7 commentators give us their thoughts
The murder of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman in the US last month has sparked global protests about institutional racism, and alongside it a renewed focus on the lack of diversity in various sectors – the creative industries included. The Crafts Council will be hosting a Zoom session on tackling racism and inequality in the British crafts sector on 25 June (to be published online soon after). Ahead of this, we asked expert commentators what they think the main problems are and how institutions should be addressing them. The issues they raise here will feed into our discussion on Thursday, and external contributors – including researcher Karen Patel – will be joining us on the day.
While there have been several efforts to make the craft and design sectors more diverse, many of these offer short-term fixes for what are long-term issues. These efforts provide companies with their checklist for meeting targets. What is needed now is change. Instead, design and craft organisations should look to implement longer term, five to 10-year plans to tackle the problem. A long-term approach will mean that major policies can be enacted, rather than just yearly, short-term, tick-box fixes with limited engagement.
There also needs to be clearer, joined-up thinking across the education sector, from primary through to higher education and beyond, in terms of what space art, craft and design inhabit. With this, there must be a greater focus on craft as work, with a future and a career, not only as a hobby. The stories commonly told are about turning what is termed a ‘kitchen table hobby' into a career. With craft being the career to dream about, it is often those who already have the funds that can pursue the dream.
The fact is that success in craft and design, far too often still relies on having access to various forms of cultural capital that gives you a foothold in the industry, alongside financial capital to assist with funding for equipment, studio space, and further training. There is also the continuing question of unpaid internships, with the arts and creative sector still one of the few sectors offering the largest number of unpaid internships. I ask what has changed in 30 years? As a student in the 1980s, I had to turn down an unpaid four-month placement with a prominent designer because I could not afford to live in London without an income.
Now there is also a dominant monocultural construct around what it means to craft, with work by people of colour often fitted into narratives around race. To address this imbalance, research funding should seek to bring to the fore the work and stories of diverse makers, and make them visible in publications and the wider media. There needs to be space for a more diverse pool of makers to show their work, as well as the voices of craft and design academics from a wider range of diverse backgrounds, mentoring programmes and short, medium and long-term career support for people of colour. Attitudes also need to change about the benefits to society of having a more diverse creative sector: craft needs show it has embedded intrinsic value that transcends that of issues of the race of the maker.
In the absence of support or valid representation, many of those in groups that are least catered for have taken matters into their own hands, creating their own path through groups such as Black Girls Knit Club and Black Blossoms, to name a few. Personally, I want to be able to walk into a space as a maker and not be the only one who looks like me – and to know that people will remember me for my work, not as the only person of colour in the room.
I could use more colourful language to describe my feelings about the diversity of the UK craft sector, but I think ‘pretty poor’ sums it up. Of course, change takes a long time: despite nearly 50 years of campaigning for gender equality in contemporary art acquisition, for example, still only 11% of the art acquired by America’s top museum collections over the past decade was work made by women.
One of the problems is a lack of clarity and consensus in approach. Nationally and internationally, institutions and organisations should be sharing best practice. Vitally, they should be prepared to make themselves vulnerable and share their mistakes. Organisations and institutions need to acknowledge that everyone – staff, trustees, volunteers, audiences, people who don’t engage – is potentially part of the problem and part of the solution. All change should include talking and, most importantly, listening to people inside and outside of institutions and organisations. Policies need to be overhauled so they are shaped by and in response to lived experiences of those they affect, creating real, embodied change and support.
Craft is a creative discipline and we should celebrate and utilise the astonishing skills found in the craft community to galvanise people and to engage with these challenges in interesting, demanding, fun and useful ways. Makers should be paid to devise and deliver interventions. For people who feel marginalised by the craft sector, I suggest finding and creating mutual support structures. Many already exist – for example, We Shall Not Be Removed for disabled makers and artists.
I’m hopeful that things are moving in the right direction, but it’s taking far too long. Right now, while venues are close and organisations are having to operate flexibly and differently, is the time to act. Over the past three months, organisations have shown that they are capable of colossal, lightning-fast change: they should apply those skills and resources to reflecting on, supporting and celebrating diversity and making inclusivity and accessibility the focus of everything they do.
