Beyond the black square: Slow progress on sector's anti-racist commitments - Museums Association

Beyond the black square: Slow progress on sector’s anti-racist commitments

Report finds cultural institutions are taking action but ethnic diversity of staff shows little change
Profile image for Geraldine Kendall Adams
Geraldine Kendall Adams
A Black Lives Matter protest at Hyde Park following the murder of George Floyd last year
A Black Lives Matter protest at Hyde Park following the murder of George Floyd last year Katie Crampton, Wikimedia Commons

Half of government sponsored cultural organisations in England improved the ethnic diversity of their boards in the past year, a survey has found.

But 71% of the survey's 83 respondents reported no change in the ethnic diversity of their senior management teams, and 13% saw a reduction in the ethnic diversity of their wider staff teams – figures that are attributed to widespread redundancies and high staff retention rates during the pandemic.

The figures were compiled by the diversity charity Inc Arts in May this year to mark the one-year anniversary of the US murder of George Floyd and reflect on the impact of anti-racism protests on the cultural sector.

The report, A Year of Anti-Racist Action, canvassed 100 of Art Council England’s National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs), as well as the 16 institutions directly sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). It received 75 responses from NPOs and eight from DCMS-funded organisations.

The report found that 80% of respondents made a pledge to take anti-racist action in the wake of last year’s protests. Since then, 57% had updated or created an anti-racism policy and 23% had published an anti-racism policy.  The report stated that “while many had expressed intent, the data suggests that converting intent to action is taking time”.

The survey found positive signs that anti-racist commitments are taking effect in some areas; 90% of respondents increased engagement with ethnically diverse talent in the past year through commissioning work from ethnically diverse creatives during lockdown, while 83% increased the diversity of their main stage programming for this year and beyond.  


Governance diversity also improved, with 50% of respondents increasing the ethnic diversity of their boards over the past year compared to 2% who said board diversity had decreased.

However, a majority of organisations reported little change in the ethnic diversity of leadership and wider staff teams; in addition to the 71% of senior management teams that saw no change, 5% reported a decrease while 19% said the diversity of their senior management team had increased.

In wider staff teams – in addition to the 13% who reported a decrease – 34% said they had seen an increase in ethnic diversity and 52% saw no change.

The report asked: “It appears that it is easier for an already ethnically diverse organisation to continue to increase their ethnic diversity, but those with low numbers of ethnically diverse staff have struggled to. Could it be that ethnic diversity in the arts sector workforce was not on the radar of these organisations until June 2020?”

The data showed that “NPOs generally have made a more holistic commitment to inclusion across the board, from public commitment and programme changes to deeper internal reflections and changes”, said the report.

In comparison, it said anti-racist action in DCMS-funded organisations “has mostly been reflected in their programming rather than staffing”, adding: “Overall, there is slower pace of commitment to change. They’ve demonstrated less public commitment to anti-racist action, however are embarking on this action in private.”


The report concluded: “The results of the survey have shown that change towards anti-racism is iterative; it takes time for solidarity to become action, but it is happening […]

“Many organisations saw beyond the symbolism of a black square. They chose to act quietly, initiating anti-racism working groups and task forces, inviting anti-racist discussions in their workplace and forming reading groups amongst colleagues. Action has shifted from top down decisions to a collective effort of solidarity.”

The survey comes on the heels of the arts council’s recent Creative Case for Diversity data report, which found that the total percentage of the National Portfolio’s Black, Asian and Ethnically Diverse workforce was 13% in 2019-20, showing a slight improvement on 11% in 2018-19. The percentage of ethnically diverse board members rose from 15% to 19% in this time.

Black, Asian and Ethnically Diverse applicants were more successful than average at applying for grants for arts council funding programmes, with 40% of ethnically diverse applicants successful compared to an overall success rate of 38%.

Since last year’s protests, accusations of institutional racism have been levelled at several large cultural organisations in the UK.

A book of anonymous stories collated from current and former staff at London’s Barbican arts centre was published last week, documenting more than 100 instances of alleged prejudicial behaviour and a wider culture of failing to investigate racist incidents or promote staff of colour.

The Barbican has launched an independent review into the allegations. In a statement to the Guardian, it said: “We fully recognise the pain and hurt caused by these experiences. We are committed to pursuing the ongoing programme of action which we have laid out to advance anti-racism in the organisation, and to achieve necessary change.”

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