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The future of art spaces: What can art institutions do to improve in 2021?

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This article was printed in the Then & Now issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, available for purchase through the BJP Shop or delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

A year of job cuts and financial turmoil in the creative industries has unmasked fundamental issues of inequality, rooted within the system long before the pandemic. We ask, what can they do better?

The summer of 2020 will be remembered as one of protests in the art world; anger rose in London outside the Tate galleries and the Southbank Centre over their plans to cut hundreds of jobs, with the planned redundancies labelled as ‘brutal’, ‘dire’ and ‘callous’. 

In July, Tate reopened its galleries for the first time since the March lockdown, and protesters gathered in response to news in August that 313 jobs would be cut, primarily across Tate Enterprises – Tate’s commercial arm. In December, Tate announced plans to make a further 120 redundancies, first via a voluntary scheme, where staff were encouraged to leave, reduce their hours or retire. The scenes outside the Hayward Gallery were similar on 01 August, after more than 6000 people signed an open letter to the Southbank Centre, the UK’s largest arts centre, following news that it would be letting go of up to 68 per cent of its staff.

Image © courtesy Tate United PCS.
Image © Jakub Wajzer.
Image © Richard Okon courtesy Tate Unites PCS

It comes as no surprise that arts institutions, heavily reliant on ticket sales and public funding, are severely impacted by the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. It wasn’t only the sheer number of redundancies that sparked outrage, however, but the fact the job losses disproportionately affected Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) and People of Colour (POC) employees. The 2020 protests exposed what many already knew: the deep-rooted systemic racism and inequality ingrained within the arts.

Though institutions such as Southbank, Tate and the Barbican have publicly shown support for Black Lives Matter (BLM) and anti-racism movements, and promote programmes supporting diversity, a different story has emerged from the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS). Its reports claim that the redundancies at the Southbank Centre reduce the BAME and POC workforce from 20 per cent to 14 per cent, with “at least 71 out of 365… positions under threat currently filled by BAME people”. The Tate Enterprise teams, where the majority of Tate’s cuts are being made, are also some of its most diverse. Similarly @barbicanworkers revealed that its casual staff – the lowest paid and most diverse group of workers at the Barbican – would only receive 80 per cent furlough compensation compared to contracted staff who received the full sum.

Zarina Muhammad and Gabrielle De La Puente aka. The White Pube © Ollie Adegboye.

Addressing the accusations of structural racism, Maria Balshaw, the Tate director, in an email to all Tate employees, stated that, “it’s likely” the proportion of BAME employees “will stay the same… at the end of the process”. In December 2020, Tate stated that an Equality Impact Assessment had been undertaken to analyse the impact of the restructuring on their BAME staff. Some 17.2 per cent of its workforce identify as BAME, compared with only 4.9 per cent of heads of department – although this number rose in 2019-20. It was also reported that of the mooted 313 redundancies, Tate eventually made 295, and the restructure did not disproportionately affect Black and minority ethnic staff. However, it remains that the redundancies have hit those in the lowest-paid positions hardest.

Zarina Muhammad and Gabrielle De La Puente (also known as The White Pube) were among those speaking out, calling out Tate’s duplicity in pledging support for BLM while continuing to receive money from collector Anthony d’Offay, who posed for a selfie with a golliwog in 2017 (Tate cut ties with the former benefactor and patron in September). They also campaigned for the removal of a mural by Rex Whistler, titled The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats, that adorns the walls of the restaurant named after the painter at Tate Britain. It depicts enslaved Black children on a leash and caricatures of Chinese figures (Tate issued a statement that the future of the restaurant is under review). In a series of posters that went up in London and Liverpool in January this year, The White Pube addressed Whistler’s mural: “Ideas for a new art world. 001: If I were the Tate I would simply remove my racist paintings.”

Ideas for a new art world © Kevin Lake courtesy The White Pube
Ideas for a new art world © Kevin Lake courtesy The White Pube

So how can institutions do better in 2021? In the wake of two pandemics – one cultural, one the force of nature – how can we rebuild museums, galleries and arts organisations in the UK to genuinely improve access, equality and inclusion? “This pandemic has made absolutely universally visible the plain fact that we live in a Bad Society, and that social inequalities have obvious, measurable and devastating effects on whether we live or die. These are things that you’d have to be powerfully stupid to ignore,” The White Pube write in an article published on their site. 

The art world has long been focused around London; in data published for 2018-19, it receives the largest portion of Arts Council funding (one third of the total available) – but perhaps it’s time to look to the smaller, yet significant venues across the UK. As The White Pube underline: “The cultural sector has been resistant to change, it has held on to antiquated balances of power like no other area of society, and that rigidity has affected the way we distribute resources.” They add: “We can start by making sure we’re funding grassroots organisations and community arts organisations doing important and politically urgent work.”

The RED Archive by Emma Case in Gallery 1 of Open Eye © Declan Connolly.

“We don’t want to go back to ‘normal’ because that wasn’t good enough,” she adds. “I hope this pandemic has given institutions pause-for-thought, and that they act on it and don’t just put out knee-jerk, rhetorical statements. You’ve got to believe in it.”

Anne McNeill, Impressions Gallery

One such place is Open Eye Gallery, founded in 1977, and situated on Liverpool Waterfront. Its director, Sarah Fisher, says that the last year “has highlighted what really matters to people,” with community among the top priorities. Appreciating the support the photography-focused space received from locals during the pandemic means, “We became better at listening and co-authoring culture that is deeply valued,” Fisher says.

