"no Labels, Just Art"
At the end of August, Aire Place Studios held a round table discussion in connection with our latest project: The Artist and the Other, an exhibition and series of events that challenges the exclusion and ‘othering’ of artists.
Several representatives of arts, heritage and cultural organisations in the city attended. We wanted to hear their views on issues around diversity, inclusion and accessibility, and to find out about approaches to implementing these within arts organisations. We weren’t expecting easy answers, rather we wanted to hear different perspectives, to complement the invaluable conversations we regularly have with our studio holders and other artists and creatives.
We pride ourselves on our support for artists from communities that face barriers to participation. We’re good at this because the APS team has plenty of experience of those barriers ourselves. This project originated in our understanding and experience of tackling barriers.
We have noticed that many exhibitions that support diversity tend to focus on the characteristics of the artists that ‘other’ them. We now wonder how helpful this is, whether it shifts the focus away from the art, and perhaps influences audiences’ and curators’ perceptions.
We also recognise the importance of visibility of artists from a range of diverse backgrounds, which is often lacking in visual arts. So, at our round table event we asked participants, how can we support diversity and inclusion without resorting to tokenism or to ‘othering’ artists? And how do we make sure artists’ work gets due attention and recognition?
A huge barrier for artists from a range of backgrounds is the application process, one of the first steps to taking up opportunities and commissions in the arts. Because they often take a similar approach to job application practices, many artists find applying to open calls or other opportunities complicated, incomprehensible and inflexible, requiring reams of information, often beyond what’s reasonable for the role.
We heard about different approaches to this from organisations: a radical change to the process, including providing and accepting information in a range of formats; and targeted projects that are ring-fenced to particular groups that are under-represented. As with many of these issues, a range of strategies is needed. Different approaches will work in different situations. One person described opportunities that were reserved for particular groups “a life saver”.
These application procedures can result in “othering” and labelling artists, even though organisations might be seeking information with the best intentions. While an organisation might not be trying to “out” a person, or asking them to describe or justify their identity, this might be the result, for example, asking whether you need access support, or asking why an opportunity is particularly important. And it leads to artists changing their statements, sharing personal information because they think this will lead to being selected. “You have to constantly put yourself out there to people who aren’t necessarily going to be receptive or sympathetic”, said one participant. This can be traumatic and unsafe, so how can artists protect themselves?
Of course, getting an opportunity is only the start, and organisations need to support artists from diverse communities throughout the contract. Something that can “other” artists within a wider team is always being the person to raise issues around access or anti-discrimination strategies. These should be the responsibility of everyone, but sometimes the staff who are most affected are the only ones demanding change. This can be isolating and lead to resentment from others.
Arts organisations sometimes lack confidence in the value of diversity – even though there is strong evidence of the artistic and economic value. This has led to the sector being surprisingly less diverse, particularly at leadership or management level, than many other sectors. It feels like the infrastructure of the arts makes it more difficult to implement change or to successfully challenge poor practice.
Everyone in the arts seems to be over-stretched and stressed, in common with many other sectors. But deadlines, temporary contracts and other precarious working conditions make it difficult to build in flexibility or to be able to give people, including colleagues, time. This lack of flexibility and tight deadlines exclude many artists, particularly disabled artists who might be dealing with fluctuating health or lack of support.
The need for change can seem overwhelming, so it’s important to recognise that you can’t possibly do everything. It might be better to make real headway in a few particular areas rather than have a scattergun approach. You can build on those successes and keep improving.
Thinking about some of these issues from both organisations’ viewpoints as well as from artists’ was bound to raise many questions, with some things left unresolved. It was good to be reminded that there are people across the arts sector who are committed to change, working within institutions as well as independently. And that being part of a high profile organisation might not mean you have endless resources at your disposal! We need to be working together, finding allies wherever we can.
Supported with funding from Leeds Inspired, part of Leeds City Council.