Nick Moss: Curatorial Ethics and Outsider Art

In this post, writer Nick Moss reflects on the curatorial issues facing outsider art curators – and curators more widely. 


What follows are simply observations on issues arising from curation practices in relation to outsider art. They follow on from discussions with Kate Davey, further to my earlier reviews of the Ida Applebroog exhibition at Hauser and Wirth and Susan Te Kahurangi King at Marlborough Contemporary. Each of us separately visited the exhibitions and subsequently identified issues which the original reviews did not address. The issues are not unique to those exhibitions and so merit further consideration, towards which this is intended as a brief contribution.

A simple point arising from the Applebroog exhibition relates to the extent to which the ‘white cube’ of the contemporary commercial gallery can trap and repress the unique, auratic element of non-professional art. The Applebroog paintings at Hauser and Wirth were displayed in a continuous line that ran throughout the gallery – one small watercolour or pastel succeeding another. The strength, the vitality, of these works is en masse, as a defiant ‘fuck you’ to psychological trauma, and the form of curation employed undermined the statement. It appeared that the curation was unable to take sufficient inspiration from the work to break from rote practice.

Brian O’ Doherty contends that the white cube “is the single major convention through which art is passed.”[1] Jens Hoffman goes further and argues that the white cube “increases the aura around an object, it separates an object from its ‘real world’ context, and yet it is a ‘real world’ in itself.”[2] The implication, necessarily, is that alongside the gallery space, the artwork requires curatorial intervention to establish its meaning – a point of view that will be addressed below. But this notion of the ‘white cube’ in and of itself attracts, as O’ Doherty has recognised, “some of the sanctity of the church, the formality of the courtroom, the mystique of the experimental laboratory (joined) with chic design to produce a unique chamber of aesthetics.”

For the philosopher of art Peter Osborne, “Contemporary art produces (or fails to produce) the non-place of art space as the condition of its autonomy and hence its ability to function as ‘art.’ Art cannot live, qua art, within the everyday as the everyday. Rather it necessarily disrupts the everyday-ness of the everyday from within. Since it is both ‘autonomous’ and a ‘social fact.'[3] To the extent that Osborne’s position is coherent at all, it amounts to saying that art’s autonomy is conditional on its validation by the art-space -and that anything within the art-space is art (a rehashing of Duchamp). Thus, art’s uniqueness, its capacity to intervene in and disrupt the everyday, becomes conditional on its separation from the everyday.

All of the critics and curators referenced thus far make use of the concept of ‘non-place’ as developed by the French anthropologist Marc Auge. By ‘non place’ Auge means “ a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity.” This non-place is made up of “transit points and temporary abodes…where the habitue of supermarkets, slot machines and credit cards communicates wordlessly, through gestures, with an abstract, unmediated commerce.”[4]


For Auge, then, the non-place is conceived negatively. However, for Osborne, “The gallery itself, however, in its classical modern form as the ‘white cube’ is a self-enclosed, self-insulating space. And it is in its specific character as a self-enclosed, specialised place that the gallery appears as an exemplary non-place, in Auge’s sense.” Or, as Hoffman puts it, the white cube is a ‘blank slate,’ which allows “for guilt-free looking…(an) investment of time and attention.”

What this misses is that for Auge the non-place is, in effect, a ‘retail space’ – and the ‘white cube’ is then no more than the art-space which generates that mode of attention best suited to the consideration of art as financial investment. This is the case even if the curatorial intent is otherwise. The form the space takes dictates the form of validation bestowed on the artworks on display.

Particularly in relation to outsider art, this represents something of a missed opportunity. Much non-professional art is, for want of a more effective construction, self-curating. If we take as examples Luang Phor Khom’s Wat Phai Rong Wua, Ferdinand Cheval’s Palais Ideal, JP Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden, the works of Nek Chand; not only are they conceived on a  vast scale, they are planned by their creators to exist in and impact upon their environment in ways which are thought through, they are pre-planned.

The same is true of non-professional art which is conceived on a smaller scale. Pascale Verbena says of his work “I don’t just take any old piece of wood, I gather them in winter at river mouths and on beaches when no one is around. I work on experience. I invent, that’s my way of discharge. They’re bottles thrown into the sea with messages inside.”

Such being the case, I’d contend that there is, then, an ethical duty which falls upon the curator of ‘outsider art’ – however broadly conceived, and however crude and containing a descriptive term it is. Given that this is art produced by people who, whether because they are not sanctioned and validated by the art education production line, or because they produce art in situations of confinement, struggle to be heard; the duty of the curator is to ensure that it is the artist’s voice that predominates – to step out of the way and allow the messages in the bottles to be fully understood.


