Varda Nisar

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CIMAM 2021 grantee Varda Nisar, Ph.D. Candidate/Researcher, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada.

In 2021, 50 contemporary art curators, researchers, and museum professionals from 32 different countries were awarded support to attend the CIMAM 2021 Annual Conference, in-person and online.

For the first time, and thanks to the generous support of The Getty Foundation who sponsored the virtual platform, 27 grantees attended the conference online, while 23 attended onsite.

Launched in 2005, CIMAM’s Travel Grant Program is designed to foster cooperation and cultural exchange between contemporary art curators and museum directors in emerging and developing economies and their counterparts in other regions of the world.

Varda Nisar's Conference Report

CIMAM 2021, with its theme of "Under Pressure. Museums in Times of Xenophobia and Climate Emergency", promised to shed light on one of the most important questions currently occupying cultural and art institutions: How to stay relevant for its publics at a time of social reckoning? Equally important has been the question for museums themselves: how important are they in our Covid context?

The difficulty of answering these questions was apparent in the programming and the myriad ways the speakers tried to tackle the theme. The keynote address by Dipesh Chakrabarty established the framework of Global versus Planetary, where the planetary approach requires us to start thinking with definite timelines in mind and make institutional change a priority. Following this logic, Jaroslaw Lubiak's perspective becomes inherently important, which centers on Resilience, Relinquishment, Restoration, and Reconciliation agenda.

For my research, the most critical paper of this conference that reflected directly on this conference's theme was the keynote address by T.J. Demos. By connecting the museum's inside and the outside world, he placed the museum within a planetary dimension. Therefore, it is hardly shocking that the DEI Complex – a global effort in our current socio-political environment - would constitute itself to counter those planetary efforts that call for diversification within our institutions. As pointed out by Demos, the purpose remains to manage diversity without any specific commitment towards the work that needs to be done, so much so that DEI work continues to function with the world as is, without imagining a radically different future. The example of Strike MOMA then was a concrete example of challenges to a capitalist ideology that has long been provided a façade by a cultural institution.

The other significant case study of this conference was by Hilke Wagner. The notion of reaching across to people who disagree and bringing them together to a table quite literally showcased the possibility that museums can still hold. This case study tells the story of how a museum can successfully get together people from two opposite poles for a dialogue without leaving anyone behind.

As a person belonging to the Global South, I question whether the theme of this conference would apply to museums from my part of the world? If museums are indeed a reflection of the world outside their walls, then the lack of concern for art and culture — a result of the more practical needs of one's life — is indeed reflected within the four walls as well. It is apparent in the lack of interest shown towards the community by the museums and engagement by the community. As if both, the public and the museums, have given up on each other. The museums then are nothing more than an ornament to those global requirements demanded from developing nations to gain their legitimate place in the civilized world. The museums then are not under pressure, so the bigger question is, how to make these museums feel that pressure that is so rightly being expressed against them the world over? Or is their lack of relevance itself a tale of caution for the rest of the world?