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Arts Professional sponsorship banner with Art Fund

As Art Fund launches its new report on ethnic diversity in the curatorial workforce, Rachael Browning says it’s hard to overestimate the challenges entailed in compiling such a report. 

Visitors to an exhibition
Visitors to ICF's Diaspora Pavilion 2: Andrew Pierre Hart and Mohammad Barrangi, presented at Block 336, London, with Art Fund support.

© Amaal Said/ Art Fund 2022

Our core purpose at Art Fund is to help museums and galleries go further by building and sharing collections, helping curators develop their expertise and inspiring and engaging visitors. To do this we develop and iterate our programme of support in direct response to what we are seeing and what we are hearing, often conducting research to understand the particular and changing needs of the sector and how we can make a distinct, valuable and relevant contribution to its ambitions. 

It has been well documented that people from minority-ethnic backgrounds make up a very small proportion of the UK’s museum and gallery workforce. Within this, a very small percentage of curators are people of colour, despite many years of diversity schemes. And it is inescapable that a lack of diverse voices, experiences and critiques in shaping our collections and programmes means our institutions - their workforces and audiences - will never be fully inclusive, reflective or relevant. 

To understand how to tackle this more effectively we commissioned a report to assess the impact of ethnic diversity initiatives on the curatorial workforce. Our aim was to produce a piece of work to set out the priorities for funders, museums and arts organisations to meaningfully increase ethnic and cultural diversity in the sector. The final report - It’s about handing over power - is a combination of two pieces of work by Black-led organisations Museum X and Culture& across 2021-2022. 

Lack of data about the curatorial workforce

The authors identified that very few diversity initiatives have been aimed specifically at curatorial roles in the arts and heritage sector; most have instead been aimed at generic entry-level roles, with minimal long-term impact. The quality and outcome of programmes depended on who in the institutions was initiating and organising them, their intentionality and the determination of those undertaking the roles themselves.

This impacted their roll out, the care attached to and the understanding of the experience of minority-ethnic background curatorial staff, and the potential to access strategic blind spots. Arts Council England’s Inspire Fellowship programme, International Curators Forum and programmes developed and delivered by ICF/Art360 Foundation stood out as initiatives that have had a sustained focus on curatorial diversity.  
The report highlights a lack of recent national data on the demographics of the curatorial workforce, which is urgently needed for benchmarking and monitoring, and effective evaluation and research. Conversely, the report benefits from a large amount of qualitative data. 

In interviews there was overwhelming frustration - indeed anger - at the lack of progress, with concerns raised about a structural exclusion of diverse voices from curatorial roles - a glass ceiling in the sector. Institutions must be accountable and provide appropriate modes of support to retain staff from minority-ethnic backgrounds, helping them gain experience and, importantly, seniority. 

To encompass the widespread dissatisfaction among those surveyed, the authors picked out three dominant themes: endless discussions about diversity without results, the desire for urgent action, and the need for robust leadership.

Ten recommendations

Art Fund is particularly interested in exploring of the role of those who provide the financial means, and often the framework, for initiatives. As well as a need for greater transparency in funding criteria and priorities, the research indicated the need for ambitious investment in curatorial diversity, greater collaboration between funders, and new strategic partnerships between educational establishments and arts and heritage organisations.

The report emphasises the impact and importance of initiatives undertaken by Black and other ethnically and culturally diverse communities themselves. It calls for increased funding for and support to these spaces, collectives, organisations and initiatives. Linked to this, we need to put in place funding and structures to better support and enable independent curators and practitioners of colour, both inside and outside of institutions, investing in new and alternative models. 

The report sets out ten recommendations. Art Fund will use these to inform the development of new programmes to sustainably increase diversity and equality in our curatorial sector. Now is the time for leadership – from within the museums sector and by the funders who support it – to come together and act collectively to effect positive change in curatorial workforce diversity and make a generational difference. We are uniquely placed as an independent funder partnering with 850 museums across the UK and working hand in hand with peer funders to convene the sector to this end.

I’m grateful to Sandra Shakespeare of Museum X and Dr Errol Francis of Culture& for driving this report, to the advisory group who shaped it through its iterations, and to the many people who contributed their time and energy and shared their personal experiences to inform and shape the findings. We cannot overstate or ignore the challenges that compiling this report has entailed nor that, in exploring issues such as racism, institutionalised hierarchies, colonial infrastructures, privilege and power, we have once again asked colleagues of colour to take on the burden of this work.  

Rachael Browning is Deputy Director of Programme and Policy at Art Fund.

The full report can be downloaded here. We encourage everyone to read and share it and we look forward to future discussions on how to shape the recommendations into actions. 

To stay informed on future Art Fund research and new opportunities please sign up to our Museum Bulletin, our monthly newsletter for professionals. 

This article, sponsored and contributed by Art Fund, is part of a series sharing information and expertise to support museums and galleries to recover from the pandemic and develop audiences for the future. 


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Image of Rachael Browning