Policy & research

‘It’s about handing over power’ – Art Fund publishes new report on diversity in the curatorial workforce

Participants of the Museum Association's Transformers programme

As Art Fund publishes new research on diversity in the curatorial workforce, Rachael Browning reflects on the urgency – and challenges – of compiling such a report.

Our core purpose at Art Fund is to help museums and galleries go further by building and sharing collections, helping curators develop their expertise and inspiring and engaging visitors. To do this we develop and iterate our programme of support in direct response to what we are seeing and what we are hearing, often conducting research to understand the particular and changing needs of the sector and how we can make a distinct, valuable and relevant contribution to its ambitions.

It has been well documented that people from minority-ethnic backgrounds make up a very small proportion of the UK’s museum and gallery workforce. Within this, a very small percentage of curators are people of colour, despite many years of diversity schemes. It is inescapable that a lack of diverse voices, experiences and critiques in shaping our collections and programmes means our institutions – their workforces and audiences – will never be fully inclusive, reflective or relevant.

To understand how to tackle this more effectively we commissioned a report to assess the impact of ethnic diversity initiatives on the curatorial workforce. Our aim was to produce a piece of work to set out the priorities for funders, museums and arts organisations to meaningfully increase ethnic and cultural diversity in the sector. The final report is a combination of two pieces of work by Black-led organisations Museum X and Culture& across 2021-2022.

Lack of data about the curatorial workforce

The authors identified that very few diversity initiatives have been aimed specifically at curatorial roles in the arts and heritage sector; most have instead been aimed at generic entry-level roles, with minimal long-term impact. The quality and outcome of programmes depended on who in the institutions was initiating and organising them, their intentionality and the determination of those undertaking the roles themselves.

This impacted their roll out, the care attached to and the understanding of the experience of minority-ethnic background curatorial staff, and the potential to access strategic blind spots. Arts Council England’s Inspire Fellowship programme, International Curators Forum, and programmes developed and delivered by ICF/Art360 Foundation, stood out as initiatives that have had a sustained focus on curatorial diversity.

The report highlights a lack of recent national data on the demographics of the curatorial workforce, which is urgently needed for benchmarking and monitoring, and effective evaluation and research. Conversely, the report benefits from a large amount of qualitative data.

This research has aimed to give a fair assessment of the impact of curatorial diversity schemes spanning more than a decade. Our findings show that much more focused and sustained work needs to be done to diversify the UK curatorial workforce. We hope the recommendations will help arts and heritage organisations to redouble their efforts to invest in a workforce that truly reflects the diversity of the communities they serve. This will undoubtedly also enrich the cultural offer of what audiences experience in our museums and galleries.

Dr Errol Francis, Culture&

In interviews there was overwhelming frustration – indeed anger – at the lack of progress, with concerns raised about a structural exclusion of diverse voices from curatorial roles – a glass ceiling in the sector. Institutions must be accountable and provide appropriate modes of support to retain staff from minority-ethnic backgrounds, helping them gain experience and, importantly, seniority.

To encompass the widespread dissatisfaction among those surveyed, the authors picked out three dominant themes: endless discussions about diversity without results, the desire for urgent action, and the need for robust leadership.

Ten recommendations

Art Fund is particularly interested in exploring the role of those who provide the financial means, and often the framework, for initiatives. As well as a need for greater transparency in funding criteria and priorities, the research indicated the need for ambitious investment in curatorial diversity, greater collaboration between funders, and new strategic partnerships between educational establishments and arts and heritage organisations.

The report emphasises the impact and importance of initiatives undertaken by Black and other ethnically and culturally diverse communities themselves. It calls for increased funding for and support to these spaces, collectives, organisations and initiatives. Linked to this, we need to put in place funding and structures to better support and enable independent curators and practitioners of colour, both inside and outside of institutions, investing in new and alternative models.

The report sets out 10 recommendations. Art Fund will use these to inform the development of new programmes to sustainably increase diversity and equality in our curatorial sector. Now is the time for leadership – from within the museums sector and by the funders who support it – to come together and act collectively to effect positive change in curatorial workforce diversity and make a generational difference. We are uniquely placed as an independent funder partnering with 850 museums across the UK and working hand-in-hand with peer funders to convene the sector to this end.

I’m grateful to Sandra Shakespeare of Museum X and Dr Errol Francis of Culture& for driving this report, to the advisory group who shaped it through its iterations, and to the many people who contributed their time and energy and shared their personal experiences to inform and shape the findings. We cannot overstate or ignore the challenges that compiling this report has entailed, nor that, in exploring issues such as racism, institutionalised hierarchies, colonial infrastructures, privilege and power, we have once again asked colleagues of colour to take on the burden of this work.

The full report can be downloaded here. We encourage everyone to read and share it and we look forward to future discussions on how to shape the recommendations into actions.

This report marks an opportune moment in time for Art Fund as an independent funder to lead the sector – working with museums and funders alike towards real transformational change to diversify the UK curatorial workforce. We hope that the recommendations will support collaborative action to address underlying issues of institutional racism and patriarchy to a workforce that truly represents cultural diversity at its heart. Our communities we work with across organisations, museums and galleries deserve better.

Sandra Shakespeare, Museum X

Statement from funders on the publication of the report:

Despite multiple interventions over many decades we are not even close to making our institutions places for curators of colour to thrive. This report, from Culture& and Museum X, clearly sets out the challenges and barriers that have impeded this progress, and gives us a robust and explicit set of recommendations to implement change. Now is the time for leadership – from within the museums sector and by the funders and policy makers who support it – to come together and act collectively to effect positive change in curatorial workforce diversity and make a generational difference. Today we are committing to working together to help the sector achieve the transformation that is so long overdue.

Art Fund, Freelands Foundation, Jerwood Arts, John Ellerman Foundation, and Paul Hamlyn Foundation

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