I've been working with marginalised groups and people who are disadvantaged for at least 20 years, and I came into the craft world as way of teaching young people who were not necessarily academic, but were good with their hands, how to restore and revamp old furniture and get them job ready. What I didn't understand at the time was how undiverse the craft world was. I am a rarity – a black guy, six foot three, gold tooth, from Hackney, who's working in craft – so I’m used to walking into institutions and not seeing anyone like me. But I can’t believe there’s been nobody non-white before me who has been interested in upholstery and furniture restoration.
When I speak to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, I say ‘just because you can’t see anybody like you, it doesn't mean you don't belong here – it just means you're the first one here’. But many people don’t feel they can just walk into an environment where they think they aren’t welcome. The sad thing is, organisations like the Crafts Council haven't opened their doors. And why is it that our craft history doesn’t include people of colour? Black people and other people of colour in Britain are always made to feel as if they haven’t contributed to our society.
I can't make change from the outside: it has to come from the institutions that are supposed to protect people in the craft world, including those who are underrepresented. Craft institutions can change if they're brave enough to have uncomfortable conversations. And the reality is, they have to if they want craft to survive, because the world is changing. We are educating young people for jobs that don't even exist right now, and if we want them to feel that craft has a place for them, we need to show them they can inject a flavour of who they are into their work, rather than asking them to conform.
We have found that audiences are waiting to discover work that broadens their experience rather than confirms established ideas about who can be an artist or craftsperson, but the sector as a whole needs to change to meet audiences’ ambitions.
At our stand at Collect 2020, for example, there was a hugely positive response to the ceramics and textiles presented by the artist Mawuena Kattah. People’s recognition of her as an artist and maker actively challenged preconceptions about people with learning disabilities, so while there are social and cultural barriers to inclusion that affect the visibility of many artists, sometimes what is necessary to move forward is simply for really great work that has been hidden from view to reach a receptive audience.
So, for us, exhibition opportunities are key to driving change: galleries, museums and collections need to be conscious of what’s missing and actively seek it out. Access to art education is also fundamental, and we also need to recognise where a lack of financial means is a barrier and find ways of supporting artists to be ambitious.
Across the sector, there’s a lack of knowledge and experience of issues that exclude people with learning disabilities. In our experience people can overcome this through relationships – for example the creative collaboration Eye Eye between Kattah and textile practitioner Laura Slater that we also showed at Collect.
Finally, to any maker who feels marginalised, I say: be ambitious, and make the work that you know people have been waiting to see.
While some areas of the UK craft ecology do represent the diversity of British society, the professionalised craft sector does not. Many Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women I have spoken to have told me about feeling like an outsider in craft spaces, experiencing racism and microaggressions in studios and at craft fairs, and generally feeling like they are not adequately represented or welcome.
The vast majority of people working in craft organisations, on craft judging panels, on interview panels, are white, which is rarely questioned. Also, entrenched ideas about which types of craft are deemed valuable are based on hierarchies of value that are determined by white people. My research highlights how craft created by black and Asian women tends to be judged through the prism of race, rather than the qualities of the work itself.
For change to happen, people of colour need to be involved in craft organisations, right up to leadership level, and in judging and interview panels. There needs to be better representation of makers of colour at exhibitions and galleries. Sequestering their work into shows that celebrate a certain culture only serves to reinforce the sense that craft created by people of colour is ‘other’.
Organisations also need to focus less on their reputation, and more on their institutional culture. Diversity training tends to be one-off and people can forget about what they have learned as soon as they leave the room. Also, having ‘diversity’ as an agenda item is problematic as it implies it’s something to be ticked off. A culture of inclusivity needs to be fostered; people of colour need to be made to feel welcome. Racism and microaggressions need to be called out by white people when they see it happening.
And my advice to those who feel marginalised: nurture your networks, there are plenty of wonderful makers on Instagram you can follow and connect with: you’re not alone.
