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Eight recommendations to improve the art world, from increasing diversity to never asking artists to work for free

It is time the reset button was pressed on the art world. For too long, it has been overly reliant on the market, and in thrall to speed rather than sustained reflection. The coronavirus crisis provides an opportunity for change.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport has put together a task force to lead this push. Chaired by entrepreneur Neil Mendoza, it includes a cross-section of figures, from sports broadcaster Alex Scott to Arts Council England’s Sir Nicholas Serota. This is encouraging, but how do we ensure the right changes are made? Here are eight recommendations:

Relief measures need to be extended

Organisations say they need an extension of the museum and galleries tax relief scheme, as well as practical and financial support to reopen under social distancing measures. And many artists say relief for the self-employed – which includes many curators, writers and academics – needs to be extended to match that of the furlough scheme.

Mandate minimum fees for artists

No artist should be asked to do anything for free: not participate in a biennial, a group show, or a panel discussion. This especially applies now that artists’ shows – their sources of income – are being cancelled, yet many are being asked to do online talks gratis as institutions ratchet up their digital presence.

Address social mobility in the art world

The field is still structurally oriented towards the middle-class: jobs are low-paying and precarious; art organisations are often agents of gentrification; and art school is a must. Increasing diversity is a way of proving art’s relevance to the whole of society.

Take private philanthropy off the table

Philanthropy privileges contemporary art organisations over regional museums, which account for a greater cross-section of audience by class, ethnicity and age. Instead, incentivise investment in grant-giving schemes.

Think outside of existing definitions

Consign commercial/non-commercial, small/large-scale and curator/writer to the bin. Small commercial galleries often have more in common with artist-run spaces than they do mega-galleries. International galleries share as much with major institutions as they do with emerging dealers. This will help clarify the way that small art galleries are key distribution points for young artists – and how they too should be eligible for government help – while at the same time addressing conflicts of interest in the art world, where museums are reliant on blue-chip galleries’ support for exhibitions.

We should diversify The Tate's curators  (Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire)

We should diversify The Tate's curators  (Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire)

Consider art’s many publics

The UK is home to huge diaspora populations of West Indian, African, South Asian, Middle Eastern and East Asian communities. Members of these communities maintain international connections, but these networks are rarely activated in UK shows. The diversification of Tate’s curators and collection is only a start.

Increase opportunities for UK artists and curators to work abroad

British curators are regularly under-represented at the helm of major biennials and international organisations. International networks allow the UK art community to remain at the forefront of ideas and discourse, and also give them financial resilience by diversifying the economies they work within.

Don’t be afraid of leadership

In the early days of the crisis, the international gallery David Zwirner was the site that hosted online viewing rooms for small UK galleries – not the Government, not an art institution. The UK art community has seen levels of mutual support that are rare in a competitive industry. It now needs to match that spirit with vision.

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