowing that somewhere in the world there’s an artist who you don’t know but who does know you, sitting alone in a studio moping about why you haven’t yet responded to his spontaneous invitation for a studio visit. Knowing that somewhere in a chic office building, your client is waiting agitatedly on a response about that one sentence in that one press release that doesn’t even need to be finished until two weeks from now. Knowing that somewhere in a town hall, an official sits thinking that you can do with a smaller subsidy because you can just send out some grant applications. And why weren’t you at that opening 200 km away during your free afternoon last Saturday, asks the chairman of the board, and he’s got a point, too.

Can you just take care of it?

The arts professional stands shivering with a cup of coffee at Almere Central Station. From 30 on, it doesn’t matter so much whether you’re from a good family with a little inheritance, or whether you’ve climbed up from a rowhouse in the provinces. Stress is stress. And not infrequently, the curator takes the brunt that otherwise would have come down on the art. But you also know that the artist makes the real sacrifices. The artist runs the risk of old age spent in poverty, lacks the security to create, gave up a stable life for imagination, shows his or her inner world to the public, or, as someone once shockingly told me, ‘If your work is uncertain, you hold on to what is certain, even if that is a lukewarm relationship with someone who can afford to buy a house in a major city.’

So what about that trembling cup of coffee and tiredly writing that column? It is still important to know the struggles of your fellow professionals. In a sector full of emotions and sensitivities, it’s part of your job to put yourself in others’ shoes. And this emphatically does not mean deciding what the other person needs for them, but asking them sincerely, and at the same time sharing your needs and doubts. Because in this fight, you need each other.

Yes, I said it: fight. It may seem as if the reigning order is open to resistance. But that openness is relative. Which critiques are welcome? The critiques that make us feel better about ourselves. The good-looking woman who says that women should be more visible. The white curator who mounts an exhibition about black artists. The education employee who puts a queer project on the fringes of the programme. The marketing and communications employee who proclaims that the exclusive membership club should be more inclusive.

Nowadays, the ambivalent position of resistance lies in the fact that it is so easily gobbled up by the system. Criticising in the ways mentioned above isn’t so difficult; it is even attractive because it gives you instant validation with applause, with jobs, with popularity, with likes. To stand up to someone who is more powerful than you alone where no one can see you – that is difficult.

So how do you ensure as a sector that this doesn’t remain a pipe dream? How do you make the codes concrete? I’m happy with this symposium because unity and sharing knowledge is valuable for small groups. You need advocates for that. But you need something else first, and that is consciousness: feeling a sense of responsibility for each individual and being. Staying sharp. Solidarity. Realising that the artist still has so many more opportunities here than in many other places in the world. And at the same time, taking a moment for the here and now. Remembering that groups consist of individuals, that we share a larger world. Not driving others crazy. But at the same time, pointing it out when things go wrong, in detail and with patience. Seeing your colleague, truly seeing. Recognising when things are becoming too much for them; being honest about what you ask from them; helping them when they’re backed into corner; trusting when necessary; bringing them a cup of tea when they’re struggling to meet a deadline; acknowledging, naming, and accepting your own mistakes; straying off the beaten path more often; actively choosing a multiplicity of voices – at your office, in your system, your circle of friends, your family.

Recognise the struggle of your and our people.

Sinterklaas arrives tomorrow. It was artists who set up Zwarte Piet is Racisme (Black Pete is Racism) and Kick Out Zwarte Piet. Take a moment to reflect on that. Isn’t that what our codes are about? Do you practice solidarity from a distance, as long as it’s socially acceptable, or do you share in the risk along with those who dare confront a world that isn’t nearly where it should be? Tomorrow there will be demonstrations and protests around the country. I read on Twitter that people of colour are advised to bring several (white) buddies for protection. That doesn’t strike me as unrealistic, but take a moment to let it sink in what that actually means.

When you take a look at the state of the world, then hopefully you see that we’re in the midst of an eruption of power shifts and cultural shifts. The more space that’s taken up by people who think differently, the more counterforces stand up against them. It’s a time of violence and polarisation – on the streets, online, and behind the screens. Especially now, it’s important to unite and persevere. Celebrate distinctive and complementary qualities, but let go of competitiveness and jealousy. Because subsidies will help with your fatigue, but won’t solve unfairness. What will is further implementing and integrating a code that centres on fair work. And this begins on a small scale: respect each other’s working hours, don’t text after hours, don’t give other people’s numbers to third parties without a good reason, let someone take the time to do the job well, help check other people’s work, protect each other’s safety. Understand the context, but do speak up if you notice that someone’s being treated unfairly.

In summary, I want to give you three things to take with you into the discussion: recognise each other’s work, recognise each other’s struggle, and recognise each other’s meticulousness. Thank them, encourage them, talk things over with them. Share the risk. Don’t give up. Take the steps you can take. Greet the stock clerk, the cleaner, the volunteer, the museum guard, the sex worker, the dishwasher, the production intern. And allow yourself the chance to try again every day.

Living happily is living honestly. If it sometimes makes you tired, remember that it is our privilege to be able to work with art. And imagine a reality in which the art world could be an example for how we treat each other in the whole of society. As far as I’m concerned, you’re allowed to try, fail, and get up again endlessly. I do hope that there is someone beside you to offer you a helping hand. No, wait: I ask you to do so. Fair practice for everyone.

Thank you.

About Zippora Elders

Zippora Elders is based between The Netherlands and Berlin. She is the Artistic Director of Kunstfort bij Vijfhuizen, Island for Art and Heritage in The Netherlands (2016-). Previously she was a curator at Foam (2014-16) and a curator-in-training at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (2013-14). Her background is in art history and theory, heritage and museology, and curatorial studies. She is an external curator at Art Rotterdam, Buitenplaats Doornburgh and Fondation Constant and holds several advisory positions.