A collective of Black and Asian artists, curators and educators explains how the impenetrable glass ceiling keeps them on the margins – and why public statements promising reviews, reports and diversity panels cut no ice.
This is a statement about our collectivity as Black and People of Colour artists, including producers, curators, educators and all who work in arts, culture and heritage sectors of our society. We are in solidarity with a global movement against racism, specifically anti-Black racism, which permeates everything in society. We are especially reflecting on how this appears in the UK, and affects our work in these sectors. The acronym ‘BAME’, referring to non-white people, is one that we have never consented to. Our individual experiences cannot be conflated.
We address individuals working in publicly funded art museums, commercial galleries, auction houses, theatres, arts and performance festivals and higher education courses across the UK. We address the directors, curators, programmers, art dealers, critics, academics and teachers across all levels of education. This article also speaks to the institutions’ consultants, marketing and communication experts and to the funders who help maintain these structures. We address our fellow artists and peers who are complicit in a continuous undermining of our place. In brief, we are talking to YOU.
We challenge structural and institutional racism, demanding ethical accountability beyond performativity. We imagine safer workspaces. This letter is a collective push back against the destructive nature of individualism championed by arts institutions, and is a signal of our collectivity and our demands for radical change.
A toxic environment
Working in our industry has become untenable and unsustainable. Our stories are instrumentalised as case studies, we are constantly invited to share our vulnerabilities and pain as examples to bolster institutional agendas. This is an unethical operation and violent precedent. We live with the reality of trauma inflicted by structural racism, which intersects with sexism, class, ableism, gender, sexuality and cisheteropatriarchy in the UK (and global) art world.
In the name of an aesthetics of ‘representation’ and your quest to diversify the institution, you need us and our talent. We make your institution look good (if there are just enough Black and Brown bodies in the room, does your institution and its culture of box-ticking breathe a sigh of relief?). We have filled out endless equal opportunities forms, but to what end? You gather data on us, but we are yet to see equality manifest in real terms – as Arts Council England CEO Darren Henley recognises. Your protectionism and gatekeeping turn us into tourists in the very industry that we work in.
We have been subjected to ritual humiliation and structural marginalisation that comprise a litany of categorical assumptions. You all too often assume that we are younger than we are. Our intellectual capabilities are disregarded in favour of more problematic, violent and exploitative mis-readings. The current conditions under which we are expected to perform our labour pushes us into positions of precarity, and continues to perpetuate a violent extractive system comparable to the paternalistic atrocities of colonialism. We are exhausted.
Public programmers, commissioning bodies and curators seem limited in their understanding of artists of colour working beyond the frame of education and community engagement. As Teanne Andrews’ statement on being forced to leave the William Morris Gallery testifies: "Why is there a clear and blatant glass ceiling for us, whilst White mediocrity is allowed to not only exist but openly flourish in its own special way?". While we do not dispute the essential impact we may bring to this specific agenda, this is an active restriction on our creative capacities which prevents us from becoming more deeply involved within these organisations.
Challenging legacies of Whiteness
Collectively, we know our institutions are built on Empire and Imperialist racism. Collectively, institutions must challenge the continued legacies of whiteness and acknowledge their racist attitudes and actions. Institutional racism relies on anti-black attitudes and actions and specifically, racist inaction. Previous actions led by multiple Black and People of Colour organisers working within the sector, continue to be met with silence. Evan Ifekoya’s letter to Goldsmiths, where they have withdrawn their labour, demonstrates anti-blackness and the consequences of extreme endurance required to survive the institution.
This complicit silence is just one part of what Reni Eddo-Lodge refers to as the ‘many-headed hydra’ of white privilege which is so difficult to gauge and is so heavily fortressed.
Over the last couple of weeks, you have sought to quell our collective outpouring of grief and frustration with public statements promising reviews, reports, and diversity panels. But when will you take action that goes beyond reputational risk and institutional optics?
From the public institutions that generations of Black and Brown people have built only to remain exploited, we call for the relegation of power. We have been tokenised, fetishised infantilised, animalised, sexualised, erased, silenced and abused. These words are the product of lived experience. We still move through institutions with these emotional and physical inflictions on a regular, if not daily, basis. We are the constituents, workers, and publics of these spaces: our experiences are not marginal or exceptional, and yet they are treated as such by structures and management geared towards whiteness. Since the people who currently manage our ‘culture industry’ do not represent us, they do not serve the public interest.
We witness, for example, white workers employing linguistic tricks and cognitive distancing; social constructs that induce collective trauma. This manifests as avoidance, divisory tactics, isolating behaviours, gaslighting, a need to reinforce an outdated canon and a neglect to teach our colonial and imperial histories. This neglect contributes to perpetuating the public health crisis of racism which has become manifest through years of austerity, the Hostile Environment, the tragedy of Grenfell and the Windrush scandal.
You can support our position about structural racism. Let’s invert the model together. We propose radical organisational restructuring: artists of colour will be at the centre of this and all subsequent decision making. Firstly, we suggest designing an agenda to focus on the condition of whiteness, its privileges, and how it is reproduced within the workplace, and is symptomatic of whitewashing in general. To do this, we need to break our co-dependency on philanthropy, its contradictions and alignment with structural/institutionalised racisms, which continues to buy absolution through legacy.
Intersectional democratic structures such as citizens’ assemblies – with artists as facilitators that acknowledge the invisible labour of how art is created by workers such as technicians, cleaners, kitchen and other gallery staff – must replace the current system of Boards of Directors, Governors and Trustees. We are proposing civic cooperation. The hierarchical division of labour on racial, gendered and ablenormative lines is encoded in the current structures of ownership and these must change.
A restructured cultural landscape
We are not leaving. It is your turn to move aside. We are committed to transforming this society and we acknowledge that our investment is based on the love for what we do as artists, activists and educators. Our labour entails emotional work and is highly skilled, but it remains unequal within the majority of arts-based institutions throughout this country. The present status quo has been complicit in keeping us minoritised so that our voices remain small. We liken this to a colonial mentality designed to fracture and isolate and thus minimise rebellion.
We propose that arts institutions and universities must embed care packages including training in racial and transformational justice, unconscious bias, and non-violent communications within their structures as standard – developing stringent codes of conduct and lines of accountability. New working environments require racial equality, gender parity, the protection of queer and trans rights and collective access beyond non-disabled / neurotypical ‘normativity’.
We propose that an anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-fossil fuel, anti-nuclear and anti-war, decolonialised, restructured cultural landscape can be achieved through genuine self-reflection, the application of change in real terms and an engagement with hard work and hard truths. Our mobilisation is in solidarity with a lineage of groups working alongside us and is a work in progress, while we and others develop resources. In light of apparent institutional alignments, and declared commitments by many to Black Lives Matter, this work is fundamental, and an urgent work in progress.
We welcome people in solidarity to get in touch with us so that we can continue working together.