Inside the Gallery Part 1: Queering the Whitworth

In the first of a series of interviews looking at the Whitworth’s collection through a variety of lenses, Ruby interviews Dominic Bilton. Dominic is a Visitor Team Assistant at the Whitworth, where he also leads on the project Queering the Whitworth. Dominic studied History of Art at Liverpool John Moores University before completing a Masters’ in Art Gallery and Museum Studies at the University of Leeds, where he has just begun a PhD researching museums’ engagement with LGBTQ+ communities. Dominic is also deputy lead for the Queer British Art network, a research group of the British Art Network.  

Ruby: So, hello Dominic Bilton!

Dominic: Hello.

R: So, how would you describe your project, Queering the Whitworth, for people who don’t know about it?

D: Queering the Whitworth is a project which looks at the Whitworth’s collections through a queer lens in order to rediscover or re-narrate or give an appropriate reading to a piece of artwork that has an LGBTQ plus connection associated with it. We then disseminate that information through various means, obviously when the gallery’s open and in normal times we disseminate that information through tours or talks that we might give to, say Friends of the Whitworth etc, giving a queer reading on Cezanne for example. We use social media as well, we organise events to be able to give people the opportunity to look at these works that we re-narrate and rediscover and at the moment we are developing a website, which we can put all of this information onto as well to be able to disseminate this information even more and have a permanent space for it rather than an ephemeral approach to the project, which it has had previously.

The website will have videos of what we’ve already done, it will look at what we’ve researched, and it will have, as time goes on, essays around certain aspects of the collection which look at gender identity, race- that kind of thing as well. These essays will look at the urgencies and needs of the LGBTQ+ community at the moment, in regard to what those people within those communities are perhaps concerned about. 

Something I am thinking about at the minute in a political sense are queer, white, problematic artists that have been painting black people – which on the surface of those works look to me like unproblematic pieces of work, but actually, and it’s only until you discover the narratives behind them and the subject matter, that they start to take on rather sinister and unpleasant characteristics. So, what I’m questioning at the moment is what we as queer people do with those problematic works of art, that at that time were telling something about the LGBTQ+ community, but now also tell us about racism at that time as well. And I think that where you’re having this multi-directional layering of conversation that you have with these works it makes it quite complicated, in that you’re discrediting a part of the community that might not ordinarily be able to be found, i.e. the gay community of that time painting, in a time where within certain sections of society it was perfectly acceptable to do but is now something quite problematic. So how do we address trying to find place, which is what I do – I look at this connection between LGBTQ+ people here now with people from the past and try and explore connections between the two.

R: So, what brought you to this project? Am I right in thinking that you started it?

D: Yeah [I started it] about two years ago, I think. It started from the original Cezanne print that we have of The Bathers, it was the plain one with just the lines, rather than any colour. And that’s where the project began, by starting to research Cezanne, as I found this work to warrant a queer reading. 

R: I remember having that chat with you about a work, that’s not in our collection, but there was a hortensia flower in a sketch he did of his wife. And she was called Hortense- so there’s that reading of it, but there’s an alternative meaning to it as the hortensia flower, in Flower Language, can mean ‘frigidity’ and a ‘disinterest in romance’. And I remember when I found it, I immediately came to you and I was like “Dom you have to see this!”

Paul Cezanne (1839 – 1906) ‘Les Baigneurs (The Bathers)’ (1886 – 1887), The Whitworth, The University of Manchester.

D: Yeah, it’s a really interesting reading, because Cezanne is so nuanced and so troubled within his sexuality that you don’t have to be an art historian to see this within his work. I was having a chat with Imogen (Historic Fine Art Curator at the Whitworth) about muses and whether or not we think that it has to be sexual for somebody to be a muse. And whilst I don’t think it necessarily has to be sexual, I do think that on some level there has to be some sort of attraction to them in one way or another; whether that be physical, mental or what have you. And perhaps these conversations should be had around a very psychoanalytical point of view – I’m sure Freud would have something to say on the reasons why we choose muses. But then, I’ve given a reading as to why Cezanne chose the people that he portrays in The Bathers. But yeah, Queering the Whitworth started initially from that one work that was in the first iteration of Exchanges about two years ago (?) and I think I made a social media post about it because I wanted to give alternative reading to it. The Whitworth hadn’t had any ‘queer’ shows, up to that point, since its reopening, so it was a great opportunity to give alternative readings to the works. 

