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The White Pube

The White Pube advise on supporting arts inclusivity when you’re privileged

In their latest Dazed column, art agony aunts Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad explain how white, cis-gender, abled creatives can stand for diversity in the arts

Anonymous: Hi Gabrielle, I have some questions I thought you could help with given some of the art thoughts you have published on The White Pube about white girls in the art world and your criticisms of white artists. Im a third year art history student living in London and I feel really strongly about the mis/under-representation of marginalised people in the art world, the whole reason I enrolled in the degree is because I wanted to study art histories that were not euro-centric. But I myself am a white cis-gendered, non-disabled girl. I have made a choice to only attend exhibitions that are committing full-scale to representing marginalised artists but I'm not sure if given my own identity this all comes across... cringe?

I recently got asked to participate in curating an exhibition with friends and I made a point of saying that I would only be involved if it met the criteria I hold the exhibitions I attend to. I want to work in our art institutions hoping to make a difference to the vague diversity & equality policies that currently exist in a lot of organisations. But aren't I just taking a job away from someone else? Shouldnt I be stepping back? And who am I anyway to be attending exhibitions that are speaking of marginalised experiences because.. well its surely not my place to critique them or 'gaze' at them? I'm not sure if I have put all that well and maybe I come across as a right d***head but just needed to put this out to someone to see if you have had similar uncomfortable thoughts around the issue. Its a sticky one to navigate and the last thing I want to do is come across patronising.

“who am I anyway to be attending exhibitions that are speaking of marginalised experiences because.. well its surely not my place to critique them or 'gaze' at them?” – Anonymous

The White Pube: I know exactly what you are talking about here, this iffy moment for pause when you’re wondering why you should be the one to take this gig when there must be others who are more in need, always sidelined in long systemic -isms. you know, why should you get the job when there are definitely people who both the institution and its audience need more than your face joining the staff page. it’s hard 2 get Actual Paying Jobs in the arts, sometimes it’s even difficult to waste your time on over-subscribed volunteer positions ackkk. Often you don’t know who you’re up against for a gig, but nine times outta ten it’s gonna go to a white person who is non-disabled, cis, and whose identity is familiar to the rest of the existing workforce. Arts Council just reported that only 11% of people working for national portfolio organisations are BAME; only 6% are disabled (compared to 21% of workers nationally). If you are a gwen stefani rich girl I’d tell you there’s no point reading the rest of this text and to just stop what you are doing and leave that job for someone else. But if you aren’t rich and you need a job like the rest of us, then I am glad you are stopping to think, and glad to sense your guilt. idk, you might be on the right side, you might be for the cause, and you should keep hold of that feeling as you move forward because i think it will make you a better person. A good conscience keeps the pressure on, and if the guilt lets up it prolly means you’ve been institutionalised lol.

my advice is this. if you are committed to this cause of breaking down barriers for people so we can all thrive, you just need to get your head down, graft, and get yourself to a position where you can truly help other people. Don’t walk over others to get there, but step forward when you can. Also, don’t climb and get to that position so that you can be Seen as someone who does this white saviour performance, do it for the impact it is going to bring, do it for all the opportunities n joy it will bring literal people. Share what you gain. give out money, power, visibility, time, conversation, skills, knowledge and gossip. Get into an institution and then stamp your feet til your boss hires people from marginalised backgrounds, hires everyone who doesn’t have a stake in this mess (yet). Y not become the boss so you can hire as many people as possible yourself? As much as i respect a pause and a good hmm, how much better would it be to get going and give people all that employment. watch the world become what we know it could be if it was full on, top to bottom representational of who lives on this planet, and not just the Ruths and Alistairs who are currently playing gatekeepers in their fancy gallery castles. Again, something i’ve said before but worth repeating: ‘ask yourself how much you want the world to progress vs. how much you want to be SEEN as someone who wants the world to progress.’ It shouldn’t be about you and you know that. It should be about our generation as a collective and pulling each other up so we can dismantle the whole thing n start it again but better. 