I am tired of doing interviews on this topic as we all know the data, experience and outcomes regarding progression and pay. The data is not new, the agenda is not new, the systemic, structural and individual acts of racism are not new. In my opinion, it stays the same for the following reason: why would those with power and privilege, and in decision-making roles, change a status quo that supports their interests?
Currently, I am seeing a lot of support for Black Lives Matter. In some cases this is optical allyship, which makes a statement but does not go beneath the surface. What are your recruitment practices? What training resources do you use? How do you handle complaints and grievances on grounds of racism? How transparent are your progression pathways? What is the pay gap data and what strategies do you have in place to instigate financial equality? Why aren’t the top 5-10% of staff in your organisation taking pay cuts to personally invest in change?
Leaders should look at everyone in the meetings they attend. If the group doesn’t reflect society, someone or something is making it the way it is. Call it out, do something that challenges the current state in your hiring, promoting and interactions with people of colour. Above all, show us what changes and sacrifices you are making, not just as a business but as an individual. HR is also a fundamental area for change: it often functions solely to repeat existing employee types, and to protect an organisation against legal ramifications, rather than the marginal employees. Equality, diversity and inclusion teams should be tasked with reviewing HR portfolios, policies and procedures and produce recommendations.
I want to see lifelong commitments, which need to be woven into every employee, department and function – especially when it comes to those who are gatekeepers. These have to be monitored and reviewed and there has to be responsibility and consequences. Antiracism is work – it’s hard, painful, uncomfortable and immensely challenging for everyone. However, once you start doing the work it is rewarding and magic starts to happen. People you wrote off bloom, trust is developed and a real community is built.
My advice to makers who feel marginalised: remember that this is a long fight so build networks, join networks, utilise family and friends to heal yourselves. Choose which battles you take on because burn out is hard to recover from.
Going around the New Designers fair in 2019 gave me hope as I encountered emerging talent that was richly diverse, but this isn’t reflected across the whole ecology of craft. In my professional life I regularly find myself as one of the few (if any) black and minority ethnic people in the room. Retail craft events also seem relatively devoid of ethnically diverse consumers. In a wider sense, craft activity seems to take place in parallel worlds: a professionalised sector; a digital world; and one in which craft is part of everyday community culture. The first of these is less diverse than the others, and the pathways between these worlds aren’t porous enough or are subject to judgements. At Craftspace, we focus on the intersection between these parallel worlds, challenging hierarchies, looking for hidden types of cultural production and creating links between these. This involves a simultaneous focus on both audience and talent development.
There are multiple barriers to progress but socio-economic ones are the most challenging. Diversity initiatives have largely been pursued in the publicly funded cultural sector, but much of the craft sector operates commercially, where there may not be the same obligations. Attitudes can still be very binary – split between the dominant view and ‘the other’ – and colonial and orientalist approaches persist. Unconscious bias also affects how certain makers are viewed. The Shape of Things was the last significant national diversity initiative for craft, but at the time key national bodies responsible for craft development opted out of involvement and some foundations explicitly resisted race/ethnicity as the focus of a progamme.
Change can only happen when the sector is populated with a critical mass of people with the relevant lived experience to lead and influence it, across the whole ecology of craft – makers and brokers as well as the development, retail and project workforce. Bursaries linked to social mobility, as well as paid apprenticeships and internships, can also make a difference. A disruptive approach is needed as well as bespoke supports appropriate to motivation and context. Connectivity and networks are key – isolated actions are less effective for wholesale shifts. Initiatives need to be human centred: less formal and more experiential – you have to feel things.
Being very much in the minority for most of my career, often the only one in the room, I know it can be daunting and exposing to voice criticism, even as a leader of an organisation. As an immigrant, queer, partially deaf, East African Asian woman I have experienced both overt and subtle forms of racism and prejudice. For others who have had similar experiences, I'd say be comfortable with your authenticity, seek out peer to peer support and find others whose experiences are relatable.