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DO NOT REUSE – Maxine Walker, “Untitled” (1997)
Maxine Walker, “Untitled” (1997). Courtesy of the artist and Autograph, London© Maxine Walker

We ask UK art experts how the art world can harness this moment for change

As the art world finally vows to address its systemic inequalities, Autograph’s Mark Sealy, Frieze’s Eva Langret, Goodman Gallery’s Liza Essers, and artist Michaela Yearwood-Dan share thoughts on how to mobilise concern into action

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, art institutions and galleries in the UK and US took to social media to publicly affirm that, despite enduring mechanisms of racial injustice, #blacklivesmatter. The industry’s lack of tangible action, however, highlights an imperative need to probe the business of art, and its true nature of public intent.

After the untimely deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Collins Khosa, among many others, the faces and artworks of Black artists such as John Akomfrah, Glenn Ligon, and Chris Ofili began to populate the Instagram grids of institutions and blue-chip galleries on either side of the North Atlantic alike, accompanying mass statements of solidarity. Coordinated communications strategies from museums and galleries, such as Tate Modern, vow ‘to address structural racism and the inequalities underpinning society’. But still, Black communities live weathered and weary – not only because of the malpractice of police and the neglect from their governments, but as a result of the sustained exclusion that festers in all industries and sectors, and, for the sake of this text, the art world. Dazed itself acknowledges the ongoing work that it is committed to do internally to address issues of equality and opportunities it affords Black communities and POC.

The industry’s racial and social inequalities are far-reaching, and extend beyond visibility – inequity is the base of its foundation. To even begin to address these issues will require far more than the might of black squares. For the art world to make the changes it proposes, a dissection of its system is essential. Why has it taken so long to democratise an industry founded on criticality but eclipsed by its lack of diversity? How can we mobilise concern into action? Below, we speak with industry insiders and gatekeepers, and discuss just three of these issues and offer possible solutions.

Visibility is not a panacea for disease, and it is not enough. Change must come from within. An integral part of the problem stems from the questionable politics of old-guard decision-makers occupying roles in institutions. Mark Sealy, Director at Autograph, argues, “You are talking to people that are so far away from you culturally and politically that you can’t have an honest conversation about the cultural product you might be wanting to discuss.” Development must come from institutions and gatekeepers that allow their personal politics to impede the universal right to equality for all. “We keep on saying what needs to be done; we know what needs to be done”, Sealy affirms.

Eva Langret, Artistic Director at Frieze, argues that the notion of visibility or the mere offer of precarious opportunities to Black/POC cultural producers and artists “still imply that we must request and be granted access.” Reflecting on the role of Frieze, she says, “Given that we built the house too, co-hosting the party would be more appropriate... the next step for all arts organisations is to better integrate diversity structurally.” Liza Essers, Owner and Director of Goodman Gallery, believes unconscious bias training is a valuable solution and “needs to be tackled within galleries themselves.” She adds, “Goodman Gallery will be running compulsory workshops for employees on Unconscious Bias training to continue this work.”

London-based painter Michaela Yearwood-Dan’s recent exchange with 1-54 African Art Fair is an example of bravery in a climate where there could be repercussions for speaking out against endemic structures. The artist criticised 1-54’s silence in the wake of Floyd’s murder as a business monopolising the work of Black artists. Commenting on the art world, she says, “It’s no secret that these big institutions have significantly less Black and BIPOC staff members in core positions, after that gap we then have the racial pay gap, and then the gap within their program.”

Critical work is needed to revive the industry. It is key that it promotes, platforms, and circulates the important work of Black/POC artists and cultural producers whose ideas have been largely under documented and under-exhibited till date. The art world’s historic lack of structural diversity is characteristic to stagnant institutions and galleries of yesteryear.

“Get people working in institutions that can give them a proper understanding of the value of the work of artists such as Maxine Walker, that were making work in Birmingham in the 1990s,” advises Sealy. “It doesn’t take a big historical arc to see the importance of the work she was making then. Why is Tracey Emin’s work so far away in terms of value, and Maxine’s work is hardly even referenced? And yet, I would argue that her work is even more personal, intimate, and even more political. Why is that so? Because there is nobody in those cultural institutions to make that argument.”

Favouritism, cultural and racial bias towards a certain community has its ramifications. By refusing to publicly acknowledge the social, political, and environmental confines that Black/POC artists’ work seek to dismantle – important works of art are not valued accordingly nor do they accrete to a price that these artists’ labour warrants. Essers argues that a move to equalise the monetary value of white and Black artists’ work so they are on par is a debatable approach for eradicating the arts world’s long-established racial discrimination.

“With the art world finally paying attention, international galleries are noticing younger talents emerging from Africa and the Diaspora, while the older generations remain overlooked,” she says. “Artists like the late David Koloane and Sam Nhlengethwa are among the older generation of South African artists who have been widely neglected by the international art community and have not gotten the international attention they deserve.”

Systematic exclusion is also crystallised on academic, geographic, and gender based grounds of restriction, Langrets adds:

“Most curatorial positions require a PhD but prohibitive university fees limit access to higher education only to those whose families can afford it... It’s not about the individual will at the top, it’s about a system that is designed to make it harder for Black/POC communities to access positions in the industry.”

For better or worse, power and money are bedfellows of influence. Esser argues, “Price disparity between men and women – particularly women of colour – remains a challenge and our commitment to championing female artists is a major part of the gallery’s activity.”

Lastly, the recurring debate about the removal of nationalist monuments poses an opportunity for social justice, Sealy advises that the response should address cultural “deficits”.

“People want to see cultural cheques being paid out... I don’t think it’s a radical ask in a city like London or New York City to put some of these deficits out on the table,” he says. “It is important for some of these pieces to be moved to the museum or something else should be erected in conversation with these pieces – I worry about cultural erasure”.

I return to words in the hope of tangible change. Achille Mbembe writes that sharing the world is the key to the survival of both humans and nonhumans and wrote: “For, in the end, there is only one world. It is composed of a totality of a thousand parts. Of everyone. Of all words.”