There is an assumption that the non-professional artist has no preconceived idea of how their work should be displayed. The opposite is the case. The patron saint of curating, Hans Ulrich Obrist, at least, acknowledges this, in a more general sense. “Alighiero Boetti told me that if I wanted to curate exhibitions then I should under no circumstances do what everybody else was doing – just giving artists a certain room and suggesting that they fill it. What would be more important would be to talk to the artists and ask them what projects they could not realise under existing conditions. Ever since, this has been a central theme of my exhibitions. I don’t believe in the creativity of the curator. I don’t think that the exhibition-maker has brilliant ideas around which the exhibition maker must fit. Instead the process always starts with a conversation, in which I ask the artists what their unrealised projects are, and then the task is to find the means to realise them.”[5]

It is certainly the case that many of Obrist’s curatorial acolytes have never moved to embrace the idea of curation as conversation. We are told instead that the role of the curator is to “orchestrate and encourage novel ways of looking” and that the curator has become “author, choreographer, and director, asking the works to come together, and coaxing them to broach subjects that might be beyond their individual scope but well within their breadth” (both of these  from Hoffmann).

I’d suggest that the ethical position the curator of outsider art ought to adopt though is not that of author, but that of translator. If we are dealing with artists who, whether because they lack ‘qualification’ or are excluded by confinement, go unheard, we have a duty to bring their voices forward. If the curator as author drowns out the voice of the socially-excluded artist, then the curator, simply, takes a place within that hierarchy of oppression/exclusion which defines the artist as ‘outside.’

This duty stands whether the artist is living or dead. If the artist is no longer living then the curator should engage with and research the work such that the artist’s subjectivity remains alive through the artistic legacy brought to display. In relation to the curation of outsider art, we might take a pejorative review and invert it to one of approbation. One of the reviews of the Hayward Gallery’s 1979 ‘Outsiders’ exhibition described it as bringing “the lunatic into the city square.”[6] If we assume instead of ‘lunatic’ the artists grouped in the show are ‘excluded,’ then the role of the curator ought properly be precisely to prise open the “self-enclosed, self-isolating space” of the white cube, and work with the excluded to invade the city square. First injunction – listen to the artist!


The second point is a simpler, but crucial one. In a Guardian review of the Susan Te Kahurangi King exhibition, we read the following :-

“It is (freelance curator Chris) Byrne, with Petita (Cole-the artist’s sister)’s assistance, who selects the works for exhibition; Susan herself has no understanding of the concepts of either ownership or selection, Petita says. Initially the family rule was that the drawings could be shown but not sold, though they have since relented. ‘Think about it,’ Petita told her sisters after seeing Byrne’s careful framing for the Miami exhibition last year. ‘When the show is over are we going to say, get them out of those frames, send them back here, they belong in the clear files on my shelves?'[7]

This was displayed without comment by the Marlborough Contemporary gallery as part of its selection of press cuttings. It raises a major concern, though. If Susan has no understanding of the concept of ownership and the drawings are all to be sold – who benefits from the sale and what happens to the monies raised? (We make no judgement in this regard – the monies may well all be properly accounted for and used to Susan’s  benefit). The point is that neither The Guardian nor the gallery thought this issue worthy of comment or explanation. The issue of safeguarding, though, ought to be central to any ethical curatorial practice in relation to artists who are in some form of confinement, have communication difficulties, or some other form of vulnerability. The potential for exploitation is obvious. The Indigenous Art Code produced to intervene in and prevent the exploitation of indigenous artists in Australia by commercial dealers perhaps provides some useful points to consider:

“Dealer Members Must Act Honestly – Dealer Members must at all times act fairly, honestly, professionally and in good conscience when dealing with an Artist, whether they are dealing directly with the Artist or dealing with the Artist through an Artist’s Representative. Examples of conduct that would not meet the required standard include, but are not limited to: (a) unfair or unreasonable conduct; (b) undue pressure or influence, including threats; (c) not acting in good faith; (d) paying an Artist by means of alcohol or drugs; (e) unfairly taking advantage of, or exploiting, an Artist; and (f) paying or agreeing to pay an Artist an amount or other consideration for the Artist’s Artwork that is, in all the circumstances, against good conscience.”[8]

It is not to doubt the ethical practice of the galleries discussed herein to acknowledge that the commercial art market is, potentially, a field of rapacity and disillusion for the ‘outsider’ artist. This fact acknowledged, the ethical curator has a duty both to ensure that the voice of the artist is heard on the aesthetic terms agreed with the artist, and that all business conducted with the artist is done so within a set of agreed ethical practices which it falls to the curator to ensure is carried out. After all, if as Hoffmann has it, the curator-as-author wants to make “new modes of being and thinking evident,” it would be unfortunate if what lay behind these were old rituals of rip-off and exclusion.


[1] Brian O’ Doherty, Inside the White Cube : The Ideology of Gallery Space, University of California Press, 1999

[2] Jens Hoffmann, (Curating) From A-Z, JRP/RINGIER 2014

[3] Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not At All, Verso 2013

[4] Marc Auge, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Super-Modernity, Verso, 1995

[5] Hans Ulbrich Obrist and Asad Raza, Ways of Curating, Penguin, 2014

[6] John Maizels, Raw Creation, Phaidon, 1996

[7] The Guardian, Silent Witness, 31 May, 2017

[8] Indigenous Art Code [availble online:



3 thoughts on “Nick Moss: Curatorial Ethics and Outsider Art

  1. david maclagan says:

    I quite agree with your second half. The problem is aggravated where there are special studios for ‘handicapped’ artists that also have exhibition/sales spaces. (see my ‘Stolen Fruit’ essay, on website)

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