Institutional Antics


One of Britain’s most vaunted, highly regarded, and indeed, self-regarding of cultural institutions is the Royal Academy (RA). With Sir Joshua Reynolds as its first President (for a period of nearly a quarter of a century) the RA has a long history stretching back to the late 1760s. For well over two hundred years, the RA was synonymous with white, predominantly male, artists. It was, in a manner of speaking, an absolute embodiment of whiteness, having no interest in or regard for British artists of color until over two hundred and twenty two years after its founding, when India-born Dhruva Mistry was made a Royal Academician in the early 1990s. Nearly a decade later, in the late 1990s, another India-born sculptor, Anish Kapoor, was extended the same honor. Now as I write this in the fall of 2023, the number of Black or brown British artists in the RA is in the mid-teens, with a noticeable acceleration of numbers in the panicky years following the major fillip given to the Black Lives Matter movement by the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Now, with the recent bringing on board of Hurvin Anderson, Veronica Ryan, Barbara Walker and Hew Locke as Royal Academicians, it’s not difficult to read these developments as institutional strategizing that bears particular heed to the triple considerations of self-preservation, liberal posturing, and political expediency. 

Of course, institutions beyond number are now implicated in such recognizable and obvious strategizing. Perhaps hoping that nobody notices, organizations that previously seemed happy enough with projecting their white character and identity have been working to shed these perceptions and declare themselves to be wholly on board with diversity, equity, and inclusion. One dominant reason as to why it’s difficult to challenge white supremacy in the art establishment is because, at the drop of a hat, previously ingrained disrespect for Black artists can be set to one side, in preference for a public image that categorically refuses to recognize its own bad behavior. Instead, these institutions present themselves as having always been friendly spaces in which artists of color have long been recognized and appreciated. 

Regarding Britain’s history of modern art, one of the pioneering Caribbean-born contributors was Ronald Moody, born in Jamaica at the turn of the twentieth century and making his way to London in the early 1920s, with ambitions to become a dentist. Moody switched interests and became instead an accomplished, versatile, and prolific sculptor. Not that the British art establishment noticed. Moody and his art were respected by his Caribbean-born fellow artists and visionary art lovers. Beyond such individuals, regard for Moody was scant and it was not until Rasheed Araeen’s art historically significant The Other Story exhibition, held at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1989, that Moody’s work started to gain wider appreciation. Moody though, had died in 1984 and did not live to see his work latterly described as having been "rediscovered" (rather than discovered) by the likes of Tate Britain. Tate’s decades-long disregard for Moody was obliterated in an instant when he emerged with his “reputation restored.” A feature in  Tate magazine, in 2003, opened with: “self-taught wood-carver Ronald Moody, a former dentist born in Jamaica, is revealed as one of Britain's most remarkable Modernist sculptors in a new display at Tate Britain.” The glaring problem with such handbrake turns in institutional attitudes to Black artists is the emphatic absence of any sort of declaration of mea culpa - an exclamation of apology or remorse on the part of institutions that their newfound respect for Black artists has been many decades in the making. But without apologies, without frank admission that an institution has turned its back on its own histories of white supremacy, we are left with not much more than an embrace of Black artists that looks suspiciously like a sleight of hand. Or, as a dictionary might put it, “something that seems good but is not real or effective and that is done especially to take attention away from something else that is embarrassing or unpleasant.”

The above extracts are from Eddie Chambers' “Institutional Antics", Art Journal, Winter 2023, 82:4, 5-7