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Artists call for reforms to Chinese art charity ‘entrenched’ in racism

28 May 2021 News

Artists of Chinese heritage say they have lost faith in a gallery where there is an “entrenched acceptance of racist attitudes” and urged funders to withdraw support. 

In a paper setting out concerns about the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) the group outline experiences of racism and say that the charity’s mainly white leadership has been reluctant to tackle the problem. 

The seven artists had been brought in by CFCCA last year as part of an Artists Working Group (AWG) to help the charity with a Revisioning project. 

In its report published last week the AWG said: “It has become clear to us that we are dealing with an organisation that dysfunctionally avoids, dodges and spins issues that need to be tackled honestly, directly and quickly.”

This Revisioning project was set up last year after an artist, JJ Chan, withdrew from an exhibition citing the dominance of white people at the organisation. 

In a statement CFCCA said that the project is on hold while it appoints a new chair. It added that the organisation is “listening intently to the criticisms around representation”.

Meanwhile, the Arts Council England, which is the charity’s main funder, said it has urgently contacted CFCCA.  

Hundreds sign petition 

The AWG’s report says there is an “entrenched acceptance of racist attitudes”. It also accuses a board member of “verbalising this false belief in the meeting, ‘there were no qualified Chinese or curators/employees of colour in the job market’”.

It explains that “exposure to this and other racially insensitive comments, behaviours or attitudes throughout this process caused us harm”. 

The group has called for senior staff and trustees to accept responsibility for “perpetuating structural racism and institutional failings” and stand down. 

It has also urged Arts Council England (ACE) to stop funding “an institutionally racist and dysfunctional organisation and to repurpose their investment into the practices of East and Southeast Asian artists”. 

Furthermore, ACE should open an investigation into CFCCA, and publish the findings, to help the wider arts sector. 

Finally, the AWG want ACE to “initiate and timetable the setting up of a sector-wide independent and diverse monitoring body to ensure its own accountability and that of all the organisations it supports”.

After publishing its report, the AWG started a petition, which has so far attracted over 700 signatures.

‘Erosion of trust’ 

A spokesperson for the AWG told Civil Society News that they believed CFCCA was not operating in line with its charitable objectives. 

“I would say that there has been an erosion of trust in CFCCA as a charity over the years and a complete loss of faith in the last 18 months,” they said. 

“In terms of governance CFCCA should have seen this coming but have grown complacent about meeting their legal, ethical and care responsibilities for changing needs of the people and artists they serve, particularly in the light of current Covid Anti-Chinese hate and violence.” 

They added that the board’s values are “significantly different to those of its beneficiaries who are British Chinese artists, the Manchester community and audiences and as such have steered the organisation in a direction that has alienated and antagonised its beneficiaries”. 

Finally, they said the charity had “lost sight” of its purpose and that this has implications for the wider sector. 

“The charity has also lost sight of its charitable and exploratory aim to educate the public in ‘all forms of Chinese culture’ and to help strengthen the ecology of British Chinese visual art. 

“Instead CFCCA has been more focused on positioning itself as a global player and on the narrow idea of 'the Chinese century'. This has not only brought CFCCA into question, but also the whole idea of charities into disrepute.” 

CFCCA: ‘Listening intently to criticism’

CFCCA has posted a number of statements about the Revisioning project on its website, and said it would continue to publish updates on its progress towards becoming an anti-racist organisation. 

In the latest statement, dated 20 May after the publication of the AWG’s report, the charity said: “There have been a number of pauses and challenges. Most recently, we have paused to recruit a new chair of trustees as this is essential to the project’s successful delivery. 

“Historically, we experienced delays as we worked together to unpick the nuances of a genuinely co-designed process, and meanwhile the impact of the pandemic has brought very real challenges to the organisation, as for many others in the sector.” 

The statement added that it is “listening intently to the criticisms around representation and are fully committed to ensuring we work towards being an actively anti-racist and pro-equality organisation”. 

This means the charity is reviewing its recruitment procedures and “investigating alternative models of leadership, to address representation within the team at a senior level”.

Last year the charity commissioned an audit to “provide a rigorous review of our approach” and said it will share the findings from this. 

CFCCA also said it was working closely with ACE “to ensure our policies and approaches are robust and equality led”. 

The charity acknowledged that people have been “hurt” and said it was committed to changing.  

The statement reads: “We recognise that there has been hurt caused. We are concerned and saddened to read of negative experiences from staff and artists.

“The independent audit process was intended as a space for past and present collaborators to reach out and share, with autonomy and confidentiality, their experiences of working with the organisation.” 

CFCCA told Civil Society that it had not yet filed a serious incident report with the Charity Commission, but would be in touch with the regulator “in due course”. 

Arts Council England: ‘We take allegations seriously’ 

Arts Council England (ACE) is CFCCA’s main funder. The charity's latest accounts, for the year to March 2020, show it received a revenue grant from ACE worth nearly £290,000, out of a total income of around £425,000. 

ACE said it takes allegations of racism seriously and had urgently contacted CFCCA. 

A spokesperson for ACE said: “We take allegations and accounts of racism very seriously, and we recognise how difficult it is for anyone to speak out and share such experiences. Although we are not responsible for the governance, management and operations of the organisations we fund, we do have policies and agreements in place to monitor our funded organisations and to hold them to account.  

“We have raised this, as a matter of urgency, with the board of the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art and we expect them to take appropriate action in response to the concerns and very serious issues that have been raised. We also want to engage directly with the artists who have issued a call for action.” 

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