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Diversity Policy 101


A couple of years ago I wrote a lot about the art world’s institutions and the weird way they interact with artists of colour. I wrote over and over and then I just stopped. I was bored of thinking about institutions and diversity.

It is boring. Institutions are trapped in a constant ongoing cycle, always trying to be more diverse, but never quite pulling it off. They always want to hire more BAME/BME, BIPOC, NBPOC, WOC and QTPOC and Black and South Asian and East Asian and SWANA Central Asian region, people of a GLOBAL MAJORITY!!, Muslims, diverse people(s) from immigrant ethnic or et cetera OTHER backgrounds, post-colonial subjects and people of a funny tinge. They’re always just announcing new policies, new taskforces, new good intentions, new determinations to change for the better and new corrections for historical wrongs. They’re always just beginning. They’ve been just beginning for about 50 years now, give or take.

So I got bored. It was inevitable! I was banging my head against a big concrete wall. Up close, I could see blood splatters on its surface. Writers and artists had banged their heads against this same wall before, and it was still here. Big concrete building, all the money. That’s so demoralising! So embarassing and futile. I felt like an idiot, wasting my time and all I had to show for it was a big bruised head all swole up like a raspberry. So I stopped banging my head, wrote other things and had a nice time. But I pick my scabs until they bleed. Terrible habit. If I resist the urge during the day, I pick the scab in my sleep at night. There’s a stubborn part of me that feels like I can’t just leave it. Humour me. I want to write about why I can’t be arsed to write about this anymore.

A note: a lot of the sources I discuss use outdated terminology to refer to people and artists of colour. This includes the idea of political Blackness — from the 70s where Black is used as an umbrella term to include anyone that would experience discrimination based on race. So when some sources say Black, they mean POC or BAME or just not white. Some of the writers I talk about, like Rasheed Araeen, are literally South Asian but they refer to themselves as Black artists. Political Blackness is out of fashion now, and for good reason — there are really sound criticisms of it already, so I don’t need to get into debunking it. But I’ve chosen to opt for consistency with the source’s terminology so I want to explain where that’s coming from and acknowledge that it is jarring, but none of these are my terms of choice.

The history of diversity policy in art (and the history of its failings) supposedly starts with Naseem Khan.

Naseem Khan, The Arts Britain Ignores: The Arts of Ethnic Minorities in Britain (1976)

This report is a kind of beginning — the first time state institutions think about ‘ethnic minorities’ in relation to art. By ethnic minorities, this report means literally anyone not British or Western European, from Bangladesh to Cyprus. By Arts, this report is talking about community arts rather than fine art. It’s plural: West Indian street Carnivals, Chinese New Year, Gujarati plays, Serbian folk dance and Urdu poetry evenings.

Naseem’s general point was that these ethnic art forms were great, thriving, but largely ignored and un-supported by the ‘host-community’ of Britain at large. They didn’t get resources, space, money or acknowledgement and they existed largely because the immigrant communities that ran them cared enough about it all to do it off their own backs. So they were in danger — reliant on goodwill and motivation, unstable, capped at an amateur level. Compared to other art forms, they were an ‘energetic but struggling sub-culture’ that existed for the ethnic community it served.

Naseem was arguing for a specific funding structure to support ‘ethnic minority arts’. She does it in quite an interesting way. Britain is made up of lots of little minority communities of various kinds. Arts funding exists to provide art for the public. The public in turn subsidises this support with their taxes. Ethnic minorities pay taxes. The art forms they enjoy don’t receive funding or support, so it is not subsidised. That’s not fair, it’s actually discriminatory. The cultural activity already supported by the Arts Council includes ‘minority tastes’ (the opera, experimental music) that are broadly inaccessible to the public at large. So it isn’t outside the realm of possibility or belief to say: institutions and funders should acknowledge ‘ethnic minority tastes’ and give funding and support to the small, grassroots, amateur activity that’s already happening in immigrant communities. They’re already doing it, might as well help them do it with money and space etc. Treat their cultural output as valuable and significant, not just for the minority communities that they already serve, but for the actual fabric of Britain at large.

