An Art Critic on Diversity

in Staffing at Museums & Galleries in the UK

The UK has been the springboard for the international careers of black British artists and curators such as Chris Ofili (winner of the Turner Prize, the highest award given to a British visual artist), Yinka Shonibare (short listed for the Turner Prize), Steve McQueen (the noted 12 Years a Slave director studied art and design in London, began his career as an artist and is a Turner Prize winner); David Adjaye (the architect who also works as an installation artist and whose works include The Upper Room, a collaboration with Ofili which is in the permanent collection of Tate Britain), Duro Olowu (a fashion designer who’s now venturing into curating art exhibitions), and our guest commentator Eddie Chambers. 

Because of such luminous achievement, it’s easy to imagine that the position of black people on the UK art scene is on the up and up.  But Eddie Chambers cautions us to restrain our imaginations on that subject. In the commentary that follows, the UK art historian, curator and critic surveys the professional employment situation for blacks at British museums and galleries.

Tate Modern lit up at night, 2000. Photo: Tate ModernAlong with black British artists decades long struggle for greater and more sustained visibility in the gallery spaces of the country, there has been a concurrent struggle for access to opportunities to work in museums and galleries. It was not until the early 1990s that the issue of greater representation in the art world work place, became an aspect of artists’ struggle and gained greater traction. Such a development was perhaps inevitable. After all, any given gallery, museum or arts institution seeking to serve the public is a failing one, if said institution does not adequately address issues of broader representation in its program, its work force and its audiences.  

At every turn though, there are issues that further complicate matters. Art historian Gen Doy has recalled, in one of her books, her experience of visiting Tate Britain, and seeing no black people beyond those in a few paintings themselves or in guards’ uniforms. Such institutions have a history of embodying systemic failings, regarding audience development. Arguably however, the situation in the US is hardly better, when black audiences only turn out (or are attracted) in significant numbers to major museums or galleries when retrospectives by the likes of Bearden or Lawrence are on view. Simply put, black people, in large numbers, do not maintain – month in, month out, healthy relationships with mainstream visual arts institutions, and are oftentimes only coaxed in if a black show is on view. Perhaps we can hardly expect healthy patterns of employment within otherwise dysfunctional institutions — as far as the development of black audiences goes.

We might not be surprised, therefore, that black British would-be art world professionals have been able to make virtually zero progress in the art world, over several decades. By and large, the profile of people working in the British art scene is as white as it ever was. What accounts for this excessively modest tally of black people working in the visual Kimathi Donkor, Coldharbour Lane 1985, 2005, oil on canvas, 152 x 152 cm © Kimathi Donkor. This painting is reproduced in Eddie Chambers' book, Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s.arts in Britain? The reasons are complex and multi-faceted, and the dispiriting extent of the problem is perhaps compounded by a succession of failed initiatives, stretching back to the early 1990s. These initiatives have tended to presuppose that black people’s access to art world jobs can somehow be facilitated through the provision of specific training, separate and distinct from that offered to white counterparts. Consequently, a series of training schemes, predicated on the needs of those deemed to be ‘ethnic minorities’ were set in place, pretty much all of them having the same flimsy results, in terms of noticeably diversifying the British art world job environment.

To a large extent, the struggles of black people for arts employment must be put into several important contexts. The most obvious context might well be the hugely challenging employment circumstances faced by black British people in general. With unemployment amongst black people always being disproportionately higher – sometimes grotesquely so – and with black people being particularly susceptible to the principle of “last hired, first fired,” getting any kind of decent job can be difficult, much less a job in a field with its own particular, peculiar dedication to whiteness. Black graduates have found that they too are not immune from the scourge of disproportionate unemployment. The other important context for us to consider is that earlier generations of African-Americans have waged similar struggles for employment opportunities, such struggles emerging out of the mid-late 1960s demands for equal treatment under the law and greater civic and societal participation. Though far from perfect, the landscape for arts-related employment opportunities for African Americans is a marked improvement on the situation, as it existed half a century ago.

Here again, complications abound. African Americans working in sizeable US galleries or museums tend to be employed in fields such as audience development, education, community outreach, and so on, rather than in senior curatorial positions. Institutions have tended to respond to challenging issues of employment and representation the only way they know how – by making token appointments, more often than not, in the areas of community outreach mentioned. A not unrelated matter is the staffing of black museums in the US. Part and parcel of the plethora of civil rights-related struggles taking place in the US in the 1960s and 1970s has been the presence of institutions dedicated to African American arts and culture. Though not entirely unproblematic, such institutions have often been responsible for creating important and useful employment opportunities for ambitious black people committed to working in the arts. Here again, there is much that activists in the UK can learn from earlier US struggles. Despite the stream of initiatives dedicated to ‘training’ black British people for senior careers in the arts, at the present time the only British visual arts institutions with specific remits for cultural diversity etc are headed up by white people – a situation, one imagines, that would perhaps be untenable and unthinkable in the US.

Within the London art world, Zoe Whitley represents a shining example of a black person who has achieved a considerable amount, in terms of her art world employment, standing and accomplishments. She holds dual roles of curator, contemporary British art at Tate Britain and curator, international art at Tate Modern. Interestingly, Whitley is US rather than UK born and raised, which might lead us to speculate on the extent to which her (African) Americanness has been a factor in her successful career. Racism is after all a deeply dysfunctional pathology in which the white people of any given country tend to be scornful of their fellow countrymen and women who are black, yet simultaneously relatively embracing of black people in their midst, who hail from elsewhere. Similarly, we can only speculate on the extent to which the few successful black people working in the arts in Britain are caught up in this particular manifestation of small-mindedness and prejudice. Quite possibly, until candid and fearless research on the lack of black British people working in the arts is commissioned, pretty much all we have is speculation as to reasons and causes of this lopsided state of affairs.

Eddie ChambersThe wholesale or widespread failure of equal opportunity training schemes has had the effect of solidifying the notion that only white Britons of a certain social standing can successfully access jobs in the arts. This rather dispiriting conclusion is compounded by an apparent pathology in which only ambitious black people from elsewhere in the world can stand any real chance of diversifying the white British arts workplace. Perhaps the situation will improve markedly if or when larger numbers of black students opt for degrees in such fields as art history, visual culture and critical theory, museum and curatorial studies, art education, and cultural anthropology, thereby possibly putting them in viable positions to seek professional employment in museums without going through supposedly dedicated training programs that yield, at best, decidedly mixed results. 

It should after all be remembered that, notwithstanding formidable challenges, black British artists have been responsible for a prolific output.  But the achievements of black artists in the UK have yet to achieve any sort of substantial parallel on the museum and gallery employment side.  

Eddie Chambers is a curator and writer of art criticism. He has, since the early 1980s been involved in the visual arts, particularly the practice of black British artists. He holds a PhD from Goldsmiths College, University of London for his study into the Emergence and Development of Black Visual Arts Activity in England, 1981 – 1986. He has written extensively and is the author of numerous texts on black British practitioners. His books include Run Through the Jungle, a collection of essays, reviews and other texts, published by the Institute of International Visual Arts, London, 1999; Things Done Change: The Cultural Politics of Recent Black Artists in Britain, published by Rodopi Editions, Amsterdam and New York, 2012; and Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s, I. B. Tauris, London and New York, 2014. He is an associate professor in the art history department of the University of Texas at Austin.