Policy & research, Funding

Empowering Curatorial Pioneers: Art Fund’s R&D for a pilot Curatorial Diversity Programme

A panel discussion at the launch event for '"It's about handing over power": The impact of ethnic diversity initiatives on curatorial roles in the UK arts and heritage sector 1998-2021', at the V&A, 9th November 2022 (Ameena M. McConnell, Dominique Heyse-Moore, Jade Foster, Jessica Taylor, Aliyah Hasinah).

One year on from the publication of our Curatorial Diversity research report, Art Fund programme consultant Yasmin Khan shares how we are applying and actioning this research.

Last November, Art Fund published a pivotal report called 'It’s About Handing Over Power’, co-authored by Sandra Shakespeare from Museum X and Dr Errol Francis from Culture&. The launch event at the V&A attracted over 400 delegates from across the museum sector, who came to discuss the severe lack of ethnic diversity in the UK’s curatorial workforce.

The authors identified ten recommendations for Art Fund, funders, partners, and UK museums. These stressed the importance of specific initiatives that lead to permanent curatorial employment, alongside increased dialogue and knowledge-sharing between cultural organisations. The research also indicated the need for ambitious investment, greater collaboration between funders, and new strategic partnerships to make ambitious, lasting change.

We’ve been working intensively behind the scenes to bring to life the key recommendations from the report, with an immediate focus on the following:

  • To fund, increase and share high-quality research on career pathways of participants in arts and heritage diversity schemes with appropriately funded longitudinal studies and the creation of a dataset that tracks demographics of the curatorial workforce, including freelancers.

  • To support a focus on specific initiatives leading to permanent curatorial employment, rather than generic entry-level or temporary roles.

  • For funders to actively work with institutions, ensuring accountability, recognising the burdens of people of colour, and provide appropriate modes of support to retain staff, helping them gain experience and, importantly, seniority.

  • To put in place funding and structures to better support and enable independent curators and practitioners, both inside and outside of institutions, investing in new and alternative models.

Art Fund’s response: A major investment in curatorial diversity

Informed directly by recommendations, Art Fund is bringing a network of supporters and allies together to make a difference. Our vision is a UK-wide initiative to bolster the ethnic diversity of the curatorial workforce, shifting the dial across the museum sector and optimising the representation, reach and long-term engagement of museums with, and for, the full breadth of their communities.

To this end, we are planning to develop, launch and deliver a major new curatorial leadership programme in 2024 which will create substantive long-term opportunities and progression pathways for underrepresented Global Majority curators. Developed in close consultation with key stakeholders, partners, and prospective curatorial candidates, the aim of this programme is to mobilise a sector-wide strategy for systematic change – achieving a sustained retention and increase in the diversity of senior and mid-level curators working in UK museums, galleries, and heritage sites, to create a lasting nationwide legacy.

The shape of the programme

The programme will support experienced curators to build their professional skills and, with their host institutions, to produce innovative programmes and engage new audiences, particularly underserved local audiences.

Our vision for the programme is to take a holistic approach, supporting both institutional and independent curators as complementary strands:

  1. A bespoke leadership programme designed to support the careers of curators working within museums and galleries;

  2. A distinct programme centred on professional development for independent curators to open up opportunities to work with museums. This work package is being led by Black Curatorial who are consulting with freelancers to help inform and shape the programme.

These approaches will enable us to bridge the gaps between curators working in or alongside organisations and to cater to individuals who alternate between both modes of working, reaching a wider pool of candidates, institutions and regions.

Critical to the success of this initiative will be a concerted investment in ongoing organisational change that precedes and works in tandem with curatorial placements, which must be championed at the highest levels within participating organisations.

Launch event for '"It's about handing over power": The impact of ethnic diversity initiatives on curatorial roles in the UK arts and heritage sector 1998-2021', at the V&A, 9 November 2022.
© Joladé Olusanya/ Art Fund 2022

I'm really enjoying the challenge of thinking about what is needed for a curatorial diversity programme. I hope you will be able to shape it in such a way that enables a group, no matter how small, to make the leap into the world of curatorial leadership.

