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Looking back: Dialogues Towards Change

28th Feb 2020

The last of our three Dialogues Towards Change events was hosted by Modern Art Oxford in February. Beginning last November, Dialogues Towards Change created a series of open conversations on rights and representation in the visual arts sector. The theme of the final Dialogue was Participative Institutions, exploring participatory models for cultural institutions and the leadership role they might play as agencies for change.

The questions selected by the contributors to guide the discussion included:

  • How could we promote a better understanding of intersectionality, and of how to bring groups together, in the visual arts?
  • How could established institutions work to foster new diverse-led visual arts organisations and artist collectives in their area? 
  • How could organisations develop more diverse audiences and engage neglected communities? 
  • Where is there unconscious bias in the sector, and how could it be reduced?
  • What more could organisations do to attract talent beyond traditional visual arts career routes? 

The event was Chaired by Cultural Consultant, Lara Ratnaraja, and included contributions from researcher and evaluator Farhana Ghaffar; Ali Eisa, Public Program Manager (Education) at Autograph; Kate Adams MBE, Artist Director and CEO, Project Art Works; as well as Richard Hunt and Danny Smith, artists and members of the Shadowlight Artists, alongside Richard Duriez, key manager at Film Oxford. The discussion was joined by Paul Hobson, Director, Modern Art Oxford and Oliver Sumner, Manager, CVAN South East.

Lara Ratnaraja opened the proceedings with the provocation: 

As a woman of colour who is working to address the disparity of diverse leadership within the arts, this dialogue is now imperative and urgent. Rights and representation within the sector need to encompass all the constituent elements of the cultural sector be that artists, organisations and audience, and to understand that the infrastructure which has perpetuated systemic and inherent inequality and inequity can no longer be sustained. If the sector wants to be more inclusive and extend their societal relevance it needs to move beyond the instrumental and create new forms of cultural institutional working.

Independent Researcher Farhana Ghaffar reflected on the first two dialogues. A researcher and evaluator specialising in social mobility, equality and diversity within education and the arts, she was commissioned by CVAN South East to review the Dialogues Towards Change programme. Farhana highlighted a number of conclusions, including: the need for a richer understanding of certain protected characteristics (e.g. disability, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation) and the definitions within them. To collaborate with diverse-led organisations to design and deliver future projects and strategies. To promote a higher level of participation and engagement of under-represented groups. And the sharing of diversity data at an organisational level (Arts Council England recently published its annual diversity report listing workforce data at an artform and regional level for the National Portfolio Organisations it funds).

During her presentation Farhana called for organisations to aim for proportional representation in their boards of governance, and challenged the CVAN South East network to bring forward a solid plan to translate the Dialogues into action.

Ali Eisa’s presentation overlaid his own path into the visual arts sector with the history of Autograph, the London organisation where he is now Public Programme Manager (Education). His background includes social circus, community arts and youth work with organisations including Albert & Friends Instant Circus and Hounslow Action on Youth. Originally founded in 1988 to support black photographic practices, Autograph’s mission is to enable the public to explore identity, representation, human rights and social justice through work produced by artists who use photography and film. Ali concluded by describing Autograph’s innovative Rights in Focus network, which emerged from a conference in 2018.

Kate Adams invited us to consider the definition of the word ‘institution’, on one hand as a collection of people, and on the other as a power structure. Kate has initiated many responsive, collaborative projects with children and adults who have complex support needs and their families, care services, artists and galleries. She called for an institutional model that looks outward and questions itself; a version of the institution that is more ‘self-reflective, porous and leaky’. 

Kate co-founded Project Art Works in 1997 to explore an expanded conception of art that was and continues to be influenced by her son, Paul Colley, who does not use language to communicate. His experience illuminates the barriers faced by people in a neurotypical world as well as the wonder of other ways of being.

In her presentation Kate Adams went on to describe the layers of institutional relations that surround the individual like concentric circles. This model opens up the potential to create organisations that instead meet people as human beings, centred on the individual’s own rights and needs. She illustrated her argument with a quotation from American political philosopher Michael Sandel:

From the fact that people are very different it follows that, if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position, and that the only way to place them in an equal position would be to treat them differently.

Justice. Edited by Michael J Sandel. Oxford University Press, Inc. 2007

Film Oxford’s Richard Duriez introduced the Shadowlight Artists project, which he co-founded in 2009 to support artists with learning disabilities to attain recognition as professional artists. The group have gone on to win awards and to exhibit locally, nationally and internationally. Richard invited Shadowlight Artists, Richard Hunt and Danny Smith, to talk about their individual practice. Their presentation showed the scope and professionalism of their work, covering film, installations, painting and sculpture. Together they discussed the support structure and opportunities cultivated by the collective.

Following the presentations the event gathered into three breakout groups to develop conversations led by the contributors, before later opening out into a plenary discussion. A wide range of points, and interventions from the audience, were recorded to inform future action from CVAN South East.

See the previous Dialogues Towards Change seminars here.

Images ©Miles Umney
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