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Black staff at London galleries claim ‘systemic’ and ‘structural’ racism

A curator at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts has claimed that its director ‘co-opted’ her work and ‘falsely represented his and the ICA’s commitment to addressing issues around structural anti-Blackness’.

Meanwhile, a former education officer at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow claims she was pushed out, describing a culture of ‘petty comments, gaslighting and other not-so-subtle signs of systemic racism’ and accusing the council-run institution of ‘hypocrisy, fake solidarity’ in light of its professed support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

ICA, London. Photo: © Rob Battersby

In a series of social media posts on 15 June, Ifeanyi Awachie, assistant curator at the ICA, said a programme titled ‘Confronting the ICA’, was an independent initiative organised by her, comprising of two workshops facilitated by artist Camille Barton, and devised ‘in response to anti-Blackness and misogynoir that I experienced at the ICA […] an attempt to make the ICA a more livable space for me.’

Awachie says her boss, ICA director Stefan Kalmár, has cited the programme as an example of the ICA’s antiracist work in private emails, without asking permission. Kalmár ‘effectively used my work to avoid doing that work,’ Awachie alleges. The curator says that she has not been privy to the emails. ArtReview could not independently verify the veracity of her claims.

‘It is shameful that the only thing our director can point to as “evidence” that the ICA is antiracist is my programme, and that he has to lie to make his and the ICA’s engagement with it appear more robust,’ Awachie said.

‘I have never received proper acknowledgment, praise, or compensation from our director for doing this additional, valuable labour.’

She added Kalmár reprimanded her for not scheduling the first session at a time when he could attend, but when given notice of the second session, did not attend.

A spokesperson for the ICA told ArtReview: ‘We have been made aware of the issue and the Twitter posts. We take it seriously and are addressing it internally. However, we have a policy of not commenting in the media on matters related to our employees, the welfare of whom is paramount.’

William Morris Gallery. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Until she was let go via conference call on 22 May, for four years, Teanne Andrews worked in various education roles at the Waltham Forest Council-run William Morris Gallery, all on casual and short-term continuous contracts. In 2019 she received a promotion, on the lowest senior officer pay scale, as the council was awarded the London’s first Borough of Culture.

‘I was asked to step up my responsibilities, as my line manager was on secondment […] my appointment in this role, I now believe was a smokescreen, which potentially fell into the group of a “diversity hire”.  At the time, I believed they needed someone who was skilled enough to do this work to a high standard, as well as someone who has a great rapport with the local community and so could offer opportunities to those who wouldn’t usually feel they could access it,’ Andrews says.

Writing on the We are Parable website on 17 June, Andrews claims: ‘However, what they needed me to be was the diversity flag bearer for the gallery and museum during the Borough of Culture year. To show how ‘on task’ they were at a time when the whole of London was watching.’

‘I felt like I had been paraded out as some kind of poster child for diversity in the borough, when all eyes were on the council, but now the spotlight was elsewhere, they felt comfortable enough to get rid of me at their earliest opportunity. Was it because I had recently challenged and won a very uncomfortable argument about structural racism relating to a programming decision, where I was in a minority of one during a meeting with the completely white senior cultural leadership team?’

Andrews goes on to say that she was not made aware of any alternative work opportunities, as is council employment policy for individuals with her length of service. When news spread internally that she was being forced out, Andrews claims a new role was ‘specially crafted to match my abilities’ elsewhere in the council’s Culture and Heritage team and only advertised internally.

A spokesperson for William Morris Gallery said in a statement sent to ArtReview: ‘We recognise Teanne’s important contribution to the William Morris Gallery over a number of years. Teanne has been a key part of creating many high-quality activities and experiences that visitors have enjoyed, and she will be keenly missed by colleagues and the local community. We are saddened by the serious allegations in a recent blog post about her experiences while employed at the gallery. A senior member of staff has contacted Teanne to hear them in detail so that we can investigate. It is important for us that all of our employees feel valued and that their voices are heard […] We denounce racism and discrimination in all their forms.’

Both allegations follow the statement by artist Evan Ifekoya that they were ‘withdrawing’ their ‘labour’ from Goldsmiths College, London, in protest of what they described as ‘institutional, structural and economic’ racism at the school. Ifekoya is the only permanently employed black member of academic staff within the art department at Goldsmiths. ‘To be so within a team of 70+ people – a tiny fraction of whom are people of colour – in 2020 is not acceptable’, Ifekoya wrote in an open letter earlier this week.

Editor’s note: this story was updated on 19 June 2020 to include comment from William Morris Gallery

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