The Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow (GoMA) opened in 1996 and quickly established itself as a member of the city’s family of museums (formerly Culture and Sport Glasgow, now Glasgow Life). Between 2001-2010 GoMA ran four ‘Contemporary arts and human rights’ programmes, which became a distinguishing feature of their exhibitions programme. These consisted of a series of biennial exhibitions on human rights themes: asylum seekers and refugees (Sanctuary, 2003), violence against women (Rule of Thumb, 2005), sectarianism (Blind Faith, 2007) and lesbian, gay, bisexual and intersex human rights (sh[OUT] 2009). Each of these programmes included exhibitions that were accompanied by a citywide community engagement strategy, with the objective for both to be of international quality.
sh[OUT]: contemporary art and human rights
sh[OUT] was the title for the fourth social justice programme in 2009, promoting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) human rights. The programme included outreach projects, major exhibitions, educational arts workshops, arts events, acquisitions and residencies. RCMG were commissioned by GoMA to evaluate the programme in order to better understand the factors which have shaped, and continue to shape, the approach to this work and the ways in which a range of constituencies respond to, and engage with, the social justice programme.
Aims and objectives
The aim of the evaluation was to assess the impact, quality and significance of GoMA‟s social justice programme in relation to the central aim of promoting human rights and providing a forum for visitor and community engagement and debate. The two key objectives were to:
Assess the impact of the social justice programmes on visitors and community groups and, in particular, to examine the ways in which these constituencies engage with, and respond to, sh[OUT].
Describe the context within which this area of practice has emerged (for example, the motivations underlying the development of the social justice programme and the drivers / factors which have shaped GoMA‟s approach to this innovative area of practice).
GoMA's social justice programme made an important contribution to social change, providing a space in which challenging issues connected to human rights can be explored and debated. On the whole visitors (71%) were supportive of the programme and its aims and approach. A key element in the success of the social justice programme was the capacity for the gallery to facilitate (to host and to inform) public dialogue and debate. Visitors make extensive use of the dwell space to share their own comments, feelings, and other reactions via comments cards and books.
The social justice programme is a challenging and largely uncharted area of gallery practice which has the potential to generate negative responses and related management challenges, as the experience of the fourth biennial demonstrates. It can be argued that this controversy itself – the fact that so many groups were challenged and sought opportunities to express their counter opinions – is an important, necessary (though often painful and extraordinarily challenging to manage) part of the process of contributing towards social change.
The human rights frame was a significant feature of the social justice programme, providing continuity and associating the programme with a concept which has been found to enjoy almost universal acceptance across different cultures, political constituencies and publics. However, there is a difficult balance to achieve concerning how far boundaries can be pushed when the ultimate goal is to engender increasing support amongst a range of constituencies for an issue like LGBTI human rights.