Dear Sam Thorne (Director), Andrew Elliott (Finance and Operations Director) and Matt Symonds (Chair of the Board),
We write to you as past and present staff of Nottingham Contemporary in response to your statement on anti-racism published on 8th June 2020 to formally voice our distrust, exhaustion and rage, at a statement that we feel comes too late and says too little.
Your statement, like many that we are currently seeing from institutions, organisations and brands, suggests that you have only just learnt of the systemic racism from which you benefit and which you perpetuate. This is not the reality however, and to suggest otherwise erases the work of those who have been campaigning tirelessly for equality and diversity in museums and galleries for many years. Now is the time for senior staff members of Nottingham Contemporary, as well as those at arts institutions everywhere, to take responsibility and become accountable not just for their inaction but for how they have collectively resisted and blocked change.
While your statement suggests that you will now start looking at the problem of diversity and racism at Nottingham Contemporary we would like to remind you that this research has already been done. Both the projects The Bigger Picture and the commission undertaken by Agency For Agency have looked internally at Nottingham Contemporary and provided you with the tools and information you needed to act out necessary change. However, the results of these studies were not shared, neither with staff, nor with the public that you are responsible to. We demand that you publish these materials along with an accountability report that looks at why this was not done, and the advice not followed, before.
Nottingham Contemporary has had a Diversity Steering Group* since 2016, always led by a white senior member of staff. When members of this board have challenged senior management’s commitment to anti racist work, asked for a more diverse and accountable Board of trustees and demanded changes in the gallery’s hiring practices, they have been met with reticence and silence.
We also noted that you decided, on the 10th June, to publish the video documentation of the Black Lives Matter conference that our colleagues organised in 2015, only now have you seen the importance of sharing it. Poorly judged, clumsy gestures like this one, demonstrate that the institution is plainly jumping on the bandwagon and is fundamentally opportunistic, tokenistic and dishonest. The Place is Here exhibition from 2017 also illustrates this point: an exhibition about the Black Arts movement curated by an all white curatorial team. Only at the end of the planning, when everything had been finalised, were Black artists, curators and advisors asked to participate in the decision-making of the exhibition, at a point when this was only paying lip-service to inclusion.
We are outraged by the level of hypocrisy in your statement. For example, you state that your future plan will include “providing unconscious bias and anti-racist training for staff and trustees”. In the past, various members of staff have highlighted this as an issue demanding urgent action, requests which have been ignored or dismissed.
Nottingham Contemporary’s systemic racism lies in its very structure, the board and staff make-up, internal culture and lack of transparency which serve to maintain it. There are disproportionately more PoC staff in precarious lower paid, visitor-facing jobs of Gallery Assistants. There have been many cases of bullying and discrimination that have been silenced without any repercussions. The high staff turnover at Nottingham Contemporary is a clear consequence of the toxic environment that has been allowed to perpetuate since its creation. It is clear that Nottingham Contemporary´s employment practices contribute to and uphold systemic racism in the institution and it is time that these cease. End zero-hour contracts, end fixed-term contracts, stop privileging applications of only those who have attended elite London universities, bring the cleaning staff in-house so you are responsible for the treatment of everyone working within your building, offer training and progression to members of staff.
In your statement you write that you intend on ‘setting aspirational targets for board appointments.’ We note that in the past week the Nottingham Contemporary website has changed from listing Jack Kirkland as Chair of the Board to list Matt Symonds instead. We are happy to see that Jack Kirkland no longer sits on the Board, due to his relationship to Soncell International, the Homeland Security Division of Bowmer and Kirkland Ltd it is our opinion that he contributes to an inherently racist system and should not be linked to any institution that claims to be anti-racist. However, Kirkland has only been replaced by another Oxbridge-educated white man, Matt Symonds, who appears to have no direct links to Nottingham. It is infuriating that you did not take the opportunity of Kirkland leaving to diversify the Board that is overwhelmingly, predominantly white but instead continue your status quo of having four white men in the leadership positions of Director, Finance & Operations Director, Chair of Board and Vice Chair. We demand that the holders of these four positions are reviewed and diversified to truly represent Nottingham and the community the institution serves. A democratised form of governance needs to be implemented, where members of staff (of all levels), artists and local audience members have an active role in the decision making and running of the institution.
Your statement ends with ‘we must listen and learn, campaign and act’, so we now ask you to stand by those words: to listen to and reflect upon the content of this letter and then to act accordingly. It is time that critique leads to actual change, rather than a list of plans that are never accounted for; we have seen this too many times before. We now demand more from Nottingham Contemporary, and if you are not able to succeed in leading an anti-racist insitution, it is time that you make room for those who are.
As of 17.07.2020, this letter is signed by 35 members of current and former staff.
If you are a current or former member of non-management staff and would like to be added to the signatories please send a confidential email to NCopenletter@gmail.com
*Text amended: “Diversity Steering Group”, not “Diversity Board” as previously stated.