A Code of Ethics

From The Curators Committee of the American Association of Museums (CurCom) first developing A Code of Ethics for Curators in 1983; the Guerrilla Girls’ Code of Ethics for Art Museums posters, fly-posted overnight in SoHo, NY in 1989 and a new publication (to be released in the UK in March 2018) called Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating written by Maura Reilly and Lucy Lippard, the subject of ethics within curatorial practice is not a quiet one.

The CurCom code of ethics – a starting point for professional curators working in art museums and used by institutions in America today, was reviewed, updated and the final version authored in 2009 by a working group comprising John Mayer, James Burns, Stephanie Gaub, Brian H. Peterson and John Russick (four men and one woman – is this significant?).  This working document outlines the ‘standards and best practices for professional curatorial practices’ and goes on to describe the ‘fundamental principles, core beliefs and critical responsibilities that define curatorial work’.

I find it very easy to read, and in part quite obvious – but it sets a standard. Reading about curatorial values and conflicts of interest has proved difficult reading in terms of my own practice, where I collect 19th century photographic memorabilia and carte de visites but I see myself as a curator of photography – thus stated in this document, ‘potential for an ethical conflict exists.’ The section also goes on to explain that ‘Curators or guest curators may not be active dealers in the museum’s areas of interest.’ So what of my overwhelming desire to work in The Photograher’s Gallery, London?  I would like to contact them to see where they position themselves within this.

Tamsin Russell chairs the launch event for the revised Code of Ethics. (http://www.museumsassociation.org/news/25012016-ma-launches-revised-code-of-ethics)

The UK’s Museums Association code of ethics for museums has that same framework, and in particular the point is raised whereby anyone working in or with museums should ‘avoid any private activity or pursuit of a personal interest that may conflict or be perceived to conflict with the public interest. Consider the effect of activities conducted in private life on the reputation of the museum and of museums generally.’

In 1989 the Guerrilla Girls created and distributed a poster depicting a code of ethics for art musums based on the Old Testament. As their website states, and as their reputation shows, ‘The Guerrilla Girls are feminist activist artists.’ The piece they created in 1989 describes in their trademark ‘humour as a weapon’ way, their code of ethics for art museums… “We found out quickly that humor gets people involved. It’s an effective weapon,” taken from an interview for their first book “Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls” (1995). They also believe that ‘copies of it have been spotted hanging in museum offices all over the country.’  https://guerrillagirls.squarespace.com

Guerrilla Girls' Code Of Ethics For Art Museums 1990 by Guerrilla Girls
ARTIST Guerrilla Girls PART OF Guerrilla Girls Talk Back MEDIUM Screenprint on paper DIMENSIONS Image: 435 x 560 mm frame: 514 x 639 x 30mm

I admire the strength and humour of point number seven as it links directly with my line of thought…  VII. If thou art an Art Collector sitting on the Acquisitions or Exhibitions Committee, thou shalt useth thy influence to enhance the value of thine own collection not more than once a year.


Moving to the present day, I have been made aware of a book to be published by Thames&Hudson in March 2018 called ‘Curatorial Activism: Towards and Ethics of Curating’ by the curator and critic Maura Reilly. It is described as ‘A handbook of new curatorial strategies based on pioneering examples of curators working to offset racial and gender disparities in the art world’ on Amazon an will be a book that adds to Maura Reilly’s repertoire of – as described on her public Twitter account (@MauraReilly) – ‘curator, critic, activist, global arts nomad, tease, instigator, feminist, linda nochlin protogée, coffee addict, & pussy galore and wonder woman wannabe.’

In an article published by ArtNews on 7/11/17, Reilly adapts and reprints with permission from Thames&Hudson, publisher of the forthcoming book, the introductory text to introduce what she means by curatorial activism. She writes:

“Curatorial Activism” is a term I use to designate the practice of organizing art exhibitions with the principle aim of ensuring that certain constituencies of artists are no longer ghettoized or excluded from the master narratives of art. It is a practice that commits itself to counter-hegemonic initiatives that give voice to those who have been historically silenced or omitted altogether—and, as such, focuses almost exclusively on work produced by women, artists of color, non-Euro-Americans, and/or queer artists. The thesis of my forthcoming book, Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating, takes as its operative assumption that the art system—its history, institutions, market, press, and so forth—is an hegemony that privileges white male creativity to the exclusion of all Other artists. It also insists that this white Western male viewpoint, which has been unconsciously accepted as the prevailing viewpoint, “may––and does––prove to be inadequate not merely on moral and ethical grounds, or because it is elitist, but on purely intellectual ones.”


I have a lot of reading to do from this investigation into the ethics of exhibition making and curating in this century. I aim to reach into this further, and to pull out answers to questions surrounding my own practice as a curator.


Featured image:

Lang, A. (2014). Porcelain. Karen Woodbury Gallery, Melbourne. [Photograph] Available at: http://www.powerpublications.com.au/video-curatorial-activism/. (Accessed 11 November 2017).


American Alliance of Museums. (2017). Curators commitee (curcom). Available at: http://aam-us.org/resources/professional-networks/curcom. (Accessed 11 November 2017).

Museums Association. (2015). Tamsin Russell chairs the launch event for the revised code of ethics. [Photograph]. Available at: http://www.museumsassociation.org/news/25012016-ma-launches-revised-code-of-ethics. (Accessed 11 November 2017).

Guerrilla Girls. (2017). [ONLINE]. Available at: https://guerrillagirls.squarespace.com. (Accessed 11 November 2017).

Tate. (1990). Guerrilla Girls’ code of ethics for art museums. [Image] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/guerrilla-girls-guerrilla-girls-talk-back-81163/8. (Accessed 11 November 2017).

Art News. (2017). What is curatorial activism? [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.artnews.com/2017/11/07/what-is-curatorial-activism/ (Accessed 11 November 2017).

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