Guest blog May 2019 by Paul Hobson: Public galleries and the democratic deficit

Reflecting on the current discourse regarding exploitation, discrimination and systemic bias in the sector, Paul Hobson, Director of Modern Art Oxford and Chair of CVAN South East, considers the role of publicly-funded art institutions in promoting greater equality and inclusion in the sector.

Public galleries and the democratic deficit

I have found myself thinking a great deal about the role of public institutions in fostering greater equality, inclusion and diversity in the sector over the past year.  This is because I see a widening gap between the values which have led me to pursue a longstanding career in the public arts sector - a passionate belief that creativity can play a positive role in everyone’s life - and various pieces of new research I have been reading about the sector’s lack of inclusivity and common-place practices that are exploitative and discriminatory.  I do believe that change is happening but perhaps there is a sense that it is not happening quickly enough.  This may be because publicly-funded organisations are facing a number of challenges and are trying to manage a range of systemic and environmental factors often with a lack of capacity, resources and in some cases, expertise.  The pressures to raise funds and diversify income streams in the face of declining public subsidy, to increase and widen audiences, to develop innovative and ambitious new work at an international standard, combined with a heightened requirement around business planning, risk management, data-capture and reporting are just some of the pressures felt by highly-committed but stretched colleagues working in the public sector. 

Change is undoubtedly overdue and none of us that run public institutions can afford to be complacent in addressing barriers to participation in the arts.  Participation in culture and creative self-expression is a human right and in addressing the democratic deficit of our contemporary society, we all have a responsibility to champion inclusion and to take the most proactive action.  So what are the signs that real change is finally happening?  First of all, I know from my own professional networks of other gallery directors and colleagues that there is a genuine and fierce determination to foster greater democratisation in the work of public art galleries.  There is a widespread review of programming across most institutions to ensure it better reflects the diversity of contemporary society.  Audience data is now far more robust, with organisations being accountable to Arts Council England and other stakeholders for the diversity of audiences.  New institutional structures that bring different audiences and community groups into the governance of an organisation, the proliferation of more participatory models of programming, drives to remove inaccessible and convoluted interpretation, to improve access across the board, and to give over areas of programming space to be determined by different user groups including digital platforms and social media, are all positive steps forward.  There is increasing scrutiny of the Boards of public institutions to ensure their trustees represent the communities they serve, are diverse and share a real commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion, and greater ethical sensitivity to sponsors and partners who do not share our inclusive values.  Recruitment processes are being reviewed to address unconscious bias and to make entry into the workforce more accessible, along with policies and procedures that promote greater equality, diversity and inclusion.  These are all examples of initiatives which will make a difference in time, and will be succeeded by many more.  Are these changes overdue?  Certainly.  But despite accusations of inertia, maintaining the status quo or even ‘performing inclusivity’ and ‘institutional tokenism', I see compelling evidence that publicly funded institutions are taking the steps that will make a significant difference.  This is an exciting, as well as challenging, moment for public galleries, who have to unlearn some of their practices, to listen and innovate, and to work in new ways with audiences and stakeholders to engage a wider cross section of society.  They have to do so with the prospect of diminishing resources and this systemic change is going to take time.  However, I find myself energised by encouraging signs of change and new institutional practices which, when harnessed to the influence that these bodies exercise, will have a profound difference on democratising the production and consumption of contemporary visual culture in the years ahead.

Paul Hobson, Director of Modern Art Oxford and Chair of CVAN South East.

Paul joined the Modern Art Oxford as Director in August 2013, following six years as Director of the Contemporary Art Society and former senior roles at the Showroom Gallery, Serpentine Gallery and Royal Academy of Arts. Paul read History at Oxford University and holds postgraduate degrees in Aesthetics and Contemporary Visual Theory and Arts Management.