I want to anticipate the criticism this report received. The 1970s were a very weird time to call for the celebration of differences. Bloody Sunday, the Winter of Discontent, fascists were marching down High Streets protected by police horses — difference wasn’t necessarily seen as a good thing, let alone grounds for coming together in understanding and mutual respect. So I actually feel a huge amount of sympathy for Naseem Khan when she argues that difference shouldn’t be obliterated, but protected and celebrated. She doesn’t argue for a parallel or separate Black Arts Council — she explicitly says that’s not what she’s recommending. Just that funders should go out and meet ethnic minorities where they’re at.

That obviously didn’t happen. What did happen is a bit sad. The paper was aimed at public institutions, from local authorities like the Greater London Council (GLC) to the Home Office. There were 13 recommendations addressed specifically to the Arts Council. The Arts Council were a bit sheepish about taking on all of those recommendations. They did set up and fund the Minority Arts Advisory Service (MAAS) — one of Naseem’s recommendations — to discover arts activity taking place in ethnic minority communities. MAAS sounds official and flashy. It started as a one-woman operation in Naseem’s spare room. They kept registers of artists, gave advice to organisations and publicised activity — some of the report’s most achievable recommendations, the lowest hanging fruit. They closed in 1995 due to lack of funding. In 1996, Naseem Khan became Head of Diversity at the Arts Council. She was awarded an OBE in 1999.

Naseem Khan was an interesting figure. She started her career as a journalist, editing a Notting Hill based Black magazine called the Hustler. She ran in the same circles as Darcus Howe. She wasn’t on the outside looking in at community arts, she wasn’t sent in as an Arts Council scout. The Arts Council approached her, aware of the holes in their funding provision. Her report was a beginning, and it established the idea that ‘ethnic arts’ were even a thing. I don’t know how you go from hanging out with Black Panthers to accepting an OBE, but you’ve got to admit, the trajectory is fascinating.

Rasheed Araeen, The Arts Britain Really Ignores (1976/1984)

Rasheed Araeen is a conceptual artist, minimalist sculptor, writer and curator. He wrote a response to Naseem’s report in 1976, it was eventually published in 1984. He calls the report a ‘recipe for cultural separatism’. On it’s own, I’m not convinced that’s necessarily a bad thing. But he makes the point that being kept separate, in this case, also involves being kept small.

Naseem Khan’s report started from scratch, from the understanding that no one was supporting any ethnic minority artists anywhere. She went in to look at community arts activity, that was all her report spoke about. Her argument for funding this activity mentions that minority taste was already being catered for by the Arts Council: opera and experimental music. But opera and experimental music are both considered high art, professional and established forms. The community arts activity Naseem was writing about was, by her own admission, capped at an amateur level. Obviously community arts activity is legitimate despite not being ‘high’ art. ‘Low’ art has cultural value too, as does art produced by amateurs, dabblers, sunday painters or Serbian folk dancers. That was Naseem’s point, and it’s a fair one. But institutions were either getting the wrong end of the stick, or they were being obtuse. Funders were acting like community art or folksy ‘low’ art was the only thing ‘ethnic minority artists’ were capable of offering the art world. And even though folk dancing deserves funding, not all Serbian artists are folk dancers. The non-folk dancers weren’t getting support from funders (who only wanted to give money to ethnic artists if they were folk dancers), and they weren’t getting support from the rest of the art world.

Rasheed Araeen’s point was that it was all just a bit fucking paternalistic and disingenuous. Hello!! Black artists had been in Britain for ages, even by the time 1976 came around. If we’re talking about post-war waves of mass immigration, cool, but that actually started in the 50s. Post-war, remember? That was over 20 years ago!! What were the Arts Council up to, where had they been all this time? Rasheed, for one, had been practicing and making mainstream contemporary art since the 60s. The 70s were already a decade where second generation immigrants were coming out of British art schools, homegrown talent being largely ignored by the mainstream (because of Racism), and forming their own scenes. Eddie Chambers, Lubaina Himid, Claudette Johnson, Keith Piper, Donald Rodney, Marlene Smith — fucking legends, the lot of them. But they were having to form their own scenes because there was no support from anywhere else.

