By Naomi Riddle
30 August, 2019
‘She thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency—as an act with consequences.’
Toni Morrison, Nobel Lecture, (7 December, 1993)
Last week Diversity Arts Australia released Shifting the Balance, a report detailing the cultural diversity in leadership roles across Australia’s arts, screen and creative sectors. The results are an indictment of an industry that purports to champion cultural diversity, even as it maintains an imbalance in the makeup of its leaders. The numbers contained within the report speak for themselves: 51% of our major cultural organisations have no people of diverse cultural or linguistic backgrounds at the leadership level; CALD Australians comprise only 14% of creative director roles, 10% of CEOs and equivalents,12% of senior executives, 9% of board members and 10% of award judges. Viewed as a whole, these percentages are a stark factual record of the ways in which whiteness continues to operate as the deciding force in the trajectory of our creative organisations. ‘Anything can be exchanged,’ writes John Berger in About Looking, ‘under the single condition that nothing anywhere is radically changed.’1
In many ways Diversity Arts Australia’s work, in conjunction with Western Sydney University and BYP Group, tells us what we already know: those who find themselves in leadership roles (read: positions of power) are unlikely to give them up, and the structures of exclusion are so fixed that a substantial rupture is required to undo them. Some may say that the visual arts sector’s percentages are higher than other creative industries, but this is small recompense (and, it has to be said, a weak response) when the numbers are markedly below what they should be.
I am less interested in the Tweets and memes responding to Shifting the Balance and more in the material action we can take to rectify its findings. The report itself contains a series of clear recommendations: introduce targets, promote inclusion in organisations, create pathways to leadership through mentorships, build alliances across creative industries, and research the barriers to inclusion. It remains to be seen whether our major institutions, not-for-profit and for-profit organisations will read, acknowledge and implement each of these recommendations.
The role of editor (on a mostly voluntary basis) is not listed as a leadership position in Shifting the Balance, and it cannot be compared to the role of artistic director, which brings with it the weight, outreach and resources of an organisation.
And yet, because I am an editor, I have the task of saying no as much as saying yes, which is in itself a form of power—choosing, selecting, collating and editing what to publish. The work of editing is premised on the idea of omission, of deciding what is and isn’t worthy of attention. These acts come with their own level of responsibility and agency, and part of this responsibility involves attending to the white legacy of arts criticism, and its role in gatekeeping the culture.
I am currently the sole editor of Running Dog, and the reasons for this are to do with practicality more than anything else—I am not in a position to offer salaries or a regular income, and I would not ask another to undertake this work for free. This means, at this stage, I do not have the resources to divide up the editorial authority of this publication. But what I do have is the capacity to interrogate and question this authority, and how it feeds into and impacts Running Dog as a whole. What does this mean at a material level? It means rethinking editing as a collective rather than individual pursuit; it means (re)framing the editor/assistant editor/contributor relationship as a dialogue, rather than a hierarchy. It means being cognisant to the fact that the process of editing can deaden, obfuscate and blunt as much as it can sharpen, develop and refine.
None of this is by any means perfect, and this is part of the reason why Running Dog is a moving and amorphous thing, never fixed in its outlook and coordinates. I define Running Dog as a proposition rather than a certainty, because having such a malleable framework gives it the ability to generate and regenerate itself against its circumstances.
I am disclosing this because I think the results of Shifting the Balance are worth thinking about, whatever the nature of your relationship to the ‘creative sector’. And yet I am reluctant to spend too much time on such a disclosure. What the findings demonstrate is that such conversations are being had, and changes are being made, but they are being made at a grassroots level or on the margins—the kinds of spaces where limited resources stymies any pragmatic large-scale change.
This is one of those moments where it is the responsibility of organisations to answer this report, just as it is our responsibility to demand they do so. Or, we can think of it another way. Shifting the Balance gives us even more reason to build new structures and systems and modes for determining culture. The idea that any of this is fixed and insurmountable is an illusion designed to keep things as they are.
And if you are reading this and you are a person in a leadership role then I ask this of you: consider how you have the capacity and the means with which to respond to these numbers in a material, tangible way. Minor interventions at the top level of any organisation can have large scale repercussions. There is always more work to do, more space to carve out, and more power to give away in the pursuit of equality.
Shifting the Balance may be a snapshot of where we are now, but it is also a question: is this how we would like to continue? What is at stake when answering this question is the practice of art itself, and how it is, exactly, we would like to shape and share our culture. If this sounds hopeful, it’s because it is. But a condition of hope, which I learnt from John Berger, is that ‘everything needs to be faced’: ‘One is aware of how it might be otherwise. Hope is a marvellous focusing lens. One’s eye becomes fixed to it. And one can examine anything.’2