The ‘disorganised apartheid’ of cultural diversity

Meet the curator and author who says that diversity policies in the arts are doing exactly what their label suggests: dividing people.

Tiffany Jenkins

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‘It’s a disorganised apartheid which claims to be about equality but which has separatist consequences.’

Richard Hylton is a curator and art critic, and author of the punchy new book The Nature of the Beast: Cultural Diversity and the Visual Arts Sector. A study of diversity policies between 1976 and 2006, it is a thoughtful, thorough and searing critique of the introduction of divisiveness into the visual arts in England.

Hylton charts the various incarnations of diversity initiatives, and their various protagonists. From ‘ethnic arts’ in the late 1970s and Naseem Kahn’s formative report, The Art Britain Ignores, to the invention of ‘black arts’ in the 1980s and the activities of the Greater London Council; from the ‘new internationalism’ in the 1990s to the ‘culturally diverse arts’ of the twenty-first century, as propagated by Arts Council England and other funding bodies, Hylton explores the growth of ideas about diversity and their damaging impact. He draws out what was specific to each of the policies, and how they related to the political climates in which they were forged, drawing out their problematic content as he goes along.

After taking a detailed look at the plethora of policies, Hylton concludes that they have furthered ideas of division and have been detrimental to the very artists they were set up to help. ‘Since the 1970s, cultural diversity initiatives within the visual arts sector have arguably exacerbated, rather than confronted, exclusionary pathologies of the art world. They have compounded the problems of tokenism and racial separation within the arts sector’, he writes.

This is a serious charge. Cultural diversity policies are a major priority across the arts world today; the ability to ‘demonstrate diversity’ is central to all arts funding bodies and organisations. Diversity policies are also a favourite hot topic of the current UK minister for culture, David Lammy.

Hylton’s interest in documenting and evaluating the 30 years worth of diversity policies was stimulated, he tells me, ‘by the flurry of activity around the initiative ‘decibel: raising the voice of culturally diverse arts in Britain’. That initiative was launched in 2003 ‘to great fanfare, but it seemed to go nowhere…all this stuff was coming out – official notifications, press releases, statements, plans, and word of mouth. But it never seemed to come together’, he says.

Initiatives such as the decibel project, which was initiated by Arts Council England (ACE), are typically heavily talked up and publicised – yet after they are implemented, it is rarely clear what actually comes out of them, bar lots of nice leaflets.

decibel is the focus of the opening chapter of Hylton’s book. In early 2000, ACE indicated that cultural diversity – with specific reference to ethnicity – had become its major priority, partly in response to the 1999 Macpherson report, the outcome of an inquiry into the murder of black British teenager Stephen Lawrence. ACE’s Cultural Diversity Action Plan noted that the Macpherson report ‘marked a sea change in the understanding of the significance of institutional racism’.

The prioritising of cultural diversity gave birth to scheme after scheme, including decibel. It was the ‘restless creation of new policies around this period’ that intrigued Hylton. He recalls that ‘there was a real lack of coherence at the same time as a relentless flurry of activity’. As he notes in his book, in the run-up to the launch of decibel, ‘ACE earmarked 2001 as the Year of Cultural Diversity, a nationwide festival for profiling artistic practices across all art forms’. Then, ‘for reasons that have never been made public, the Year of Cultural Diversity was postponed until 2002. Re-branded as The Big Idea, this new diversity project was to be expanded to last 18 months from September 2002 to March 2004, and was to include numerous activities: collaborations, commissions, internet what’s on guides, and a national media campaign.’ And then, ‘despite numerous updates included in Arts Council bulletins and the steady flow of job appointments, like its predecessor, The Big Idea was also scrapped’.

Through another, million-pound rebranding process, The Big Idea was then launched as decibel in May 2003. For all the expensive re-launching, decibel also was ‘never thought out properly’, says Hylton. ‘Little, if anything, really came of it. It failed organisationally and it wasted substantial funds.’ And that’s the more upbeat part of his assessment.

In his book, he outlines the low expectations these diversity schemes embody for black and Asian artists. Take, for example, the apparent creation of jobs for ethnic minority artists – which often gives rise to complaints from detractors about ‘political correctness gone mad’ and how these schemes are ‘unfair to whites’. In fact, says Hylton, in the end no one really benefits from these schemes – including those individuals who are hired to work in them.

A key component of decibel’s visual arts programme was to initiate curatorial fellowships and traineeships, and invite a number of organisations to host them through work-based placements. Hylton argues that this initiative expressed a kind of contempt for those who might apply for the posts, in that decibel, in their ads, gave no information about where the actual placements would be and little information about what they would entail. As he puts it: ‘There was no indication about what organisations would hold these posts – which is pretty important to the candidates, you would think – nor any information therefore about the role. How could people wanting to apply for the post know if it was a good career move?’ he asks. In Hylton’s view, this showed up a view of black and Asians as so desperate for jobs that they should accept any opportunity thrown at them.

