“Representation Matters” and “Black Lives Matter” are two phrases that have been commonly used by many cultural institutions in the United Kingdom to pledge their allegiance to change. In a time when they are under pressure to be accountable for representing diverse programming, audiences and staff teams, I write this open letter to stipulate that although the public view may seem admirable to onlookers, the private one is that of contradiction, hypocrisy and systematic biases which ensure that the glass ceiling stays intact for all practitioners of colour within this sector.
I was introduced to contemporary black art from a young age. My Aunt is an artist whose work contributed to the Black Arts Movement in the 80’s. I would often attend her private views and speak to artists, which is where my love of art began. As I continued throughout my educational career I excelled at art, it was my passion my calling and I decided very early on in my career, that I wanted to work in a gallery.
I began working at The William Morris Gallery and Vestry House Museum in 2016 on a zero hours, ‘casual’ contract, as a Visitors Support Assistant was based Front of House and employed by London Borough of Waltham Forest where I was also a resident. For me, despite having over 10 years experience in community arts and events, I felt that this position was a significant milestone in my career. Why? Because it was an entry level, foot-in-the-door into the museum and gallery world, working in spaces that, for longer than I care to remember, did not represent me, an unapologetically black woman from East London, nor my culture.
I wanted other people of colour to see me as they crossed the threshold into the building.
One of the main reasons that I chose to work at the William Morris Gallery was because of the below quote, which is, in fact, one of the first things you see as you enter the gallery:
I took this quote to heart. It was something that throughout my career, I held to be true. This quote validated my working practice for the next 4 years. Everything I did within my various roles at the Gallery was underpinned by the idea that art should be for everyone, not for just a few.
Culturally diverse leadership
In my time at the gallery, I went from Visitor Service Assistant to Young People’s Programmer, to Learning and Outreach Assistant and now Learning and Outreach Officer (Families, Children & Young People). Navigating various casual and short-term continuous contracts over the course of 4 years. I took the contracts that were offered to me at the time, so I could prove my ability and effectively demonstrate the significant impact of my work.
At times, doubt crept in – I didn’t think I was as good as my white counterparts often sitting in team meetings. I began to not voice my opinions, and doing the age-old process of ‘keeping my head down’ and concentrating my own little mission and why I was there. However, I started to speak out on things in the last year, which I felt were blatantly wrong and attempted to offer a new perspective to how to approach challenges.
Being the only black person in the team (other than a steady stream of trainees from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds who are never offered positions at the end of the year), this approach of speaking out would cause friction. Nonetheless I still maintained my stance of calling out things I felt we could improve upon. Instead, I was met with petty comments, gaslighting and other not-so-subtle signs of systemic racism that is so embedded in many organisations. Having to fight against this on an almost daily basis has had a significantly negative impact on my health on more than one occasion.
What continued to happen won’t be surprising to other Black practitioners working in the Arts sector.
However, what I believe has been overlooked is the importance of culturally diverse leadership within the gallery and museum. In 2019, Waltham Forest Council was awarded the London’s first Borough of Culture. I was asked to step up my responsibilities, as my line manager was on secondment working on another Borough of Culture project. Instead of giving me the title of Acting Learning and Outreach Manager (and despite my duties being consistent with this job title), I was given an Officer’s title on the lowest senior officer pay scale. I welcomed this short-term opportunity in a position of leadership – I can start to make the changes that I feel will be beneficial to widening audience development within my department, I thought.
In this role, I excelled in all of the objectives and over indexed in all of the Art Council England’s (ACE) requirements aligned to the family and young people’s programme. Does ACE having granted funding as a National Portfolio Organisation actually know what’s really going on?
Again, despite this, little did I know that I was being used during this time – my appointment in this role, I now believe was a smokescreen, which potentially fell into the group of a “diversity hire”. At the time, I believed they needed someone who was skilled enough to do this work to a high standard, as well as someone who has a great rapport with the local community and so could offer opportunities to those who wouldn’t usually feel they could access it.
However, what they needed me to be was the diversity flag bearer for the gallery and museum during the Borough of Culture year. To show how ‘on task’ they were at a time when the whole of London was watching.
This tokenistic gesture was short lived, however, as a year later, during a worldwide pandemic, despite my achievements and exceeding every expectation I had been challenged with. Despite me modifying my work to cater for an online audience (in a way that major UK museums and galleries are only catching up to now), I was told that my contract was not going to be renewed.
