"My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you." - Audre Lorde
Last week Bluecoat, like many arts organisations, made a statement on social media supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. I want to begin by reiterating that unequivocal support: at Bluecoat we stand in solidarity with all those in Minneapolis, and around the world, who are fighting against racism and oppression. We challenge racism in all its forms.
The issues that have been brought to light are not new - racism permeates British society - but the inequalities caused by racism have been brought into sharp focus by the Covid19 pandemic. The recent Public Health England report shows that death rates from Covid19 were higher in the Black community and that death rates in the most deprived areas were more than double those in the least deprived areas.
I recognise that if we are to make a positive contribution to ending this inequality then, at Bluecoat, we also need to challenge ourselves. I want to share some thoughts as we reflect on how best to respond to the urgent call for change in arts organisations.
I firmly believe that Bluecoat can and must play a role in the fight for equality, and as we start the process of change, we will challenge ourselves on three fronts:
- the arts have the power to articulate difficult truths. Our programming therefore must be inclusive and relevant so this power can be mobilised towards fundamental change;
- as a publicly funded arts centre we must ensure that our own organisation is diverse and inclusive;
- we must raise awareness of racism: by listening carefully, being open and then actively using our voice. As part of our civic role, we have a duty to speak out.
We have for many years been keenly aware of the former school building in which Bluecoat is housed as a symbol of Liverpool’s slavery legacy. As an arts centre Bluecoat has for the past 35 years sought consciously to work with artists and academics in creative ways to interrogate racism. Starting in 1985 with Black Skin/Bluecoat and continuing with exhibitions such as Trophies of Empire (1992) through The Unfinished Conversation, John Akomfrah’s Stuart Hall film (2012) to major solo shows in more recent times, by Keith Piper (in collaboration with Iniva), Grace Ndiritu and Jade Montserrat, and Elaine Mitchener’s SWEET TOOTH performance, we have ensured that the perspectives of Black artists are represented in our work.
We feel it is important that our building’s history is continually and critically interrogated, through the work of these and other artists, and also in other ways: through our regular Heritage Open Days, the heritage website My Bluecoat, a newly published book charting our history, and our academic partnerships including a network we established, Colonial Legacies and Contemporary Culture. We believe it is vital that the beginnings of Bluecoat, although not gratifying, are acknowledged truthfully.
We have learned from our work with artists that properly paid time is necessary to sustain work. We recognise that opportunities for artists are, and have been historically, unevenly distributed. This has become clear during the recent lockdown when we have worked to support many artists struggling to access emergency funds. Beyond the exhibition programme artists need resources to develop their practice including space, funding, advice, residencies, introductions and advocacy. These supports are needed if we are to develop and sustain new generations of diverse artistic voices.
If there is one lesson to be learned from recent events it is that the Black Lives Matter movement is not merely about what we have done in the past. To quote Audre Lorde, ‘what we have to do must be done in the now’. The call for greater accountability, for a better quality of listening, for quicker learning and concrete action is urgent.
At Bluecoat openness and accessibility are at the core of our values. We are committed to promoting diversity and creating an inclusive environment, whether that is for our audiences, artists or staff.
It is clear that we must improve our working practices if we are to realise these values. We are aware that our staff team is predominantly white. We need to create a more diverse workforce, ensuring opportunities for employment and leadership at Bluecoat are open to people of talent, whatever their background. We want to broaden Bluecoat’s audience and to make Bluecoat a place where everyone feels at home. To do this we need to make sure that not only the artists we show, house and support but also our staff, board, freelancers, and all those involved in decision-making, reflect the communities we are trying to reach.
Therefore we want to prioritise actions that will make Bluecoat a more inclusive place, and to do this in a way which will have long-term impact. These will include;
- introducing new, targeted programmes to support diverse artists and reach new audiences and communities
- delivering structural change in our organisation
- making a commitment to listen and to speak out – we will no longer be silent.
Our actions will be shaped by dialogue, consultation and attentive listening. It will take time to change but we have a plan to make it happen.
- 4th June: at a board discussion Bluecoat made a commitment to address racism and to take the necessary steps towards fundamental change so that our contribution to the fight against racism is effective, open and transparent. A plan of action is being drafted.
- 8th July will begin staff discussions on the draft plan.
- 15th July outline action plan will be considered by our board.
- 22nd July we will publish our outline action plan as a consultation document.
- 27th July we will start a series of meaningful consultations with wider stakeholders.
From these conversations we will build a series of concrete actions that demonstrate our commitment to long term change.
I am aware that this statement is just that: a statement. I know that we will rightly be judged by our actions, and not just our words. I hope that over the coming weeks and months you will find that our work reflects our ongoing commitment to promote diversity, both within our programmes and our staff, and to continue fighting for an equal world free from racism and prejudice.
12 June, 2020