Isn’t that really fucking insulting? You go to art school, come out, and no one wants to hear about you or your creative practice because the art world’s full of racist wankers. The Arts Council finally pull their finger out to look into it, 20 years too late, and now they’re acting like they’ve discovered a lost and uncontacted tribe of Ethnic Minority Artists, the first of their kind! They’re hanging onto this slice of community arts activity, and fair enough, good for the folk dancers! But the Arts Council are giving it large, proper self-congratulatory. Like we’ve surveyed it all and nothing else exists, there are no other kinds of creative practices to look into here! So they still can’t see you, you’re still largely ignored by the mainstream and now people keep asking you about your folk dance practice — are they dizzy?

Rasheed wasn’t wrong about Naseem’s report. It was off on a weird one from the get-go and it set a precedent that’s still kicking around: handling ‘ethnic minority arts’ in a separate, small, cutesy-folksy sideshow way. Institutions are more likely to put it in their education/learning/public/social outreach programme, the departments that absorbed up the slack from community arts and public practice — side dishes compared to the main course exhibitions programme. ‘Ethnic minority arts’ isn’t seen as proper, conceptual, critical or contemporary art. Main courses get way more money than side dishes. Main courses are bigger, they get all the attention.

The GLC and the Arts Council

In 1979, three years after Naseem’s report, Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. The Thatcher years saw the government flogging off anything that wasn’t nailed down. They managed Britain’s decline, said fuck gay rights, fuck women’s lib, fuck those immigrants and coal miners — they all just need to get a grip and pull themselves up by the bloody bootstraps! It was a shift from the postwar consensus into neoliberal consensus. Fuck building community relations, there’s no such thing as society. It’s all about INDIVIDUALS baby!

But there actually wasn’t consensus. In the 80s, policy split in two different directions.


During the Thatcher years, London had become a kind of hub for an emerging parallel Black arts sector. The Greater London Council (GLC) was led by Ken Livingston (Red Ken!) and a bunch of councillors from Labour’s Socialist left. They spent about five years pushing policies that ran against Tory cuts. Including: loads of funding and grants for minority and community groups.

In 1982 the GLC established the Ethnic Minorities Committee, and the Ethnic Arts Sub Committee. These committees had the power and the budget to allocate public arts funding to ‘ethnic arts’, and the GLC had a strong strategic preference for organisations with a long term focus. At the Roundhouse the GLC funded the development of a Black Arts Centre, which eventually became the Institute of New International Visual Arts (INIVA). The GLC was the first local authority to actually develop a Black arts policy, the first to respond to the needs of Black artists with actual resources.

It was a big deal at the time. The GLC was nurturing homegrown talent coming out of British art schools — second generation artists making their own scenes because the mainstream was neglecting them. The GLC’s funding strategy was taking Naseem Khan’s recommendation to fund the work of ‘ethnic artists’ separately and specifically. Positive discrimination, developing an independent Black arts sector. The vision was long term too — even after the GLC was abolished, the legacy of their funding saw organisations like Third Text (1987), African and Asian Visual Artists’ Archive (AAVAA, 1988) pop up. The GLC was active and interventionist, willing to throw their weight around and threatening to pull funding unless organisations did something, anything with an ethnic minority. Through the 80s they funded and facilitated countless survey shows featuring work by Black artists.

It was well-intentioned, I really want to think it was. Red Ken and his Labour-left GLC. They hated the Tories, but the Tories hated Red Ken and the GLC more. They thought City Hall was full of loony lefties, and the Tory press was on side, publishing articles about City Hall’s consistent carelessness with taxpayer money. If that was the opposition, it makes sense that the GLC leaned so hard into providing separate arts funding for ethnic minorities. Anti-racist positive discrimination was politically counter cultural in Thatcher’s bad vibes Britain. They wanted to celebrate London’s multi-ethnic culture, stick two fingers up at Tory social backwardness — it makes sense in the context of the time. And they were giving people money. I don’t know if the importance of that can be understated. But money always comes with conditions, and conditions have an impact on the shape of arts ecologies.

Despite the GLC’s good intentions, their strategy and funding structure meant artists of colour were being incentivised to focus almost exclusively on their ethnicity as the basis for their creative practice. They were all off doing anti-racist murals. And while there’s nothing wrong with murals, Rasheed’s point still stands. It’s not the conceptual critical contemporary work some artists actually wanted to do. An anti-racist pigeonhole is still a fucking pigeonhole.


