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Initiative inspired by Black Lives Matter movement will commission artists of African and Asian heritage to help tackle “shockingly low” representation in British public arts institutions. 

Photo: Glasgow Museums

A new project seeking to address a lack of ethnic diversity in arts institutions' collections is looking for artists who identify as Black, Brown or people of colour to drive change across the sector. 

Run by the Decolonising Arts Institute at University of Arts London (UAL), the 20/20 project will fund 20 artists to undertake a 15-month digital residency, during which they will be paired with partner institutions across the UK.  
The Institute has issued an open call for the first 8 artists, with a closing date of 6 June. A further call for the remaining 12 artists is scheduled to take place next year.

Each of the artists will be commissioned to research and produce an artwork that responds to the collection history, which will be acquired by the institution. 

UAL said the project, part of a broader initiative inspired by the Black Lives Matters movement and ensuing debates around national monuments and colonial legacies, will address “the problematic and negative ways in which diverse audiences see themselves reflected in these spaces”. 

It also aims to raise visibility of artists of colour while urging partner institutions “to confront how colonial histories and legacies influence collections and marginalise audiences”. 

Countering gestures with action 

susan pui san lok, Director of the Decolonising Arts Institute said representation of artists of colour remains “shockingly low” in public art collections.  

“We’ve seen so little change over the past three decades and what change there has been slow, and incremental,” she said.  

"The project is about countering the swathe of statements and gestures made through 2020 with some action.”

lok said that while institutions have been welcoming artists of colour to engage for some time “there are questions around how that kind of engagement and collaboration is done in meaningful and sustainable ways and in ways that empower the artists and the audiences that institutions say they want to engage in the long-term”. 

Participating institutions will be expected to work together and with UAL “to address representation in their staff structures and to understand that this programme is not asking artists to do the work of decolonising for the institution”. 

“It’s action from the ground up and it’s an attempt to catalyse change,” lok said.  
“It’s arguable how much we can achieve, because ultimately institutions need to be leading that change themselves, but it’s also about empowering, granting agency and raising the visibility of artists who might otherwise remain overlooked for another 10, 20, or 30 years.” 

Institutional engagement 

Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp, Interim Executive Director at Inc Arts UK, said initiatives like the 20/20 project support the talent pipeline, which is “vital to creating an inclusive workforce”.  

“At the heart of the lack of representation of ethnically diverse artists in British institutions is the lack of diversity in the decision-makers,” he said. 

A study conducted by Inc Arts in May 2021 found that of the 83 arts organisations polled, 80% had posted a pledge to undertake anti-racist action on social media in 2020.  
The majority since increased ethnic diversity in their boards, commissions and programming. But of the 49% of organisations who stated that ethnically diverse employees made up less than 5% of total staff in 2018/19, almost half (46%) reported no change to staff diversity in 2021.  

“To see existing collections develop and grow with new acquisitions is extremely important to how we develop the diversity of our sector, as collections have an enormous impact on the current and future generations of artists, curators and creatives,” he said. 

Conditions to thrive 

Selected artists will be matched with partner institutions whose collections spark their interests. As well as acquiring a new artwork for the collection, each institution will receive a portfolio containing a print created by each of the 20 artists.  

Sonita Alleyne, Chair of the Diversity Action Group at Freelands Foundation, which has provided £300,000 in grant funding for the project, said: “We are committed to creating the conditions in which black and brown artists in the UK are able to thrive and we look forward to celebrating future generations of diverse artists inspired by these projects."

A digital exhibition hosted by UAL will follow each round of residencies and the programme will culminate in a symposium and a publication featuring 20 short essays commissioned in response to the residencies.