R: Yeah, there have been exhibitions of artists who are gay, you know we had Isaac Julien’s show Ten Thousand Waves; and he is an out, gay man and has created works about the gay community, but that work in particular wasn’t anything to do with that.

D: No, no it wasn’t. And then that’s interesting about how…just because somebody’s gay, do you give a queer reading to that piece of work? Ten Thousand Waves – absolutely not, but we had works of art on the wall by queer artists that could’ve had a queer reading, and that’s where this project steps in, by giving that alternative interpretation to those works, via social media or in-person tours. 

But yeah, as a Visitor Team project, it’s a really good art historical project to really get involved in, it’s really art history and in this day and age you don’t get that many opportunities to be able to work in an art historical context – that’s what we’re doing in the project basically.

R: On that note, how has your job as a part of the Visitor Team influenced your work with Queering the Whitworth? I know, obviously, in terms of practicalities it’s a part of our job that we are encouraged to have a Visitor Team project, but Queering the Whitworth seems to have become a bigger thing than that over the years. But the fact that you work in this hospitality job where you talk to lots of different people and see lots of different people interact with the collection in their own different ways – does that still influence your work in this project?

Queering the Whitworth Tour

D: Yeah, for tours, for example, I will try to gage how I think I can get away with some of the things that I would say on a Queering the Whitworth tour. It’s quite surprising as well, because my perspective and my reading of the works and what I’ve got in my head is really the only reading I have of that work, I don’t have an alternative reading to give because, A: I don’t think I should and B: I don’t see those works as anything other than a queer piece of work. And I’ve got such a body of knowledge of the works that are in the collection and on the wall at that time, why would I talk about anything else? I wouldn’t do anything else justice- it’s not like I’m not interested in anything else, of course, but Queering the Whitworth takes up quite a bit of time. So, I gage whether or not I can talk about this aspect of my work during my tours, and I do a lot of the time and I can be quite surprised about how receptive some people are on it. Because there are people that I think “oh maybe not…” and sometimes they are actually the ones where I’ll hint at something and they’ll start that conversation- and then I’m in! [laughs] I also learn a lot from visitors too. I am learning all the time and it’s so great to start a conversation with a visitor about queer art because I can learn as much from visitors about artists and artworks as they can from me. It’s great when that happens,  

R: Yeah, I know exactly what you mean – I’m the same with politics and art, like I’m really interested in the inherent political nature of art as I think all art is either consciously or unconsciously political as it reflects the times in which it was made. And I find it really hard not to veer into that at all during tours – and I usually do a bit, but I try not to do it too much, it’s one of these inescapable things. But what’s great is that we have a whole team of people who have different specialisations in different areas, and different ways of telling stories within the arts and then you also get Dave who just knew everything (by the way readers at home, he’s fine- he’s just retired, and we just really miss him!) in a more traditional, art historical sort of sense. So, what’s good, one day when we’re able to do it again at the Whitworth, no one tour is going to be the same- they may be the same works of art but there will be completely different readings of it. And all of them are correct, all of them are right, but they are just different viewpoints on it.  

But to change the topic completely, I’m interested if you’ve always had an interest in visual arts?

D: Yes, I have, but I’ve not always had the opportunities to work or steer my career in the direction of visual arts – it wasn’t until 2014 when I started my art history degree, so only six years ago. So, I started on a History degree, because I really like history – no surprise! And started at Liverpool John Moores and the subjects in that degree, the modules that were available were ones I wasn’t massively keen on, so I thought I’d just try my luck and see if I could transfer onto the History of Art degree and I could, so that was it. So that gave me the opportunity to think about art in completely different ways than I had before as someone who would go to galleries and all that. 

R: So, is one of the reasons you run this project in order to give people in the LGBTQ+ community this representation where they may not immediately see it?

