An Art Critic on the Lack of Staff Diversity at Museums & Galleries in the UK

Along 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 offer. Perhaps we can hardly expect healthy patterns of employment within otherwise dysfunctional institutions — as far as the development of black audiences goes.

... To a large extent, the struggles of black people for arts employment must be put into 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.

... The 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. 

The full version of the above text by Eddie Chambers was uploaded at: August 2014