There is also Impressions Gallery, established in 1972 in Bradford and one of the country’s first photography galleries. As a leading UK arts organisation it forms “an important part of the infrastructure around contemporary British culture,” writes artist Sunil Gupta, who exhibited there for the first time in 1990. In the last decade, 43 of the 79 artists showing work at Impressions have been BAME, while their small team of eight staff includes two who identify as such. Anne McNeill, director, emphasises the fact that it’s been left up to the small regional galleries to do important work on diversity and class. “It’s always been part of what we do,” McNeill explains. “We’re in Bradford, and our programme has to reflect where we are and who we are, otherwise why would anyone think we’re relevant?” Around 40 per cent of Impressions Gallery’s current audience identify as BAME. “You need to have a strategic plan about how to treat staff at all levels; diversity and inclusivity has to be part of everything you do: programming, marketing, trustees, staff.  “We don’t want to go back to ‘normal’ because that wasn’t good enough,” she adds. “I hope this pandemic has given institutions pause-for-thought, and that they act on it and don’t just put out knee-jerk, rhetorical statements. You’ve got to believe in it.”

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 in the US, Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge also decided on a course of anti-racism action, seeking to root out systemic racism at the gallery and the University of Cambridge museums group it belongs to. Following a statement issued by director Andrew Nairne, on the gallery’s website, is a detailed timeline for concrete actions to change the organisation from the inside; from funding a Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) interpretation focus group, to an audit of staff, anti-racism training and openly recruiting a new Black member to the Kettle’s Yard Committee. Although, at the time of writing there were still no Black Committee members and just two members of colour out of 11. It has also laid out plans to make the paid placement programme exclusively available to BIPOC for three years. 

In Which Language Do We Dream? © Rich Wiles. This exhibition is a co-created project, bringing together a 5-year photographic collaboration between Rich Wiles and the al-Hindawi family through discussions with curator Anne McNeill at Impressions Gallery.

The effort to hold institutions to account must continue – from both within those institutions and out. Back in London, Osei Bonsu is a curator of international art at Tate Modern. “In the midst of the unprecedented challenges of the global pandemic, our museums were presented with an opportunity to pause and reflect on the ways in which our work is connected to broader issues in society,” he says. At Tate Modern, Zanele Muholi’s stirring documentation of Black queer lives hangs behind closed doors, while Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s elegant paintings are shut up at Tate Britain. Bonsu adds: “In seeking to show support and solidarity for social movements like Black Lives Matter, however, museums also revealed the ways in which our work directly and indirectly supports structures of exclusion and inequality.” Acknowledging a problem might be the first step to improving. Diverse programming is vital, but without implementing the same ideals in the gallery infrastructure, it only pays lip service.

“While our programme, contributors and audiences are often commended for their ‘diversity’ – and we are conscious that diversity covers multiple considerations – our staff and trustees [while generally meeting the approved quotas from our funding bodies] are typically still largely composed of white, economically privileged people. Simply put, however ‘well’ we were doing on the outside, it was clear we were not doing enough on the inside.”

Brett Rogers, The Photographer’s Gallery

Brett Rogers, director of The Photographers’ Gallery, speaks frankly about the changes that need to happen. “Like many arts organisations, we were forced to examine our structural make-up in terms of being fully inclusive – especially to under-represented groups and more specifically people of colour – and we are acutely aware that there is still much that needs to be done on that front,” she says. “While our programme, contributors and audiences are often commended for their ‘diversity’ – and we are conscious that diversity covers multiple considerations – our staff and trustees [while generally meeting the approved quotas from our funding bodies] are typically still largely composed of white, economically privileged people. Simply put, however ‘well’ we were doing on the outside, it was clear we were not doing enough on the inside.”

Omar Victor Diop: Liberty/Diaspora at Autograph, London. 20 July - 03 November 2018, curated by Renee Mussai and Mark Sealy. courtesy Zoe Maxwell.

Rogers believes that meaningful change is possible, but it will take time and commitment. “Importantly it is now at the top of our agenda, and we’ve begun the journey with a thorough review of our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion policies, HR procedures and decision-making processes,” she says. “We are also committed to less visible but no less meaningful cultural changes that include more active listening to all members of our staff to ensure they feel better represented and making changes to our recruitment criteria to encourage a greater range of applicants.” She adds: “Optimistically, 2021 offers us a chance to learn and do better for everyone’s sake – and we’re thankful for that.” 

The Photographers’ Gallery might look to Autograph, established in Brixton in 1988 as an association to support Black photographic practices. It has expanded to act as an archive, gallery and arts venue, now housed in Shoreditch. Autograph’s sustained support of BAME people – not only photographers and artists, but writers, curators, educators and researchers – over three decades is precedent-setting in the British cultural landscape. 

The coming year might be the tipping point; the time to really reinvent the arts as we know it. “The art world is close to the brink of collapse,” The White Pube write. “We have got to radically restructure the way we do things; no one wants to return to normal, because normal was bad. We have got the capacity to make a mad little industry that’s sustainable, accessible, genuinely diverse, fundamentally joyful, and I think we should do that. Right now.” 

Charlotte Jansen

Charlotte Janson is an arts journalist and editor-at-large of Elephant Magazine. Jansen has written for publications including The Guardian, The Financial Times, ELLE, Wallpaper*, Artsy, Vice and Frieze, and has authored two books on photography: Girl on Girl, Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze (2017) and Photography Now (2021). Jansen is also the presenter of the Dior Talks podcast series on the Female Gaze.

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