5 in a room

There were 5 of us in the room.

It was some time around late October last year where I attended a panel discussion on curation as part of the Barbican’s creative careers programme. The panel was made up of notable professionals in the curation business so I was excited to attend for a number of reasons. Hearing about the business from those who do it best and networking with young black folk serious about their creative prospects – hopefully meeting people just like me. So once everyone had settled into their seats I quickly scanned the audience before the session began. Yes, to count the number of black people. But only to find there were just 5 of us in the room.

It was an ‘Oh’ moment. The kind of ‘Oh’ that’s little puzzled and mostly disappointed. I’d been out at a number of networking events prior to this one and there were swarms of us – ready to mingle and be active. After all we are amidst a Black British creative revolution. Where platforms like Black Ballad, BBZ and Black in The Day have popped up from a generation that want to control the distribution of their culture. A time where Edward Enninful is Chief Editor of British Vogue!

There’s a revolution going on albeit it being the beginning. So I expected to see more of us.

The Panel discussion was led by Rebecca Lewin, Oscar Humphries and Antonio Roberts. They spoke to us about the ins and outs of their work and walked us through the first and most recent exhibitions they had curated. But it was Humphries’ trajectory that interested me the most. During one of the Q&A segments he was asked to explain his route into the business. And unlike Lewin and Roberts his story began without a higher education qualification in the arts. Rather he started out as an art writer and through networking was able to become a magazine editor then art seller. And now curates exhibitions at world renowned art fairs across the world.

It’s the good old work hard and you’ll get what you want schtick. Now I do not mean to downplay Humphries’ career with this short timeline. In fact, I find it very admirable being someone with a scientific background trying to break into the art world. But the pathway is simply no longer an option for most.

Nowadays it is not likely your application will even be considered if you do not have some form of higher education discipline. So where lies the issue for the black community. Well it’s simple. Access to these roles are limited because many cannot afford the educational proof we need to acquire them.

Lewin described the curation of art spaces as the entry point to the world of the artist. She emphasised that the communication between the artists and the curator is fundamental when putting on an exhibition and went on to tell us she believes the future of art will have no curators – essentially art will just be. But while we are here and the curators are the apparent gatekeepers, the positions that orchestrate the public consumption of art should be palpable to those who aren’t able to spend thousands on a PhD.

Nevertheless, I don’t believe this route of access is sustainable. Going back to my beloved revolution – it’s really happening people, believe me – take a look at Black in the day “A submission based archive documenting the lives and experiences of black people in the UK”. They host scanning socials in spaces that allow them to share their growing archives, and have been present in a number of big shot gallery late night events. And it’s curated by creatives, no PhD in sight.

Even with this we must aim to move forward. Large institutions throw late night exhibitions and invite black artists in to showcase their work for one special night. Yes, the exposure is beneficial – but where are the fixed residencies? Is it down to the current gallery curators not seeing the value in our art? Probably.

While we continue to interrupt spaces that say they want us but only welcome us in for a short-lived fling we must also fund our own common space and have our own learned gatekeepers – those who are in tune and understand the state of art. Black British art as it exists today – PhD or not. It’s always easier said than done but if we keep pushing, one day you may find all your art faves in one space for longer than an a Friday evening after 7pm.