The Arts Council didn’t return to thinking about ethnic minorities until 1986, a full decade later. When they did, it was with that Thatcherite bootstraps mentality. It had leaked into their entire approach. They wanted to fund organisations a bit less, and start introducing money from the private sector. They wanted organisations to take ownership of their finances and improve their fund-raising and marketing skills — basically get prepared to fend for themselves.

They published a report called ‘the Arts and Ethnic Minorities — Action Plan’ where they committed to spending a minimum of 4% of their total expenditure on ethnic minority arts. The 4% was because ethnic minorities made up 4% of Britain’s population at the time. A diversity quota! Not the first ever in all of history, but this quota was a shift in strategy. If the stuff before was all about separate ethnic minority specific funding, this Action Plan was a shift to taking percentage chunks out of the main normal funding.

Rather than separatism, the Action Plan was meant to be cultural integration baby! It was the Arts Council trying to lead by example — they expected the organisaitons they worked with and funded to get on board and do the same. Some agreed and made the same committment, some pointed out the work they were already doing in the field of ‘ethnic arts’, some thought that putting a figure on it felt a bit fucking bossy and could the Arts Council please not tell them what to do? The Arts Council shrugged and concluded that at least they’d started the conversation. Yeah, sparking debate was a kind of success in its own way. The Action Plan had a monitoring committee, but they didn’t have the power to enforce the 4% rule in other organisations. I mean, the rule wasn’t even a rule, it was just a vibeshift that people had to get the gist of. They didn’t or couldn’t sanction organisations for not keeping up, they couldn’t force them to spend their money in a specific way, they couldn’t force them to join in with the Action Plan full stop. If an organisation said they didn’t know any ethnically diverse artists, there was literally no way to make them go out and find some.

It was bootstraps mentality. Get a grip! Pull yourself up rather than asking for handouts! The 4% rule was there, what more did ethnic minority artists want!? 5!? God forbid, 6%!? Forget the fact that the quota was largely unenforcable and vague, it was also completely reliant on there being an existing Black arts ecosystem ready and waiting to take them up on the offer of 4%. This was an ecosystem that had been historically unsupported, ignored and left to their own devices. The GLC had supported a generation of Black artists, but that was one city’s local authority and they’d been abolished by the time 1986 came around. The rest of the country’s Black arts sector relied on artists’ goodwill, motivation and personal resilience.

(secret third direction): SEPARATE

After the Arts Council’s ’86 Action Plan, a flurry of studies, reports, surveys, schemes, policies and initiatives sprung up. I’m bored just writing this, I can’t lie, so I’ll spare you the taskforce acronyms and try to wrap up the history. It’s all kind of the same anyway, the papers and committees all blur into one. (Towards Cultural Diversity, Beyond Cultural Diversity, Spotlight On Diversity, the Creative Case for Diversity etc etc). The Arts Council did so much organisational jiggling, commissioned reports and hired in specialist minority officers for special ethnic minority arts units. They invested in INIVA to make it a focal point for their cultural diversity strategy. They funded traineeships and recruitment schemes. In 1999 the MacPherson report found that institutions could be institutionally racist, giving these schemes and initiatives a kind of urgency but no specific direction or goal (beyond just not being racist). It was negative definition, don’t be this. From there it was a smooth slide into performing the image of progression rather than meaningfully engaging with the politics of progression.

The 80s was where policy split in two directions. Everything after that falls into one or the other category: well intentioned but pigeonhole-y separate scheme that’s more about antiracism than about art, or setting quotas, crossing fingers and hoping that just coming up with a number will be enough. The problem is that both those pictures are actually the same. A quota is still separate, ringfenced, a side plate compared to the main course of the other 96%. Even if the percentage chunk increases to catch up with a more diverse Britain, the fact that the quota actually exists means that not-white artists are forced into diversity initiatives as the default place they should be.