D: Yeah, I worked in the Gay Village for many years on and off before I started working at the Whitworth and to go from something so LBGTQ+ community based as Manchester Gay Village to something quite the reverse and not see the queer representation that I would get through the doors of the pub I worked in, was really odd. 

I went off on a bit of a tangent about why LGBTQ+ artists are underrepresented in many art collections, and how one of the reasons, in my eyes, is that unless the artist was seen as being morally perfect, massively wealthy or apolitical, they seem to either fall off the map or are seen as vagrants or cautionary tales, no matter how much their art is lauded. This is particularly in tangent with the AIDS crisis during the 80’s and 90’s. (Ruby)

D: Lots of people were scared about AIDS at the time (..), from artists, curators, both gay and straight, as well as directors and boards of art institutions, everybody was scared of AIDS, the whole community was scared. And I think this was part of the problem that artists, who were working in HIV/AIDS activism at the time had with institutions, institutions didn’t know how to do AIDS, or do it right way anyway – I’m specifically thinking about the exhibitions that documented people with AIDS, such as the photography exhibition by Nicholas Nixon Pictures of People, for example and the problematics that surrounded shows on this topic. It was at this point that the activists took that representation out of the galleries, because galleries couldn’t do it, and took it to the streets. That’s why you have Cleave Jones’ Names Project where you have the textile pieces laid out on Capitol Mall in Washington DC, for example. 

But then there’s also homophobia in general, homosexuality was still illegal until 1967 and openly LGBTQ+ artists were only just starting to emerge, David Hockney for example. Into the 1970’s and 1980’s institutions were funded differently, so they didn’t need to think about collecting works that reflected the LGBTQ+ community because the need to work collaboratively with communities wasn’t high on their agendas. Into the late 1980s and early 1990s and Margaret Thatcher enacts Section 28, meaning that institutions couldn’t promote homosexuality within an educational space, massively detrimental for LGBTQ+ representation. You can trace why there hasn’t been LGBTQ+ representation in museums through this chronological line of things that have happened before and after 1967. 

David Hockney (b.1937) ‘Peter Schlesinger,’ (1967). The Whitworth, The University of Manchester.

R: Hypothetically speaking, if you were the director of an art gallery and for the sake of argument, let’s say it is a Victorian art gallery, and you wanted to diversify the collection in your own way – what steps would you take to do so?

D: I would use the works as educational tools so as to educate people on the historical narratives of that time, those white, queer artists that were making racist works, for example, or same sex couples whose love affairs are lost through homophobic interpretation. That’s a prime example of what I would do with those works, to use them as an educational resource and to engage people with them. So, I would use a Victorian collection for education, and I would invite contemporary artists to come in and work with the institution to make art that is responsive to that Victorian collection. I’d contemporise it with community, giving the works an alternative reading. 

R: Yes, it is important to understand how those racist, backwards ideas were propagated and reflected in and via art.

Michael Clark (b.1954) ‘The Gardener: Portrait of Derek Jarman’ (1994). The Whitworth, The University of Manchester.

D: Like I said to you at the start, those problematic white and queer artists – we shouldn’t take them out of queer history, however the work that they were producing was problematic and this is something that we as the LGBTQ+ community need to acknowledge and face. So, the works are really starting points for these conversations. 

R: Yeah, that’s really interesting isn’t it? Because there’s a really long history of queer art which goes back much further than our collection goes.

D: For sure yeah, and there’s that constructivist/essentialist debate as to whether or not society makes you gay or whether or not you’re born gay. So, some people think that it was the time at the end of the 19thcentury that contemporary gay society, as we know it emerged and with the construction of the homosexual but before then you couldn’t identify people as being homosexual. I’m still reading and researching on this debate, but I am not sure I completely agree with the constructivist argument that homosexuality is a social construct, because that gaydar of mine would still work, no matter what century I’m in. Maybe it would be thought of differently, but it would still be an innate desire? I would still search out people like me. I think an element of both arguments is needed. I’m still reading and learning. You know what I mean?!