Dr Noorah Al-Gailani, Curator of Islamic Civilisations, Glasgow Museums, The Burrell Collection

Sector allyship

None of this can happen without strategic allies and critical friends. To guide our next steps, we’ve appointed a Curatorial Diversity Steering Group. We are hugely grateful to those below in helping shape this new initiative:

  • Cliff Lauson, Director of Exhibitions, Somerset House

  • Dominique Heyse-Moore, Senior curator of British contemporary art, Tate Britain

  • Ekow Eshun, Independent curator

  • Gus Casely-Hayford, Director, V&A East

  • Miles Greenwood, Lead Curator, International Slavery Museum at National Museums Liverpool

  • Miranda Lowe, Principal Curator, Natural History Museum

  • Noorah Al-Gailani, Curator of Islamic Civilisations, Glasgow Museums

  • Péjú Oshin, Associate Director, Gagosian

  • Salma Tuqan, Director, Nottingham Contemporary

We’re grateful for so many professionals supporting us in this important next step. As part of our comparative benchmarking, we’re also initiating dialogues with key sector organisations as potential partners, to amplify reach and impact.

‘Nothing about us, without us’

We’re harnessing a range of perspectives, ideas, and expertise in shaping our plans for an effective curatorial leadership programme.

In the spirit of mutually beneficial collaboration, we’ve set up a co-production collective to support the R&D phase to help illuminate these questions:

  • What does handing over power look like for this programme?

  • What will success look like?

  • What support do participating museums and curators need to have the desired impact?

We’re embracing an iterative approach to evolve the programme framework in close consultation with museum leaders and prospective candidate curators. Their input is refining our strategic thinking to ensure the emerging pilot framework meets the needs and aspirations of future participating curators and potential host intuitions.

Junior Olomowewe, from Blanguage, speaking on a panel at the launch event for '"It's about handing over power": The impact of ethnic diversity initiatives on curatorial roles in the UK arts and heritage sector 1998-2021', at the V&A, 9 November 2022.
© Joladé Olusanya/ Art Fund 2022

Funding and partnership

We’re also bringing peer funders up to speed with our R&D and harnessing their input in co-designing the pilot framework. We recently convened a Funder Workshop to spur collective action, update them on our plans for the development of this major new area of work, and gather their expertise at this key point in the co-production phase to affirm alignment with funder priorities. We’ll be taking these conversations forward as our co-production phase concludes over the coming few months, to facilitate a joined-up approach to effectively tackling this systemic issue.

Funding through this programme will:

  • Provide support and development opportunities for museum professionals – creating the tools, resources and networks needed to develop tangible skills and gain career-accelerating experience. The programme will support mid-level curators from diverse backgrounds to become strong contenders for future leadership positions while increasing the prevalence of role model curators for a wider pool of aspiring and emerging curators.

  • Fuel innovative new programmes for museum visitors – by empowering curators to trial and test a range of exciting creative outputs, from collections interpretation to exhibitions, which are engaging for all audiences and have the potential to inspire or lead to future activity beyond this programme. 

  • Drive systemic change across the museum sector – partnership, collaboration and alliance between Art Fund and fellow funders, museums and sector bodies will be central to the programme. Institutions participating in the programme will be equipped with incentives, peer-to-peer connections, and a robust strategy to sustain visible, long-term change.

Everything we do is made possible through generosity and partnership. We are committed to delivering this initiative with invaluable support from a wider consortium of supporters and partners who share our determination to make a major difference in this area.

What’s next?

Watch this space when the pilot programme launches in late 2024. Meanwhile, as we refine the shape of the programme in autumn 2023, we are reaching out to those who will join us in launching the development of this major UK-wide initiative, including co-funders and partner organisations. Do get in touch to explore potential ways to support this long-overdue change initiative.

The full report can be downloaded here. We encourage everyone to read and share it as we actively begin putting recommendations into action.

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