I mention all of this history to make the point that despite endless initiatives with buzzword bingo titles, a better art world is still not actually here. ‘Ethnic art’ is still separate, a small side plate, and where majority of artists of colour are shoved if they want any money or exposure. Rasheed Araeen warned about a ‘recipe for cultural separatism’, but Diversity and Inclusion has become a kind of para-industry of its own. You can make a decent living just from pointing at problems that institutions are keenly aware of. Eg: in 2020 I made the most money I’ve ever made in my entire writing career (like £31,000, pre-tax). It was the year I wrote FUCK THE POLICE, FUCK THE STATE, FUCK THE TATE, a text about how institutions are fundamentally broken and beyond reform — in fact, reform is a way of delaying gratification, keeping the hope of change alive without ever having to actually make changes. I made £31,000 that year because after publishing that text our inbox was constantly turning over emails from institutions that wanted me for their panel talk, presenting at their symposium, anything, just come in and tell them about how they were broken. I did quite a few before I realised that I simply didn’t care to bang my head against a wall for a living.

The banging wasn’t changing anything, obviously. And someone else was getting more out of it than I was. But worse than that, I think the banging itself was actually a problem. Through writing this text, I’ve done a bit of reading and pulled criticism from other writers. I mentioned Rasheed Araeen’s essay, The Arts Britain Really Ignores. I read Richard Hylton’s book, The Nature of the Beast. Then Morgan Quaintance’s Looking Back in Anger, a two part article published in Art Monthly (AM442 Dec 2020/AM443 Feb 2021). The thing I found most clarity in was actually in response to Morgan’s article in March 2021’s Art Monthly, in the Letters section — a note from JJ Charlesworth. Either take my word for it or go to the issue (AM444) if you want to read it in full, I am unwilling to platform it here. The legitimate criticism that diversity policy creates a performance of progression and segregates artists of colour away from power — that’s being co-opted by the far right.

It’s clear from JJ’s letter, he’s conflating criticism of liberal paternalism with a libertarian disagreement that PC culture’s gone mad, nanny state etc. He co-opts arguments by writers like Rasheed Araeen and Richard Hylton and uses them as fuel for a more sinister argument that talking about racial identity at all is a kind of ‘race tokenism’. Morgan’s reply to JJ’s letter points out that actually, this conflation creates an argument that only finds a political home in quite worrying places — with people like Munira Mirza, who are actually opponents of multiculturalism on the basis that emphasising our differences is actually the sole basis for division and conflict. Just, ignoring actual racism completely. In 2007 Munira wrote a paper for Policy Exchange (a far right think tank) about how younger British Muslims were identifying with more fundamentalist beliefs because they perceived themselves as victims of imagined and hysterically exaggerated oppressions.

Morgan quotes Munira Mirza in his reply: ‘constant talking about institutional racism […] is stoking grievance and deterring ethnic minorities from engaging with public services’ — bonkers shit, but super appealing to the far right pundits who just want airtime to talk about how actually racism doesn’t exist, it’s the antiracists who are the real racists, don’t you know there are no-go areas in Sadiq Khan’s London, and THESE DAYS THEY’LL THROW YOU IN JAIL JUST FOR SAYING YOU’RE ENGLISH. I’m not catastrophising, it’s a pipeline, a slippery slope. Far right political expression often has to encrypt itself into a polite and acceptable format to get public airtime. With someone like Munira Mirza, we can see that what often starts with ‘individual determination to overcome is the answer to structural inequality, which also doesn’t actually exist btw’ can very quickly shift into ’20 year olds choosing to wear hijab is a sign that islamic fundamentalism is a massive fucking societal problem, what’re we gona do about it’.

There you go. Those are the choices: paternalism, bootstraps individualist ideology, the literal fucking far right. Can’t participate in diversity initiatives otherwise I’ll legitimise them. Can’t point out the problems without fascists agreeing with me. Can’t stay silent because then I’m letting it slide. Can’t say ‘print more money abolish the government’ without sounding like tinfoil hat lunatic. Somehow it’s become all my fault, when actually —- as a COFFT (critic of a funny fucking tinge), aren’t I meant to be the racial victim here? There’s no version of diversity policy that has successfully manifested a sector where we are all treated mostly the same and somehow that’s not the policy or the policy-maker’s fault, it’s my fault for not being able to fix it or get over it. It’s also your fault, our fault — not their fault though. That’s the fucking wall, this is the end of the text. My head hurts, and it’s all swole up like a bruised apple. I’ll end by saying that I’m never writing about this again, don’t email me to ask me to be on your panel talk about diversity because I will tell you to fuck off.