The fact that racism is still part of our world in the twenty-first century should weigh heavily on the human conscience. And for most people it does, as witnessed by the mass outrage at the killing of George Floyd. As individuals, we all have our part to play in stamping out prejudice and racism in our society whether we live in the United States or here in the UK. But what about organisations? What can they do?
Naturally, organisations come in different shapes and sizes, and this has a bearing on the impact they can have. At Art UK we are a small enough charity that our colleagues have had a chance to read this text – and contribute to it – before it is published in our weekly newsletter. It was shared with them because we know they too all want a world in which black lives are treated with equal respect, and structural racism is abolished. They also know that our organisation can (and will) play a role here and contribute to a better world in our small way.
One of the roles we play is through telling stories. Our platform brings together the nation's art. And what we will continue to do is tell the stories about black and minority ethnic artists that are not known and sitters who have been overlooked or forgotten. This is very much part of our commitment to amplifying the voices and histories of under-represented groups. Some of these stories are written by our team but the majority are written by externally commissioned writers. Although we are a charity, we try to pay competitive fees on an equal basis and reach as wide a pool of writers as we can.
A major strategic focus for us over the last three years has been to pivot the Art UK website away from simply being a database of artworks in the national collection to telling the stories behind the artists, artworks and subjects depicted. A key aspect of this has been revealing the narratives around the artists that would not otherwise surface. Yes, we have tried to ensure we have articles about the likes of Gainsborough and Monet, but also major black artists such as Chris Ofili, Frank Bowling and Lubaina Himid. We are also trying to create a large bank of content around those artists that are perhaps less well known to the general public. So, for example, this includes black artists such as Uzo Egonu, Joy Labinjo, Winston Branch – and many others.
But this is not just about telling stories about artists and sitters. The national art collection is also an extraordinary and massive pre-photographic record of the world, our history or how our forebears wanted history to be recorded. There is such an opportunity here to use these artworks to teach us about our colonial past in ways that go behind what is depicted and reveal the wider, often uncomfortable truths that lie behind the paintings and sculptures that adorn our gallery walls and sit in our public spaces.
We are still at the beginning of this journey – the Art UK website was only launched in 2016. To do this well we need to be in a position to pay more external writers to help us tell these stories. But we also need help from our audience, to supplement our own research in identifying black and minority ethnic artists and sitters (and other under-represented groups) that we should write about. We are actively seeking ways to reach more black writers and we wish to make clear that our content team welcomes story proposals from all potential contributors. You can help us here if you wish by emailing ideas to our Head of Content at firstname.lastname@example.org
Is there more we can do? Of course. For example, amongst our team, given we are now digitising the nation's public sculptures and monuments, there is a desire to influence the commissioning of new public monuments around the country, so they are more representative of the society we live in. Certainly, once our digitisation work is complete, we will be left with a very visual survey of the state of publicly owned sculpture in the UK and what has been memorialised. This will be a key resource for encouraging public debate.
We also know that we need to be a more diverse organisation than we are. Art UK's Equality, Diversity and Inclusion group is addressing this issue and is focused on supporting and promoting the development of diverse content, and working to improve the diversity of our governance bodies and annual Patrons. We also want to include advocacy groups in active dialogue and consultation on our work. We have made changes within our recruitment process by redacting some details from all job applications (including name, age, address, gender, educational background, etc.) to improve inclusivity and remove unconscious bias from the shortlisting process.
We are committed to offering valuable opportunities to young people from state schools through our summer work experience programme and have increased representation in the programme for young BAME people. Art UK also offers a paid traineeship in Digital Content, run in partnership with the New Museum School, which aims to open up the arts and heritage workforce to the next generation of diverse talent. We are committed to continuing this partnership.
The nation's art collection belongs to all of the public irrespective of age, socio-economic background, disability or race. We can only encourage more people to enjoy this collection if we can make the artworks relevant to the widest possible audience. Telling stories that create bridges with black audiences is key as is amplifying the voices of our black writers. Showcasing the art that has been created by BAME artists and other minorities is essential. Encouraging more young black people to go and see the nation's art in the UK's museums and galleries and feel they own it is vital. We strive for this.
Andrew Ellis, Director of Art UK, and Katey Goodwin, Deputy Director of Art UK