Challenging the Current Landscape of "Diversity & Inclusion" Within the Arts

Why Artists are Challenging Diversity and Inclusion Trends

By: Akea Brionne Brown

Visibility is what we all desire; you want to see yourself reflected in the society in which you exist. This has been especially true for artists–even more for artists of color who have recently begun to receive praise and visibility within mainstream art, but at what cost?

Historically, the only place for artists of color has been in social practice and/or community arts. We’re the ones doing the hard work in the community– often out of necessity. We are just now starting to see “community based” work become recognized in mainstream world of art–especially with the work of Kerry James Marshall–who made it his mission to challenge the marginalization of African Americans, often citing a feeling of “social responsibility.” Marshall isn’t the only one who feels that responsibility. Many artists of color take on this mission because–who else will?

At some point, we mustn’t accept the essentializing of our identities through the narrow, and carefully constructed lens of race. There are many artists of color who aren’t interested in making work about being of color. Specifically, my work discusses a great deal of racial structures and cultural awareness based on my experience as a black woman, but my work is not about being black. I am more than my skin color. My work is about the construction of structures that influence the way in which I move through and observe space. I reject the notion that I am simply a black artist making work about being black–and other artists should too.

We are living in a time where the mainstream art sphere extensively recognizes artists of color. Far too often, artists of color are showcased for their “social practice” or “community based” art. As artists, it’s essential that we begin to challenge opportunities that have been “perfectly crafted” for us; those that yes, carve space for racial identity. In order to move beyond essentializing our identities, we must reject the role of the token artist, fellow or curator, of color.

Though culture-driven opportunities are valuable, it is important to acknowledge that participating in such projects often allows institutions to appear as if they are succeeding with diversity and inclusion efforts, without truly having to do the work (i.e. to make actionable progress that fosters and promotes a profound appreciation of our differences).

What Does Representation Look Like?

Doing the work also means that as representation of inclusive work evolves, those who make decisions about the scope of work, seek to convey accurate reflections of subject, intention and actionable outcomes for that project.

The art world still lacks collectors, gallerists, curators and art directors that are of color. So are we really witnessing diversity and inclusion or are we witnessing institutions follow a trend to appear diverse without actually being diverse?

In a recent study titled Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey, conducted by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation– it was found that 84% of all dominate museum jobs are held by Caucasians. “Non-Hispanic White staff continue to dominate the job categories most closely associated with the intellectual and educational missions of museums–including those of curators, conservators, educators and leadership (from director and chief curator to head of education or conservation). In that subset of positions, 84% is Non-Hispanic White, 6% Asian, 4% Black, 3% Hispanic white, and 3% Two or More Races.” (Mellon Report, p.3)

What should artists do about this?

  1. Ensure that as new opportunities arise, we are bringing each other along for the ride. While there is great joy and pride to be found in fighting for the visibility for artists of color, we can’t truly represent diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality by only fighting for ourselves. We have to fight for everyone, even if they aren’t fighting for us. That’s a hard thing to do, but it’s necessary.

  2. We need to reject the constant labeling of being black, latinx, asian, etc. artists. I’m not suggesting that we deny who we are. While race is a construction, it is still very much a part of our daily lives. But it is important that we distinguish “race” from a “racialized experience.” There are a lot of  artists of color who aren’t interested in making work about being a person of color. That needs to be respected.

  3. Stop accepting opportunities solely based on being an artist of color. Being the token person of color can be dangerous because it causes us to stop challenging ourselves. I’ve been guilty to seeking out opportunities for artists of color because I knew my chances would be greater. In the end, I was left feeling dissatisfied, as my work was tokenized as the creation of a black woman, and the discussions rarely moved beyond that. I’m not suggesting that we reject opportunities that’ll advanced our careers or networks, but we should be acknowledged for our work without the color of our skin, solely, influencing that recognition. Not every project or institution chooses POC artists with superficial intention, but the line of sincere v. superficial intention is easily blurred when it come to diversity within the arts.