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Museums & Heritage

'If a person of African descent wants a career in the arts—well, good luck'

Only by looking backwards can we start to tackle inequality in the arts sector, says Gus Casely-Hayford, the director of V&A East

Gus Casely-Hayford, the director of V&A East Photo: courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

I haven’t been able to fully catch my breath since the police killing of George Floyd. And yet my feeling of being emotionally winded is not just about George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery, or the accumulated anger of knowing that they represent the tip of a painful iceberg—or of the never forgetting the thousands of people of colour who are abused, discriminated against every day—or of countless numbers who will come up against invisible barriers and micro-aggressions tomorrow, obstructions that will thwart future aspirations and extinguish yet-to-be imagined hopes.

Nor is that ever-present knowledge that my race makes me more likely to be a victim of an unprovoked attack, that I am perceived as a threat to others, that I am dangerous, guilty, bad—which means that I am more likely to be stopped by a security guard, a customs officer, a police officer, to be arrested, to be jailed, to be given a long term. I am even more likely to contract coronavirus (Covid-19) and my chances of surviving are equally compromised because of racist structures so deep-rooted that it is difficult to unravel clear causalities.

My upset is also that as a nation we simply don’t really seem to care—not in ways that are meaningful.

I still find it hard to fathom that we have never formally and robustly confronted our colonial past. We haven’t sought meaningful reconciliation for colonialism or our imperial wars, and we have not sought to posthumously expunge the records of those criminalised in struggles for freedom. Nor do we truly acknowledge the contribution of peoples of our once colonies to our present prosperity and security, or seriously examine the ongoing legacies of slavery and colonialism. And perhaps because we have not formally acknowledged and dealt with that difficult past, we find it difficult to resolve issues of race in the present. We allow racism to be layered into our teaching, load discrimination into the focus and stereotypes of children’s fiction and television programmes, and we do not give young people the tools or the platforms to respond. They have little choice but to submit: suppress and sublimate anger and perpetuate the queasy dissonance, or be seen as a problem.

If students of African descent squeeze through narrow conduits into university or art school, they will rarely see themselves positively reflected among the faculty or in the curriculum. And if they favour a career in the arts—well, good luck. We are a sector made up of lovely people, but one that widely reinforces these ambient inequalities by steadfastly shoring up the status quo. We super-serve tiny groups, audiences who just happen to resemble our staff—we know it and still do not stop it. We are part of that same machine that perpetuates the idea that some people simply are not as important as others, not as worthy of education, of good careers, or exposure to great art, or of the chance to create it; not as worthy of hope and inspiration.

We continue to ask why minorities do not come to our institutions in numbers that reflect their proportions in our communities. After decades of campaigning for greater diversity in the arts, of mentoring and helping to build special schemes and creating action plans—and of making little meaningful progress—perhaps it is simply time to stop.

The philosopher Jürgen Habermas wrote about how institutions and nations suffer a natural erosion of legitimacy over time if they do not robustly interrogate themselves. It is a phenomenon that inevitably leads to a kind of disenchantment and alienation.

I think we need to look backward for inspiration. I think we need to have the confidence to embrace our past, our shared founding aspirations.

I began my career at the British Museum (BM), an institution that was founded in the middle of the 18th century as the constituent parts of Britain were flexing against the Union. It was founded upon a clear guiding aspiration as a museum for “all studious and curious persons”—you can almost hear the emphasis of the founding proposition being on the universalising ambition. My last role was as a Smithsonian director, in an institution inspired by that BM idea to propagate the “increase and diffusion of knowledge”. It was established to deliver transformational change through sharing and empowering the American population.

I was until recently a trustee of the National Trust of England and Wales and fell in love with its founder, Octavia Hill, a formidable and radical individual who hoped the trust might be a mechanism for addressing inequality through beauty, through inspiration and through access to open space. She famously wrote: “We all want beauty—this is true of all classes; we all want quiet; we all want beauty for the refreshment of our souls.” These are not conservative institutions; they are born out of a radical belief that the arts is not just about pretty things, the arts is an engine of societal opportunity, of change, of skills development and life-changing inspiration—but something so important must be universal, inclusive, open.

Henry Cole, the founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum, believed in a kind of universal connection between peoples across geography and time, a connection that was most palpable through contact with cultural excellence, with making, and he wanted to celebrate that in the greatest exhibition that the world had ever seen. Sixty thousand foreign nationals came to London for the Great Exhibition in 1851 in a moment that would help to define Britain as the great cultural crucible, as a truly global cultural force.

If we are brave, we can mine our heritage to craft a 21st-century, post-Brexit vision of inclusivity. To build a sector that embraces and benefits from the glorious diversity of our nation. Diversity should not be consigned to an action plan or a role. It is what we are here to celebrate and it is our founding raison d’être.

The need that Hill identified remains current: culture, when at its best, needs to deliver that magical thing in drawing us together, building cohesion and social catharsis. Great culture well deployed is kryptonite to fascists, anathema to fundamentalists and a bolt of lightning to the complacent who hate change.

Gus Casely-Hayford is the director of V&A East in London. He was previously the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC