Battle in Print: Diversity policies and the arts - what's next?

Sonya Dyer


The time is ripe for a complete rethink of what ‘diversity’ means. How can it be encouraged in the visual arts in order to challenge the assumptions currently made about people from ethnic minorities in the sector?

Having worked in the arts for the past seven years, and as a practicing artist, I have come to the following conclusions, that:

* Race is not the primary issue for many of my peers;
* Many black artists, curators and administrators achieve high levels of (unacknowledged) success;
* There are good reasons why more people from ethnic minorities don’t enter into the arts to begin with;
* Current diversity policies are largely missing the point: they are like putting a plaster on an already-broken arm.

Why now? Well, decibel - Arts Council England’s flagship cultural diversity project - is coming to an end next year. We have a new culture secretary who has suggested that quotas have had their day, and there is a growing sense amongst many in the sector that we need a collective reassessment. I propose an end to the current policy of race-based diversity schemes - or at least the presumption that they are the only solution - in favour of a more sophisticated response which takes into account the impact of class and economic concerns, noting that people from ethnic minority backgrounds consistently refuse to undertake a visual arts education. I would also, perhaps more contentiously, question whether there is any ‘problem’ at all.

Firstly, let’s take a step back. Previous culture minister David Lammy called the arts ‘too white’ and was an enthusiastic advocate of the instrumentalism that has characterised the allocation of public funding during this Labour government. Instrumentalism led to a public funding policy not driven by artistic concerns, but by New Labour’s agenda - specifically the idea that the arts must be made to ‘represent’ and ‘improve’ society. The problem is that this conflates cultural representation with political equality: it is rooted in the idea that political or social inequalities can be solved by galleries and museums containing ‘representative’ proportions of African, Caribbean, Asian and Chinese British staff.

This is a deeply flawed strategy in my opinion. Workforce targets cannot solve inequality overnight. This requires society to have a longer-term commitment to equality, and an aspiration that people of whatever background should have the best education and opportunities to pursue the arts. The use of these official schemes to ‘promote difference’ is not helping black people and those from ethnic minorities enter the mainstream as equals, but instead is keeping them in the margins. One only has to consider the lack of diversity within the Arts Council itself as an example. In the visual arts section of the London office, outside of ‘diversity-based’ projects, you’d be hard pressed to find a single black person apart from the security staff. This pattern is repeated in other organisations. We also have a growing number of non-white arts professionals - curators, administrators etc. - who are developing careers outside of ‘diversity-based roles’ in both the public and private sectors. This needs to be encouraged.

New culture secretary James Purnell’s suggestion that quotas may have had their day as the ‘battle has been won’ may have been inspired by the fact that the government has consistently failed to meet its own targets, but nonetheless suggests a governmental sea change is likely.

Equally, we also see a growing number of artists from ethnic minority backgrounds who are building names for themselves - whether in the pubic or private sector, or both - based on the quality of their work. There is a real fear of terminology like ‘artistic quality’, a presumption that this excludes non-whites and upholds ‘Eurocentric’ ideas of beauty and worthwhile arts practices. It suggests that black and white artists make substantially different work based on their ethnicity. Whilst of course many artists are influenced by their cultural heritage, many are also inspired by the cultural heritages of other people (Picasso and African masks spring to mind). It implies that ‘Black’ artists make uniformly low quality work and can only get ahead by having a special pot of money to apply to, as opposed to encouraging a deeper conversation about who gets to make decisions about what is worthwhile and why. We need to discuss these presumptions.

In my experience, every artist feels hard done by, feels that another type of person is given more of an opportunity. The idea that all white artists are having it easy - and that ‘failure’ by black artists is based on their race - is ridiculous. This neglects the multiple ways in which artists can engage with the process of making and exhibiting work - though private galleries, public galleries, artist-run spaces, online, internationally, and through self-generated initiatives.

It’s also important to question the notion that ethnic minorities are ‘under-represented’ in the arts. Research has shown that although people from ethnic minority groups are more likely to go to university then the general population, they are less likely to study arts-related subjects. Equally, it is fair to speculate that most arts students come from families that might be described as middle class, or from higher income brackets (and the two are not necessarily mutually inclusive).

