Thursday, March 8, 2018

Liv Wynter, Tate and elitism in the arts

Today I was on Twitter when I saw Liv Wynter share the news about her resignation as artist in residence at Tate.

In her open letter to the organisation Wynter points out that although Tate has made efforts to publicly support radical, queer and BAME artists in recent years, this isn’t reflected in the makeup of the organisation. “Tate has only 13% of their workforce that identify as Black or Ethnic Minority. Tate has only 9% of its staff that identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Every single director is white. In payband 1 there is only 3% BAME. Band 2 has 12% and band 3 has 7%! Only 4% of the entire workforce identify as disabled!”

Although I can’t know what it feels like to be a queer, working class woman in an institution like Tate I do have some idea of the world she speaks of. Last summer I spent three months interning on the arts desk of a well known newspaper, an opportunity I was thrilled about. I spent the weeks before my internship religiously following the news, reading the publication in question and preparing myself for the intelligent conversations I was sure I would have there. However, once I arrived I felt embarrassingly paralysed when it came to communicating with the majority of people I met. Most of the employees I met were white, male, public school and Oxbridge educated. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t able to participate in some light-hearted banter about Latin translation, I literally felt like I didn't speak the same language.

It was while I was interning at this newspaper that we heard the news of the pay gap at the BBC. This gave me the opportunity to attend an emergency meeting involving the women at the newspaper, where the predominance of public school educated, able-bodied, male and white employees was brought up and earnestly discussed. This points to something that Liv Wyner mentions in her resignation letter, that there are pockets of change present in these organisations “playing the long game”. But, she says, there is still a dire need for urgency - “to rip through the insidiousness of the institution to create at the very depths of it the diverse and radical space they claim on the surface.”

At the risk of jumping on Wynter’s message with a seemingly unrelated gripe, I think that my experience is more evidence of the elitist tendencies present in most, if not all, of Britain’s largest arts and media institutions. As a white, cisgender, able bodied and heterosexual female the fact that I can ‘pass’ in these institutions does not mean that I can, or should, try and learn the rules to the game which the elite in this country are taught from the moment they start school.

I don’t want to appear ungrateful and although we may not have ‘clicked’ the experiences I had at the newspaper were mostly positive. Since leaving the internship I’ve given myself a very hard time for not making the most of the opportunity. As with most things in life, though, it’s important to take a step back and evaluate what it is and isn’t appropriate to take responsibility for. Feeling apologetic or responsible for 'not fitting in' is something I suspect working class people, ethnic minorities, LGBT and cis-women trying to make a living in these institutions have done for a long time. Wynter's resignation highlights how emphatically calling out and refusing to participate in these paradigms can be the most powerful action of all.

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