“if you are committed to this cause of breaking down barriers for people so we can all thrive, you just need to get your head down, graft, and get yourself to a position where you can truly help other people” – The White Pube

Know when to stand back and hand over jobs when appropriate. Recommend people. Like, it’s all well and good giving people opportunities but what I see happen tooooo frequently is people getting to that level who then start hoarding public appearances. one example comes to mind from a few years ago that paints the picture pretty well. There’s a white curatorial duo in glasgow literally called mother tongue (ah!) who i think work exclusively with people of colour, producing exhibitions and different projects. i didn’t know about them until I hung out in glasgow and there was this underlying current of anger and stress on the part of the younger up n coming black, brown n asian curators there who had just witnessed Glasgow International programme a talk with exhibitor Lubaina Himid in conversation with one of the mother tongue women. can you see the problem? GI could have hired one of the curators to do that. Mother tongue could have rejected the job and suggested someone else instead (black, local, in more need of this job than the well established white women who kept it for themselves). From the outside and from their website it looks like mother tongue do good stuff but idk if it’s good through and through. Food for thought! and for dessert: white director Helen Legg joined Tate Liverpool in 2018, with promises and interviews about exposing the museum’s ties to slavery, shifting histories through art and programming. Thus came a show by Theaster Gates which makes sense, but the show to come by Candice Breitz really fucking doesn’t; and what makes less sense is the fact Tate Liverpool have no black members of staff. Actually, they only have 2 people of colour working there & neither are in curatorial. That Arts Council statistic is ringing in my ears, cause reparations would surely start with employment and security? it’s coming off as the image of progression rather than actual progression, and it’s continuously stressing me out. big lib dem energy.

All the above is why I have a ‘rip it up and start again’ mentality to the arts: i didn’t like the writing around me so I started The White Pube with Zarina, and I didn’t want to work for any other galleries so I started my own in OUTPUT gallery. I dunno how much change people can really achieve from within institutions, but i know i’m too impatient for it and also just - I’d get the ick from looking complicit even being on the payroll. bad politics makes the money feel instantly dirty. From my position, which i appreciate is unique, i can skip to trying to help people instead of being caught up with whatever bureaucracy museums blame their inactivity on (it’s not that they can’t change things for the better, it’s that they don’t want to). i feel much better being here than there, still caught up with doubts and this feeling of it never quite being good enough, but even that’s motivational to me. Something that goes round in my brain is how can a white curator work with a brown artist (for example) and the way i’ve made peace with it is like: I’m just here to facilitate what the artist wants to do, rather than me employing an artist who can fulfil the vision I want for their exhibition, the whole programme, and for the gallery. I don’t think that vision should exist. I wanna get people paid and platformed, and lay the grounds so they can get what they want. n tbh this is why I call myself a Gallery Manager rather than a Curator, bc something about the meaning of curation doesn’t sit right with me, not enough agency maybe. I try not to be loud about me within OUTPUT because the artists should be louder (and have you seen these exhibitors!!!). that is how I feel comfortable staying within this nest. more than a curator I might actually be a party planner, trying to make sure the artist has a good time on their big day. It’s a lot of fun. And then on The White Pube side of things, I don’t often write about art by diff marginalised identities because I’m pretty focused on chipping away at power and undermining it where I can (whether this is a good route or not idk, and maybe I should shift for 2020, but i’m mentioning it to lay out some of the thoughts you asked of me - tho i do feel cut up about the fact the bigger our audience gets the more visibility I give to even the things I disagree with, because I don’t think they deserve the spotlight….. and still i want to critique them. literally drives me mad).

my final w0rds of wisd0m are maybe: please be assertive enough to make the changes you wanna see, whether or not you are tied to an arts institution or just freelancing about the place. be ready to make the right people uncomfortable and threatened. and if you can, be as lucky as i am to have surrounded myself with friends who all happen to be very clever women of colour, all artists or working in the arts and people I have met because i’m in this industry (props to my die hards Zarina Muhammad, Kiara Mohamed, Amrita Dhallu, Seema Mattu, Salma Noor, Priya Sharma, Fauziya Johnson, Amber Akaunu); lovely disabled friend Bella Milroy who lives far away and visits sometimes when she does workshops in Liverpool; plus a working class family to boot. I try to help out with Arts Against Rampant Transphobia as much as I can, which is a solid little group who help organise things like Trans Pride here. it is great. So i mention these people because i have learnt from them, from long n short conversations, passing comments and recommendations. I look to them n I think about them when I am doing my two different jobs, or even just visiting galleries and talks. we have to make the art world accessible for everybody so that it is somewhere we all want to be. it has to be somewhere we CAN be, somewhere we can stay. otherwise what’s the point? take action i think, chip away, n hopefully you’ll make something happen.