In their latest Dazed column, art agony aunts Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad share their thoughts on improving equality and diversity programmes in a proactive way
Anonymous: I volunteer for an artist-led organisation that programmes publicly funded exhibitions. We have a vague equality & diversity policy but I think without action, this is little more than a nice sentiment. I feel the only way to guarantee a broader range of artists are programmed is initially to proactively commit to representation, with the aim of creating a culture in the organisation of always having more diverse shortlists. I suggested this, however the general reaction amongst the committee was that quotas are a bad thing and a slippery slope into tokenism, and could lead to sacrificing the quality of work we show. Any advice on what we could do to improve our ‘equality & diversity’ that is proactive, that would be genuinely positive without patronising or turning artists’ identities into tick boxes?
The White Pube: Thank you for your question - tbh it’s a good question to ask and I wish more organisations would bother asking it!
Ngl it’s a bit of sticky one stilllll. Like. I get that it can come off as patronising. If an institution is saying, “we need 7 poc artists this year” my dickhead brain thinks, “o shit, for what!?”. Alarm bells go off, my bum clenches, it’s a bit Get OutTM. I think the idea of quotas as the end point of an org’s equality & diversity policy feels insincere (*cough* THE TATE) like it’s not being extended through anything other than a v contemporary & fleeting necessity, and the marginalised artist in question would finish the interaction in not too dissimilar a situation than where they started. I for one, am pretty DONE with big corporate institutions - LIKE THE TATE - interacting with artists of colour in such an exploitative way, that treats us like objects to be consumed. We function to have the cultural capital sucked out of us, and then they move on to the next warm host. We get very little out of that interaction (for a full description of that problem, see our text on [Diaspora Art])
“I for one, am pretty DONE with big corporate institutions - LIKE THE TATE - interacting with artists of colour in such an exploitative way, that treats us like objects to be consumed” – The White Pube
However, you’re talking about an artist-led org. Imo that’s a rly different situation, and that’s a vvv welcome difference. I am often disappointed by the way the layer of the artist-led looks to pre- existing institutional models. Imo, I really feel like the artist-led scene is in a position to make riskier decisions, lead from the grassroots and successfully implement more unstable and unprecedented emancipatory organisational practices than places like THE FUCKING TATE, where they’re bogged down by their own bureaucracy and the weight of their complicity in literal colonial structures. Youse can be nimble, caring, fucking rADICAL¡ And as you’ve rightly identified, it’s a leg in the door, exposure & art cred, &&& a handy cash injection for an artist from a marginalised identity. (for a more expanded description of the problem w this & potential solutions see [i literally hate the art world].)
In terms of institutional models I think are working really successfully; on the level of the artist-led Transmission in Glasgow is now a POC committee & they show a programme of almost exclusively artists of colour. 12ø in London are also doing interesting introspective things that reflect on how we can turn good politix into good action. Deffo worth looking into their Backend programme that is focussed on building structures of accountability within the artist-led segment. I only mention it bc maybe if ur looking to push a line of holding urselves to account through policy, Backend could offer an interesting and flexible approach. On a more expansive & established level; the Showroom is a gallery that I find to have pretty equitable & diverse exhibitions programming. They never really explicitly ~say~ that they only programme exhibitions and works by artists of colour, but I’ve never seen a white artist exhibiting there in my time within the ~LoNdOn ArT sCeNe~. That feels like a pointed decision. They have a pretty global focus (which makes sense for an organisation of their size) and as such they’re working with artists who I’ve never heard of most of the time. But like, what an actually interesting approach! I kinda love that - just committing full-scale to no white men. I think it just shoves the fear of tokenism via quotas into oblivion. They’re not going to replicate the Tate model of ~ONE IN, ONE OUT, OFF U GO ON OUR UNDERPAID CONVEYOR BELT OF POC ARTISTS~ bc it’s not relegating them to a lesser or lower position within the organisational production structure. It’s not rly an operational model capable of tokenism (in a way) because although the criteria for programming is identity based, they make up the entirety of it. Since poc artists are 100% of the exhibitions shown in the gallery, it allows for range, instability at times, autonomy when required, a fuller spectrum that is more genuinely representative in its complete visibility. It’d be weird if I went in & saw a show by someone white. Even that unspoken commitment is a visible and noticeable change that kinda can’t be taken back without a fuss. If the artist-led scene is going to look at larger institutions for policy and organisational guidance, it makes no sense to me why they wouldn’t look to places exactly like the Showroom!
Stop crying about representation it means nothing does nothing it is only a gesture we are only tokens. We must seize the means of production, support each other by paying it forward, and infiltrate the institutions that exclude us till we are in positions of power & equity https://t.co/fjmChuKnVn— The White Pube (@thewhitepube) May 29, 2018
So tbh, I think you should go back to your committee and tell em they’re wrong. It doesn’t really count for anything that “the current culture within the organisation already encourages a diverse programme”, that means fuck all and tbh just acts as a soother for their white guilt and a get-out clause for their white-complacency. Their claim that they’re scared of lowering artistic standards is OFFENSIVE! Tbh! And lowkey a dogwhistle racist statement that undermines their previous assertion that they’ve got it allll covered. They’ve clearly not done their research into this if they think there aren’t enough ~good~ artists from marginalised backgrounds, and IT SHOWS. I think you should pressure them into committing to only showing non-white artists. PERIODT. We do that with our home page residency (a few exceptions here & there as months slip by) but it’s relatively easy to programme & we’re backed up till like NEXT JAN. it’s been running since 2016. It’s really fucking easy to just do. There are plenty of creatives of colour across a spectrum of disciplines that you can work with, there’s no actual scarcity. Transmission do it! Their programming moves at a slower pace than our monthly turnover, n involves far more planning; but they are functioning fucking FINE. Unlimited Festival works with literally only disabled artists every year to put on a festival between London & Glasgow and they’re programming it fine. No one has died. No one is stressed out bc of this policy. The Showroom is a gallery that consistently produces interesting and exciting exhibitions n tbh they’re one of the galleries I’m most excited by in London rn.
A solid commitment is a relatively easy thing for an org as nimble/flexible as an artist-led space to set out to achieve; and a watershed moment like that could act as an institutional palette- cleanser. Imagine! The possibilities! Of it! It’d be such a moment that future committees reversing that programming decision would be definitely a bad, shitty thing. As of rn there are no assurances for the future. We are accountable not only for ourselves, but for making decisions that have the potential to shape the future through its impact. I know I would like to be implementing changes for good rather than let my silence or inaction be complicity in perpetuating and replicating structures that are definitely oppressive and violent. I hope ur committee would like to do that too.