The glass ceiling
For 4 years of proving myself time and time again, I never received a permanent contract. Instead, I witnessed other members of staff receive permanent contracts and new roles established during my time there, but I wasn’t deemed worthy enough to receive one. Despite all of my significant work I had achieved, I felt like I had been paraded out as some kind of poster child for diversity in the borough, when all eyes were on the council, but now the spotlight was elsewhere, they felt comfortable enough to get rid of me at their earliest opportunity. Was it because I had recently challenged and won a very uncomfortable argument about structural racism relating to a programming decision, where I was in a minority of one during a meeting with the completely white senior cultural leadership team?
With my contract not being renewed, the unprecedented event of coronavirus will be the perfect story to tell to stakeholders such as staff, volunteers, creative practitioners when the wider community start to ask questions about my position: was it that they couldn’t keep me on because of the pandemic? and as the gallery was closed, and my work is so offline, there was no longer a position for me? However, as mentioned, I brought my work online and received excellent feedback – on my first attempt. We all know these things take time to gain momentum, but I had already adapted to the ‘new normal’. I dedicated much of my time building audiences and communities, encouraging families from culturally diverse backgrounds to come into a space that they previously didn’t see themselves fitting into. I did crucial work on this that no one in the team could or can do. It might sound arrogant, but I feel it’s the truth. For them to not consider the groundwork that I had established in bringing new audiences to the gallery is nigh on negligent, and a number of my now ex colleagues agree.
I did not leave by choice – I had no choice. On Friday 22nd May via a conference call, I was told of the decision not to renew my contract, and I was not made aware of alternative work opportunities. Something that I would later find out is a mandatory policy that the council should follow when deciding not to renew an individual’s contract, given my length of service.
A few days before publishing this I was made aware of a ‘NEW’ (up to 6 months) fixed term post within the culture department, which, on the face of it, had been specially crafted to match my abilities. More so this role is only available for internal candidates within the Culture and Heritage team with an immediate start date. I believe this role did not previously exist, but instead was created, due to various allies lobbying within the sector to councillors and senior staff, as my departure became public knowledge. Where was this job opportunity three weeks ago? How come the senior cultural leadership team didn’t know about it?
Black Lives Matter…until they don’t.
These last three weeks have been emotional and stressful beyond belief, a feeling of helplessness overwhelmed me as anxiety soon started to set in as the reality became clearer that I was becoming unemployed in the midst of a pandemic, by my council employer, soon followed by the news of the brutal death of George Floyd – it’s been too all too much to bear.
Why would l want to return back to an institution that have treated me in this way? How can I return after all the feathers have been ruffled?
So I’d like to say: Thank you Waltham Forest Council for showing me just how much black lives truly matter. The recently published statement from William Morris Gallery on the 12th June filled me with rage. Here I am – the only black senior member of staff making a significant difference within the wider community being told that their contract is not being renewed due to no hires being made in the pandemic. To then inform me of a new role that has magically appeared once you had been criticised for not keeping me on, it all feels a little sinister.
You have no right to talk about Black Lives Matter when you’ve pushed out the only black member of cultural staff. Someone who brought a Black audience to the Kehinde Wiley launch; Wiley himself exclusively paints Black people, so instead of having the “usual” crowd attending a private view, I used my extensive network of Black creatives, artists and influencers to descend upon (Walthamstow) William Morris Gallery and give the artist a true idea of how “we” would respond to his work. Like I said, no one else in the team could have done that.
You deciding to be committed to future diversity work isn’t good enough; a Black exhibition like Wiley’s being programmed doesn’t make up for the lack of Black people making decisions at the gallery. Something I could have been, something that you have so quickly disregarded. It doesn’t make up for the lack of diversity within the volunteering and front of house team, as well as the lack of representation of freelance practitioners and community groups.
This is part of the problem, the masking in having temporary exhibitions and Black freelancers involved in the gallery but not truly investing in the need to change the institution. Challenging structural racism should be an uncomfortable process, as it requires addressing white privilege and the relinquishing of cultural, social and political power.
You want me because it makes for optics – to say you’re making change, that you’re part of the change. But the way I have been treated has shown me in the starkest possible way that you don’t care about Black Lives. Black Lives Matter for you is just a way of “being part of a conversation”. A way of, once again, a system being run by white people, centring themselves in a dialogue that isn’t about you. If you care about Black Lives: Where are your Black staff? Where are your Black decision makers? Why is there a clear and blatant glass ceiling for us, whilst White mediocrity is allowed to not only exist but openly flourish in its own special way?
I am tired of the gaslighting. I am tired of the empty gestures. I am tired of hearing how great I am, only for you to turn around and snatch this job away from me. I refuse to stand down and let you get away with this, whilst your public persona exudes faux solidarity.
One of our greatest ever writers, Maya Angelou, once said:
I’ve lived my life by these words, and will continue to do so. Now you know how I feel about the way I was treated, and it’s undeniable it was unfair and without real grounds. Now you know better, will you do better?
I guess only time will tell.