In June, I made a statement on behalf of Bluecoat in response to the shocking police killing of George Floyd and the subsequent focus on the Black Lives Matter movement. As we are based in Liverpool, a city built on the wealth of the transatlantic slave trade and home to one of the UK’s oldest Black communities, the issues the movement addresses could not be more relevant.
Earlier in the year, I articulated three ways in which Bluecoat can contribute to making society more inclusive, more equal and to guarantee opportunities regardless of background:
- 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 must take this opportunity to ensure that this is a watershed moment, and that real change happens, so since June, we’ve been working to translate each of these into action, and I wanted to outline what we have done so far to live up to our commitment.
We won’t always get things right, but our intention is to listen, reflect and take action to create an inclusive environment where everyone is welcome, where people see themselves and their culture reflected back at them, whoever they are.
Our action focuses on three main priorities:
- Internal change
- Supporting artists
- Speaking out
Since June, the effects of the Coronavirus on our communities have become more stark and there is a more urgent need for action in this area than ever. There is real momentum around the Black Lives Matter (BLM) agenda internally at Bluecoat and an action-focused working group now meets weekly to review progress.
We’ve had many discussions around terminology and recognise the problematic nature of group descriptions. Following research and some consultation, we have questioned the term BAME, and instead are currently using Black People and People of Colour (POC). We have been following current debates, including #BAMEover and understand that it is not ethnicity that unites a group of people, but their experience of racism. As language and identity are not fixed we have to acknowledge these, in Stuart Hall’s words - ‘unfinished conversations’. We will continually review the terminology we use and be respectful of self-definitions.
As an immediate priority, we are improving our recruitment at all levels throughout our staff, board and volunteers. A recent project with Weston Jerwood has enabled us to invest in our recruitment processes to ensure opportunities are more accessible to a broader range of people. We will invest in staff development and training, including paying hourly paid staff to attend BLM discussions. We are embarking on a programme of holistic staff development so that we can understand what learnings we have to make as an organisation in order to become anti-racist. We have a clear set of measurable targets to increase the ethnic diversity of Bluecoat staff by 2022, so that 10% of our workforce are from diverse backgrounds.
Although our Board includes members from diverse backgrounds (currently 20% of our members are Black or People of Colour) we will keep this under review to ensure it is reflective of our communities. The Board is committed to a programme of change to address concerns about under-representation at all levels of the organisation. Equality and diversity is already a standing agenda item at each meeting, including monitoring targets for recruitment in prioritised protected characteristics, but this new development is more focussed. So far we have:
- Successfully fundraised from the John Ellerman Foundation and the National Lottery Heritage Fund for two new posts specifically aimed at Black people and People of Colour, with recruitment to start in the New Year.
- Established an internal task force to turn our Black Lives Matter and anti-racism statement into an action plan.
- Set up a shared platform for all staff to contribute anti-racist reading and other material.
- Started conversations with some key thinkers externally to challenge our institutional culture, although we understand that change must come from within and we have to empower our staff to be able to challenge the status quo.
- Acknowledged the need to develop a plan to ensure our freelance opportunities are advertised and issued in a fair and equitable way.
We are committed to continuing Bluecoat’s tradition of inclusive programming. We know that creating opportunities for more diverse artists enriches our programme, and when audiences see things relevant and reflective of their culture they are more likely to engage. A broad programming policy is vital in seeing and showing the world from a variety of perspectives. We want to make the voice of Black experience central to our programme, to contribute to people’s ongoing education about social justice and anti-racism.
For more information on Bluecoat’s history of supporting Black artists and artists of colour, this recent article by Dr Anjalie Dalal-Clayton in The Double Negative gives an overview of our past exhibitions.
In addition to our arts programme, we continue to explore the heritage of our building and Liverpool in the context of colonial legacies, frequently engaging with artists to explore this history. Our My Bluecoat website goes into detail about the history of the building and its links with slavery and for this year’s Heritage Open Days we recorded a film, exploring unseen parts of the building and its history.
As a major cultural institution we recognise that we have to do more to become a true ally to the communities we serve. We need to build trust and accountability so that local people want to work with us and see themselves reflected in what we do. That means using our platform to speak out and be anti-racist. Some of the work we do in this area includes:
- A member of our leadership team has recently joined the Liverpool City Council’s Race Equality Task Force which was commissioned earlier this year by the Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, to look into systemic racism in the city. The task force will focus on education, employment and access to the economy, health and wellbeing, criminal justice and culture.
- A collaborative doctoral research project with University of Liverpool, looking at our building’s eighteenth-century origins in the town’s mercantile culture including the extent of funding derived from transatlantic slavery that supported the original Blue Coat school.
- Sharing our learning with colleagues in Liverpool Arts Regeneration Consortium (LARC) and Creative Organisations of Liverpool (COoL).
- Contributing to Black Lives Matter conversations led by the local What Next network, a movement bringing together arts and cultural organisations from across the UK to articulate, champion and strengthen the role of culture in society.
- Committing to anti-racism, equality and inclusion training for Board, staff and volunteers, so that all are equipped to challenge racism.
In seeking to become more relevant to our whole community, we want Black people and People of Colour to feel welcome at Bluecoat. While programming plays a part in this, we must also communicate what we do effectively. We have included specific targets in our business plan for increasing visits from Black people and People of Colour. According to research from 2019, 8% of our audience were from diverse backgrounds, but we want this to be 11%, so that is more in line with the population of Liverpool.
Much of our work focuses on smaller targeted groups through participation projects, and it is here that we can create deep relationships. We’re currently planning a two-year project with a group of young people at The Greenhouse Project in Liverpool in response to Bluecoat building’s colonial legacies and our long history working with Black artists to interrogate them.
We know we need to work closer with such partners and forge new partnerships, including festivals that we host, to target more inclusive audiences.
This update is not an exhaustive list of what we’re doing and there is still so much to do, but I hope it goes some way to demonstrate Bluecoat’s commitment. We have an action plan, which is in draft form, and we will share progress on this. It is important to note that we recognise the issues we’re exploring in these conversations aren’t in isolation but connect to other debates we’re having as we work together towards a more inclusive Bluecoat.
Finally, I know there is much scrutiny about how cultural organisations are responding to this agenda and we are rightly being held to account about the actions we are taking to create more inclusive arts experiences. I am keen to listen to and learn from different perspectives and would welcome any feedback on our initiatives. Please get in touch via email@example.com.