… I have no interest in personalising this issue. I do not doubt for a moment that each of the National Touring Exhibitions/Hayward Gallery/Foyer Gallery staff was chosen fairly on his or her merit and suitability. But surely the same cannot be said about those whose work consists of serving coffee and selling sandwiches? By and large, those white people who work ‘upstairs’ do so because they want to, and because they have chosen to develop carers within curating, gallery education or visual arts administration. Meanwhile, many of those black people who work ‘downstairs’ – sometimes juggling several catering and cleaning jobs – do so because these jobs are the only ones they can get. But white people are not the only ones who can curate exhibitions, organise talks or type letters, any more than black people are the only ones who can make frothy cappuccinos or cut sandwiches. But if we accept this, how then can we account for the continued conspicuous exclusion/absence of black people from jobs in the visual arts?
It might perhaps be wrong to focus exclusively on the Royal Festival Hall as an example of the problem. After all, the only black staff at the Tate Gallery are those in security attendants’ uniforms. Similarly, the Visual Arts department of the Arts Council has long since had the Persil™ treatment. When I used to go to the Arts Council for meetings, the only non-white people I used to see were pushing trolleys laden with tea urns and plates of biscuits. This upstairs/downstairs syndrome is replicated at countless galleries around the country. It is, at least, not possible to talk in terms of chief offenders, each gallery being as bad as the next, though galleries such as the Ikon or the Whitechapel, by virtue of their relatively generous levels of staff, take on the appearance of major transgressors. The wholesale absence of black people from art galleries, and their proliferation in jobs as cooks and cleaners has, over a period of years, created the formidable impression that the only jobs black people can get are the only ones jobs black people are good for, or the only jobs they are capable of doing…
The above extracts are from "Whitewash", a text by Eddie Chambers, in Art Monthly, Number 205, April 1997: 11-12. [RTTJ]