It was a sloppy scheme which treated talented and experienced people with complete disregard. As Hylton puts it in his book: ‘While symptomatic of decibel’s organisational failings, such apparent administrative oversights are accepting of both the desperation of circumstance and the suggestion that Black and Asian people are so eager to work in the visual arts sector that they should be grateful for any opportunities – however shoddily conceived – that are put their way.’

Those applying for the placements were treated as separate and desperate. As Hylton damningly concludes: ‘From its training schemes to its artist awards, decibel’s strategy is predicated on a model of an aid/loan programme, whereby the uncritical use of training and support perpetuates a particular image of helping people who cannot help themselves.’

The most profound consequences and long-term impacts of these policies, Hylton argues, is that they push black and Asian artists away from the mainstream; exactly the opposite of what they claim to be aiming for: ‘Despite the ever-changing nomenclature – minority ethnic curators, culturally diverse artists etc – their underlying meaning is that British-born Black and Asian people are fundamentally different and in need of special classification when it comes to the arts.’

In the long run, these initiatives create parallel structures, separate from the mainstream for black and Asian artists, and this marks them out as different: ‘Rather than creating a more inclusive arts sector’, Hylton suggests, ‘it could be argued that “culturally diverse arts” has established a parallel funding structure through which to accommodate Black and Asian artists and curators’. And he is further frustrated that they do this in a disingenuous, if unconscious, manner – that ‘they promote separatism, but as cultural diversity. Logically these words just mean everyone. But actually it means certain groups.’

Rarely are experienced black and Asian artists treated as equals by these schemes. Take for example the developments in the 1980s. Hylton recounts that during this period there were ‘unprecedented levels of visibility’ for black artists within the mainstream, but this was constructed around a largely segregated agenda. He shows that the ‘Black survey show’ become the common route by which many of the major publicly funded galleries would interact with black artists. But, he points out, ironically these were British artists educated in art schools but then treated separately by these shows, which were apparently designed to help them, but gave little thought to the medium or message of their work. Black artists were moved to the margins by these developments.

‘Despite working alongside their white peers in Britain’s art colleges and beyond, many black artists would almost as a matter of course end up in the “Black survey” exhibition’, Hylton recounts. He notes: ‘This may have represented a “stepping-stone” for some, but for most that’s where it would end, in large group exhibitions united by the idea that they were all black.’ Indeed, ‘the Black survey show came to signify the ways in which opportunities for many Black artists would be limited by the mainstream…. It was this sort of mainstream engagement that would arguably stigmatise and stifle Black artistic practice in the 1990s.’

Hylton believes that few really benefit from these initiatives: ‘In the short term individuals benefit in that they can make a little financial gain. But even then they don’t really benefit, as in the long run it maintains the status quo, which is never properly challenged.’ Today, these top-down cultural diversity policies are the ‘default mechanism’ through which black and Asian artists are expected to operate, away from the mainstream.

While Hylton is critical of both cultural diversity initiatives and the indifference shown towards black artists, he also acknowledges the dearth of criticism or resistance by black artists to such initiatives and attitudes. Ultimately, he ventures, artists need to stop accepting the status quo and rethink their participation in these schemes: ‘Artists are essentially complicit in the marginalisation as they accept it and do not critique it.’ Their involvement has helped legitimise the schemes, he suggests.

So what is to be done? One solution Hylton poses is that people begin to question these policies and speak out. ‘As long as people are accepting of these initiatives, they are always going to be around’, he argues. And he is referring to everyone – those on the left and on the right, black and white. Funding bodies need to be less interventionist and treat people as equals, and artists as artists. ‘The Arts Council’, he argues, ‘needs to apply its own “arm’s length principle” with regard to cultural diversity policies and black and white curators alike. Then and only then will it be possible for the racialised pathologies of the English gallery system to be successfully challenged.’

Hylton is nuanced enough to indicate where there have been positive programmes that have engaged with artists as equals, but he also identifies where they have regressed over the past 30 years. He points to the strengths and limitations of visual arts organisations set up in the 1980s, such as African and Asian Visual Artists’ Archive and Autograph. He argues that while they often did not fully function autonomously and were flawed, they were at least started by a group of committed individuals. Later ventures, he points out, such as inIVA, the Institute of International Visual Arts, were started ‘”in consultation” with individuals but were really created by the Arts Council’.

‘This top-down approach’, says Hylton, ‘is very restricting and further removes the freedom of the artists’. Instead, ‘we need to get back to doing our own thing first, and then seeking support, rather than being told first what to do’.

Tiffany Jenkins is a writer and researcher. She is chairing a debate on exhibiting slavery for Museums and Galleries Month.

The Nature of the Beast Cultural Diversity and the Visual Arts Sector. A study of policies, initiatives and attitudes 1976-2006 is published by the Institute of Contemporary Interdisciplinary Arts at the University of Bath.

spiked ran an online debate about decibel in 2003. You can read it here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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