R: Yeah, absolutely! 

R: There are accounts of LGBTQ+ communities from way beyond that, there’s the theory that Shakespeare was bisexual, which when you read his work it does make a lot of sense in the way he talks about male characters as well as female characters, where there’s a sort of sexual gaze in both depictions. And then you have much earlier accounts from before his time. So, what I’m interested in is what is the importance of expressing yourself through art and through visual arts to people within the LGBTQ+ community?

D: I always draw back to a time when a trans woman came into the gallery where I knew that she didn’t have any representation on the walls in order to give her a sense of place within the institution, and that’s my answer to you really. That [queer art] it gives you a sense of inclusion and representation within society that ordinarily you might not have. And I think it gives you a sense of place, a place within history as well so we can find, perhaps, where we came from. So, for example, for me if I split up with a boyfriend, I’ll pick up a book where I know someone has been through what I am going through in the past and I will take comfort from this knowledge that other people have recovered from heartbreak. I will know it will all be alright in the end. But I think it’s important that visual representation gives us that sense of place and history to know that we aren’t alone, and we haven’t been alone. We’ve always had community, it’s just a matter of where to find it and the visual arts is a great place to start to do so. 

R: So, do you see your place on the Visitor Team as a mediator between the art and the people viewing the art?

D: Very much so, yeah. I think it’s a really good opportunity to work within art history and to be able to uncover these narratives so that we can disseminate this information and then challenge people with it as well. I think it’s a form of activism, you know, we’re ‘queering’ in the verb not the noun.  So, researching the collection is a ‘queering’, it’s a verb and it’s a form of activism and so is talking to people about queer art. I enjoy queering as, to me, it’s a really important form of activism.

R: Yes, it is definitely, and I think also, and I think back to the trans women who came into the gallery and who saw nothing which represented her, and I personally (I might be wrong) feel that the Whitworth has become a friendly and representational space for the LGBTQ+ community. I think particularly since Queering the Whitworth and people seeing that that’s what’s going on and that it is a part of what we give as a package. So, do you think Queering the Whitworth plays a part in the way that people are represented on the gallery walls in the Whitworth?

Pearl Alcock (1934 – 2006) ‘Celebration of the Night,’ (1987) The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

D: I would like to think that Queering the Whitworth plays a part in this. I think the Whitworth reflects society and society still has a way to go in terms of the representation and normalisation of LGBTQ+ communities, but the Whitworth has some great Curators that want to make positive changes within the representation of the LGBTQ+ communities within their exhibitions. Examples of this representation could and can be seen respectively within the Pearl Alcock and the Exchanges exhibitions. 

R: Oh yeah, and I think we’ve made steps as a society and as an institution.

D: The gallery is on its way- which I hope I can play a part in developing. 

R: Definitely, I was never suggesting that we’re at the end point.

D: No, no of course. 

R: And for now, that’s all we can really do because of the amount of work that needs to be done for us to get to that end point of this struggle. And I think what you’re doing is great because its showing people representation where it may have been invisible. So in terms of our job as a part of the Visitor Team, we deal and intervene in and with sometimes difficult situations that arise when working in any public space, how important do you think it is to have a presence like that in a public space to keep it safe and inclusive? 

D: I think we’re doing all we can do, knowing the team and knowing the great bunch of people that we are, I think we’re as inclusive as we can be. I think the training that we get, the diversity of the team etc. with regards to sexual identities etc. is quite diverse. I think we do a good job on the team, we’re very sensitive, very compassionate and very empathetic and I think that’s massively helpful.

R: I always say that that is our job description, the most important thing that qualify us for this job is being a nice person who’s interested in art.

D: It’s true, I think we do a great job – without bigging ourselves up too much! 

R: Well on that lovely note, it’s been very lovely to chat with you Dom, thank you for this!

If you’d like to see more of Dominic’s work with Queering the Whitworth, you can find the project’s website here: https://queeringthewhitworth.wordpress.com

You can also order a publication, which Dominic has contributed to, by Made by Women titled Radical Possibilities: Art and Queer Identity here: https://www.madebywomen.co.uk

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