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5 min read - Thursday 20th January 2022 

What is the Art Industry doing to Combat Racial Injustice?

By Lois Freeman

Image description: Echoes of Géricault’s raft from Kehinde Wiley’s exhibition at The National Gallery, a riff of Théodore Géricault’s 1818-19 Raft of the Medusa, it shows a group of black men and women struggle to get on a raft in the sea.
A slice of the discussion around the current visibility and diversity issues in art institutions, and how the art world, and individuals, are responding.

What is on Gallery Walls?

Statistics show that of 18 major U.S art museums, their collections are 87% male and 85% white. The ‘Black Artists and Modernism National Collection Audit’, led by Dr Anjalie Dalal-Clayton, found that just 2,000 artworks in the UK’s permanent art collections are by Black artists – most of which aren’t on display. Her data in fact revealed that across thirty national and regional civic collections, the works of ‘British born or based artists of African, Asian and Middle-East and North Africa descent’ only account for somewhere between 1% and 4% of public collections.

While a rise in pop-up culture has seen the works of Black artists and Black-owned businesses and brands celebrated, artists and activists like Bolanle Tajudeen, founder of the decolonising creative education platform Black Blossoms, are demanding galleries to ‘Make us permanent’.

This is not a new issue. Black women have been calling for an art revolution for decades. In 1977, the ‘Combahee River Collective’ protested that, in that year’s ‘Lesbian Art and Artists’ journal, a distinct lack of visibility formed the narrative that ‘there were no practicing Black and other Third World lesbian artists’. The Blk Art Group, a group of young anti-racism radicals from West Midlands art schools, produced work such as ‘Destruction of the National Front’ to riot against the xenophobia of Thatcher’s Britain and the appropriation of British culture as racially exclusive. 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement, and the continual struggle to decolonise public art, has shone a brighter spotlight on the institutionalised racism that still exists within the art industry, holding a history of racism and misogynoir which cannot be ignored.

Image descriptions: (First) The Combahee River Collective on the streets holding signs demanding ‘50% Black Women Artists’. (Second) Kehinde Wiley’s ‘Prelude (Ibrahima Ndiaye and El Hadji Malick Gueye)’ shows two black males playing a hand-clapping game set against a Wordsworthian background. (Third) Image from the V&A 2022 African fashion exhibition, shows a man and a woman modelling traditional African dress.

What Does This Mean?

In the UK government’s investigation into Participation in the Arts by 16 year old children, it found that Asian and Black participation was lower than White and Mixed Race participation, suggesting a troubling, but unsurprising, correlation between the diversity of content children are consuming and how this affects their view of their place in the art world. Another government investigation found that while 51.1% of White people had visited a museum or gallery, only 33.5% of Black people and 43.7% of Asian people had. If these young people cannot see Black and Asian artists represented on gallery walls, it teaches them that their space in the art world does not exist, and so the cycle continues.

What is the Role of Art Institutions?

The lack of Black Art passing through the gallery gatekeepers is a reflection of the euro-centric skew of history that British institutions have fuelled for centuries. It is also linked to the systemic concept of ‘taste’ and ‘value’ often tied to traditional modes of European art, like painting. Kimberly Hermo puts it down to ‘a collective disinterest in recognising the contributions of other cultures’. Dr Anjalie Dalal-Clayton calls on Government directives and Arts funding bodies to demand proportional representation of ethnic groups from museums and galleries who were built to ‘serve and reflect British society’. Galleries and Museums are are also still plagued by their own decisions to exhibit stolen colonial-era artworks, with the British Museum currently displaying goods taken by conquerors and colonial masters.

The National Gallery is currently showing Kehinde Wiley’s subversion of European art tradition in which he places black figures in traditional portraiture. Tate Britain’s current exhibition ‘Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s-Now’ is a celebration of Art and Culture fused across the globe and the V&A is holding a 2022 summer showcase of African Fashion. Important work is being done, but as The Art Newspaper reports, the dynamic between black creator - white consumer continues to dominate the market. They report a perceptible trend of ‘wealthy wokeness’ in the sale of African American work to white collectors, built on the simple problem that the way the art market defines value is built on ‘principles of exclusion and ownership’ - I own this activism because I bought it. More work by Black Artists in circulation is brilliant, but it’s impact is limited if those circulating it are all White. We join them in calling for Black sellers and buyers, Black collectors and gallery-owners.

Institutions need to look at their staff. According to a comprehensive survey of U.S. art institutions, despite a 4% increase since 2015, people of colour are consistently underrepresented as museum staff, while in the UK, Arts Council England found that, across the creative and cultural workforce as a whole, 7% of employees in 2011/12 were from a Black and minority ethnic background. Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips all tell The Art Newspaper they have set up ‘diversity panels and task forces’ to target internal racism and will work with the aim of hiring more diversely. However, as Arts Council England expressed, while diversifying recruitment is helpful, organisations must also adjust and tailor their support systems so that these employees can have a successful, progressive career.

What can be done to help?

Grass-Root collectives like The Black British Art Collective, Black Blossoms and The Blk Art Group (although now disbanded) have been working tirelessly to combat racial prejudice in the Art market. However, we should all be active consumers of Art. This involves signing petitions like ‘WHERE ARE ALL THE BLACK PEOPLE AT’, calling out galleries and museums on social media, and boycotting institutions that are not working to make anti-racist adjustments and who continue to show deficient collections. We must look locally and demand city councils continue to review their colonial and racist statues. We must actively visit Black-owned galleries, and if collecting art, we must buy, and keep buying, from Black-owned galleries. Just like all businesses, they are fuelled by money, and considered transaction is essential to achieve equality and diversity at every stage of the Art Market.
Gatekeeper Magazine© 2021