Produced by Morris Hargreaves Mcintyre April 2005
Artists' views on ethnicity, practice and career support in the UK
Since the 1970s, arts funding and policy bodies in the UK have put increasing focus on the needs of artists and audiences from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds. Policies, initiatives and organisations have been established specifically to tackle inequalities which might prevent artists from these backgrounds succeeding as professional visual artists, and organisations talk about celebrating difference as a way of promoting the work of artists from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds currently working in Britain.
However, there is growing evidence to suggest that these policies are often based on assumptions, anecdotes and instincts of policymakers rather than research into the needs and views of artists themselves.
Our research set out to better understand the needs of artists from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds, the current provision of support for these artists, and how this support is used and perceived by these artists. We achieved this through interviews and web surveys with artists, contacting organisations and key funders, and secondary research.
Artists dont want to be labelled by their ethnicity unless this is relevant to their work
How artists perceive themselves in terms of practice and ethnicity is central to their use of support systems. Almost all artists from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds agreed that their ethnicity had had some influence on their work, but less than 15% categorised this as a strong influence. Artists will position themselves in terms of their ethnicity if this is a main theme of exploration in their work, or if they need to emphasise their ethnicity in order to get work that they regard as being beneficial to the survival of their career. However, mid-career artists who have experienced unwelcome pigeonholing earlier in their career now actively resist defining themselves by their ethnicity.
Artists feel their work is often automatically categorised on the basis of their skin colour, and some accordingly feel pressure to fit in with received ideas of Black art. The tendency to see these artists in terms of their ethnicity restricts the scope of opportunities these artists are offered.
Some artists feel that current diversity policies are counterproductive
There is concern amongst artists from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds that current cultural diversity policies can lead to a lack of critical engagement with their work artists being supported because of their skin colour rather than their talent. This kind of tokenism is potentially damaging as it leads to support schemes which are of limited use to artists, perpetuates the myth of artists from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds as inherently inferior by promoting second-rate work, and creates resentment amongst White artists who feel disadvantaged by positive action schemes.
Cultural diversity is a reality of modern life in Britain, which any artist regardless of their skin colour might be exploring or negotiating in any number of ways. Many of the artists we spoke to questioned the validity of the current ethnocentric definition of cultural diversity in the visual arts, and feel that the focus on the difference of Black British artists was perverse and outdated given the current racial picture of Britain. The artist we spoke to who felt most alienated from the UK visual arts world was a recent White immigrant.
All artists have broadly similar needs
The artists we spoke to focussed on their commonality with other artists, and the need to be in touch with others who are exploring the same issues in their work or career. In fact, our research shows that artists have similar needs regardless of ethnicity; practical information about the opaque visual art world; peer support through networking; assistance and mentoring to get to the next level; time-out opportunities.
The artists we spoke to identified certain specific ways in which their cultural background had hindered their artistic career, but the visual arts market is a system which relies on exclusivity to uphold values, and therefore remains deliberately restricted and elitist to all artists. The art world is controlled by a white, male and financially-privileged elite, and anyone who is not part of this circle of influence is disadvantaged. Whilst artists from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds may be disadvantaged by their lack of connection with these systems and circles, the artists we spoke to also identified many other factors which inhibit their artistic career: class; sexuality; rurality; gender; disability.
Artists will use whatever support is most useful to them
Whilst 95% of the artists from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds had received support of some kind during their career, only a quarter of these had ever used an organisation specifically targeted at them due to their ethnicity. As most of these artists do not concentrate on their ethnicity in their work, their needs are similar to those of White artists, and can adequately be met by organisations who support all artists. When artists do use targeted support, this is either because this fits in with their current practice, or, worryingly, because this is the only support available to them.
The artists we spoke to did not draw any strong conclusions about whether targeted support is still necessary, but were concerned that support for artists from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds does not become segregated, inadvertently excluding these artists from the mainstream visual arts world and therefore ultimately capping their success. Many of the artists we spoke to felt that current diversity policies are no longer an accurate reflection of the needs of artists, and that these policies could even be harming artists careers.
- More in-depth research to identify specific issues with current provision of support, perhaps through
tracking artists interactions with organisations
- Exploration of wider issues around diversity in the arts world, perhaps moving towards a more
- More support for all artists, regardless of ethnicity.
- Initiatives to help all artists find helpful networks and groups based on common interest.
- More research into existence of markets for work of artists grouped by ethnicity, which will bring
into question the value of racialising production in the UK.
- Guidance for funders on the importance of critical enquiry as the basis for selection, rather than
- Funders need to question the basis of provision of support for artists and base the continuing
provision of targeted support on research rather than assumptions.