Saturday 19 September 2020

Our homogeneous teams and our dreams of diversity

Jemma Desai, auhor of "This work isn't for us".

In 2020, the International Day of Museums (IMD) theme was “Museums for Equality: Diversity and Inclusion”. In the field of Culture, we normally reflect on these concepts considering our so-called “audiences”. We express our wish to attract more people, diverse people, and to become a place “for all”.

The 2020 IMD theme allowed me to take one step forward (or is it backwards?) and consider: can we ever hope to become more relevant and create relationships with diverse people (the “audience”) if we ourselves (the teams) remain stubbornly homogeneous? I had the opportunity to first ask this question in a short video for the Municipal Museum Carlos Reis on IMD and more recently in a mini-conference for the Museum of the City of Aveiro, entitled “Museums, Education and Diversity”. This was also one of the points the cultural association Acesso Cultura | Access Culture, where I work, raised when commenting on the preliminary report of the Museums in the Future Project Group.

The Black Lives Matter movement in the US has had a significant impact on cultural organisations. As I wrote back in June, in my post From silence to a hashtag to taking a stand, between 2014 and 2020, there was a significant move from silence (What has this got to do with us?) to making public statements (We can’t afford to remain silent), reaffirming different organisations’ commitment to equality, justice and antiracism.

What is really new in 2020, though, are the numerous public statements made by members of staff denouncing systemic racism and hostile working environments, exposing the big distance between an organisation’s public positioning and its internal practices. The latest refers to Brooklyn Museum (a favourite of mine, thus hard  to read) and more may be found in my post I can’t breath and on Instagram accounts @cancelartgalleries, @changethemuseum and @abetterguggenheim. What these statements and public questioning have helped me realise is how unaware most of us are regarding what constitutes systemic racism, discrimination and hostility in our cultural organisations.

Those interested in understanding better the nuances we are frequently unaware of, may find an impressive and clear account in Jemma Desai’s This work isn’t for us (2020). Jemma Desai is an author, curator and a programmer for the London Film Festival. She was also a Film Programme Manager at the British Council. In her introduction, she makes clear what her paper is about:

I write as a respondent but also as a recipient of, and an active participant in, the cultural sector’s diversity policies over the past 15 years. I write as a Londoner who by participating in the cultural sector, has felt complicit in a kind of gentrification of myself and my city, complicit in what my friend and mentor Madani Younis describes as a “cultural appartheid”, regularly delivering work in spaces where teams or audiences rarely reflect the populations they located in.

She goes on to say that her experience of the cultural sector and what comes out of it problematises the statistics regarding diversity policies:

…the struggle I have experienced to be seen in the totality of my experience whilst working in the cultural sector is a negation of them. (…) Diversity narratives in public documents often focus on the lacks, gaps and description of the marginalisation of the excluded rather than the behaviours and attitudes of those that are the beneficiaries of that exclusion - often those that do the excluding.

Is New York’s Arts Diversity Plan Working?, was the question posed by a recent article in The New York Times. “It’s hard to tell”, it added. Perhaps it’s not so hard to tell. We see it all around us, diversity plans in different countries have not worked. This is not just a question of defining quantitative evaluation indicators, but also a question of listening. Colleagues like Jemma Desai or Sade Brown (now Sade Banks, whom I wrote about before) can help us understand why. People with diverse backgrounds are still very few in our organisations and they are not part of the planning and decision making. Their world view and life experience are not really valued. Diverse opinions are more of a problem rather than an opportunity to do better. And, although some “black faces and brown faces” may be part of the team, their voices are silenced by what Sara Ahmed calls the “institutional whiteness” and they are mostly “integrated” and “enculturated” into the system (this is a good moment to remember Sade Banks’ talk What did you have to leave at the door in order to show up today?).

Sade Banks, founder of Sour Lemons

Some cultural organisations will tell us that when they announce a position they don’t forget to mention that they welcome applications from all “regardless of their ethnicity, race, gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, age, marital status or whether or not they have a disability.” This is the right thing to do, but can we honestly say that it’s enough? That it has worked?

That said, there is another issue we should associate to this point: the lack of academically trained people from different “minority” groups, so that they may actually show up as candidates. Lee Rosenbaum, a cultural journalist, also brought this up recently in her post Diversity diversion: Plumbing museums’ “pipeline” problem in hiring minorities: while museums may easily agree that they ought to be hiring more “minority” candidates and “while this persistent problem is arguably a manifestation of museums’ systemic racism, it must also be understood as a ‘pipeline problem’ - the relative scarcity of well trained minority candidates for curatorships and executive positions and major visual arts institutions.”

A couple of years ago, the Brooklyn Museum’s decision to hire a white woman, Kristen Windmuller-Luna, as its curator for African art generated intense criticism (read here), as many people believed that the job should have gone to a person of colour. The museum defended its choice, also backed by the late Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor, saying that Windmuller-Luna was a unanimously selected extraordinary candidate. More importantly, though, Steven Nelson, a professor of African and African-American Art History added that criticism against the museum was the result of a public misconception “that African art scholars and curators are largely people of color… Yet the field of African art history in the U.S. is largely white and female. I am one of a small handful of African Americans who specialize in African art history.”

Thus, we have got a more pressing issue to deal with: Can we expect to have more diverse teams if our education system, at all levels, does not provide welcoming spaces and does not present all students with opportunities to consider a career in the cultural field and the arts? And, associated to this, can we expect young people to consider this kind of path for their future if cultural organisations remain stubbornly white – in terms of staff, contents and programmes? It’s a vicious circle and we must break it.

This week, I read in the International Arts Manager that the Clore Fellowship, one of the few and most renowned leadership programmes in the cultural field, has announced that in 2021 the focus will be on helping BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) leaders through its programme Brilliant Routes, led by Creative Director and broadcaster Gaylene Gould. This is good news, a significant step in showing more awareness. Sade Banks, a Clore fellow herself, had already started working on this when she created her company Sour Lemons, with the aim of “Disrupting creative and cultural decision making tables with leaders who happen to be underrepresented.” Through programmes such as “Making Lemonade”, she works to “rebuild an inclusive cultural and creative industry where everyone is enabled to thrive”. More recently, with “Enabling Environments”, she aims at “moving away from diversity schemes that are designed to ‘slot people in’ and starting to dismantle the system designed to keep them out.”

In Portugal, we are very far from having this discussion. As I said in the beginning, our reflection on diversity focuses mainly on “audiences” and is often translated into “special programmes” for “special days”. Often we share our concern because people – after we welcomed them on that “special day” – don’t come back. Why would they, if our work mainly maintains the business-as-usual white model, expressed in every possible way – lack of representation in the teams and decision-making processes, contents and all sorts of programmes? Why would they if, after that “special project”, our organisation remains irrelevant for them? There is a need for change, for structural change, and it is now obvious that our “institutional whiteness” cannot make it happen alone.



This work isn’t for us – Part 1 and Part 2 (videos)

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