There are numerous reasons why this is the case, from ideas of cultural entitlement to the low wages of the visual arts sector. Certainly, it would be fair to suggest that, bearing in mind the prevalence of post- university student debt, the low wages in the visual arts as well as the reliance on internships as a way into the museum and gallery sector, means people from economically privileged backgrounds are more likely to feel able to succeed and build careers for themselves. The ‘lifetime earning premium’ for arts graduates is much lower than other sectors (£34,949 for the arts, as opposed to £340,000 for medicine/dentistry or even £51,549 for the humanities.) In short, if you study a creative arts subject, your degree will not substantially increase your earning potential. Why doesn’t the Department for Culture or the Arts Council recognise these considerations? Perhaps because doing so may force the sector to confront the elephant in the room - the low wages for arts administrators, curators and others working in the arts. As long as people working in the arts are expected to work for less than other people with the same level of education (even in other sectors in the ‘creative industries’) it will remain the domain of people from economically privileged backgrounds. I come across many more ‘middle class’ black people in the arts than I do white people from ‘working class’ backgrounds.

If you accept the ‘under-representation’ argument, there is also the issue of ‘over-representation’. Where are the initiatives to get more white security guards or museum invigilators in post? Where is the clamour for white cleaners? Why is it okay for ethnic minorities to be ‘over-represented’ in these jobs? There are plenty of unemployed white people out there.

Of course, studies have shown that people are more likely to recruit in their own image and likeness. White, middle class women largely dominate the visual arts workforce. There is actually a lack of applications from ethnic minorities, and people are being pigeon-holed into access and education roles.

This dearth of applications is a common concern amongst many of the people I’ve been talking to, at the Arts Council and other arts organisations, and one that needs to be addressed. The answer is not to create separate race-based posts, but to encourage qualified people to apply for jobs regardless of whether they are targeted towards them or not. You have to be in it to win it.  We need to look at ways to encourage a greater volume of applications from strong ethnic minority jobs candidates across the sector, not push people into ‘diversity’ jobs. Organisations are crying out for good ‘Black Minority Ethnic’ (BME) applicants (undoubtedly at least in part due to the pressure of quotas). This needs to be better exploited.

The current policies have also encouraged arts organisations to engage with non-white people in incredibly cynical and restrictive ways. For example, there was the predictable spectacle of organisations cramming their work with ‘BME’ artists into October (Black History Month) which saw artists only in terms of their race, as opposed to their work and its concerns.

Current policies are characterised by a lack of consultation with the artists and arts professionals (in direct contrast to the high level of consultation undertaken when the Arts Council focussed on artists professional development). There is a gap between the rhetoric behind the schemes and the reality, an inherent structural inflexibility and a lack of creativity. I have no doubt that some good has come of them, which can be built on, but it’s time for new models and new ideas.

How do we move forward? Artists, curators and arts professionals must exert their influence, whether we are invited to or not. There is a fear of speaking out, particularly amongst those who depend on ‘diversity’ to earn a living. However, consultation with those of us most affected is key.

I would also argue that race is not necessarily the thing that holds people back. I advocate an ‘expansive diversity’ much like that used by some universities that incorporates white ‘working class’ people (or first generation university attendees), disabled people, people who have come from another country (as refugees or otherwise) and ethnic minorities, not as a homogenous mass, but as groups of individuals. I want to see an expansion of mentoring opportunities and networking and a real debate about wage structures in our sector. I want arts organisations to have a policy of paying interns from low-income backgrounds and a greater emphasis on enabling education (particularly in the ‘elite’ colleges) for a people from a variety of backgrounds.

In conclusion, I would make the point that not everything that has come out of the recent diversity frenzy has been terrible; it’s just too narrow in scope, lacks ambition and doesn’t engage with the fundamental issues. There is a history of these short-term schemes with grand plans that appear every now and then, attempting to solve the same problems, which themselves are badly diagnosed - therein lies their weakness. This quota-led short-termism makes the diversity agenda vulnerable to the caprices of public policy. We need to start looking beyond this and set a more joined up agenda for what comes next.

Sonya Dyer is a London-based artist, arts consultant and writer and is author of Boxed In: How Cultural Diversity Policies Constrict Black Artists.

 Festival Buzz

Fora TV logo Particle Physics is Sexy

Particle Physics is Sexy [Opens in new window]

"The 2006 Battle of Ideas did what it said on the tin: prejudices were punctured, common wisdom was questioned and original thinking honoured. The saying was coined in Texas, but I suggest that the Battle of Ideas adopts it as the conference motto: ‘sacred cows make the best burgers."
George Brock, Saturday Editor, The Times