Could do better? Inclusion in higher education arts institutions (review)

Ray Martin highlights the sobering findings emerging from Kate Hatton’s book on the state of inclusivity in arts higher education.


Published on 11th March 2020 | Written by Ray Martin | Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

‘Art education has generally been conservative, repetitive and exclusive,’ says Kate Hatton, editor of Towards an Inclusive Arts Education (2015:3). She continues: ‘Theorists have even described art education as Eurocentric, racist and imperialist.’ Heavy condemnation indeed.

While Hatton recognises the difficulties of defining what we mean by inclusion, she is clear about its social, moral and economic importance. This collection, which focuses on art education and social creative cultures, race, dis/ability, class and identities, was assembled not so much to condemn (though condemnation there certainly is) as to explore ways to create a more inclusive environment in art education. It ranges from discussion of Restless dance (a form of inclusive practice that has developed around intellectually disabled people) to achievement gaps to the pitfalls in creating inclusive studio practice and writing and performance workshops.

Perhaps the most disturbing theme is race, and Hatton is clear here that arts education is a long way from full inclusion:

Art education … has not embraced the term [inclusion] or recognised racism within its practices … Racism is regularly experienced by black people, but until this is understood by the white managers and senior staff in arts institutions, inclusion cannot be achieved (p.5).

The theme is explored by Sylvia Theuri, whose chapter focuses on an interview with David Gillborn, Director of Critical Race Studies at Birmingham University. ‘I would have thought that there were massive, massive opportunities for racism in art [education]’ he says (p.59). He sees Critical Race Theory (CRT) as an important tool for understanding inequality and feels, like other contributors, that an intersectional approach is also necessary. ‘You understand race and racism better if you understand its relationship with class, or gender or disability’ (p.65).

The curriculum needs rethinking – and rethinking in considerable depth, suggests Theuri, since it would be easy, she thinks, to design an apparently more diverse curriculum while at the same time creating a different form of Othering. And, crucially, art institutions need a more diverse academic force if they are to create full inclusivity.

Racism is also explored in Michael McMillan’s chapter on developing inclusive workshops, which he hopes can ‘provide a model for a critically engaged pedagogic approach’ (p.79). His views (which chime with other BAME theorists such as Sara Ahmed) do not make comfortable reading:

Diversity is used as evidence that institutions do not have a problem with racism. There is therefore a gap between symbolic commitments to diversity and the experience of those who embody it. Commitments to diversity tend to be “non-performatives” that do not bring about what they name (p.91).

Connected with these two contributions on race is Kerry Freedman’s chapter on class, and the low rate of entry into largely middle-class art institutions of those from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. She offers three suggestions for expanding their presence. First, she feels candidates who come bearing portfolios filled with work based on the cultural interests of their locale rather than acquaintance with fine art need to be taken seriously. Interviewers need to understand popular art – graffiti and manga, say – so that they can recognise the quality of the work they are being shown. Second, Freedman thinks we need to develop understanding among potential candidates and their parents of the opportunities that await art graduates in the creative industries; they may well feel that the creative world is uncertain and it is better to do something economically safer. Third, she believes we need to develop an understanding in our disadvantaged students of the art communities in which they could become involved and the tools they will need to become involved in them.

Overall, she says:

If we are going to truly make an effort at inclusion in college and university art programmes, we need to think of ‘cultural understanding’ as insight into the deep and meaningful visual culture and other interests of students, including those visual arts that most adults tend to undervalue (p.15).

Disability is explored by Dan Goodley using critical disability studies and, like Gillborn on Critical Race Theory, he takes an intersectional approach, connecting it with other important issues that impact on the way we think about disability: class, feminist, queer and postcolonial students. He believes that Critical Disability Studies can help us rethink disability and ‘recategorize’ it as a positive identity (p.26).

Have we moved on? Has anything changed? In terms of physical disability, we have put more ramps into our corridors and lower-level photocopiers in our libraries, and a great many technical staff have made adjustments to equipment for those with disabilities. But have we begun to rethink disability as Goodley suggests or take an intersectional approach to diversity in HEIs?

Towards an Inclusive Arts Education was assembled while the influential ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ protests were at their height (2014), and it is clear that they raised consciousness of the narrowness of HE courses. The ‘pale, stale, male’ view of academic thinking is now a widely touted concept, and certainly there is evidence of more inclusive images in the studio and more diverse reading lists. Lower BAME attainment has been considered carefully and also, according to HEPI Policy Note 20, some progress on inclusion of disadvantaged students has been made by less selective universities (access to the elite universities is ‘glacially slow’). Perhaps the area where the least change can be found is in the treatment of BAME staff, a concern raised by Theuri. Mahony and Weiner (2019) note that in 2018, of the 19,000 professors in UK universities, 25 were black women and 90 black men. And they go on: ‘Nothing prepared us for the sheer weight of racialism confronting racialised staff in these so-called eminent seats of learning.’

Could do better? Alas, yes.

References

Mahony, P. and Weiner, G. (2019) Getting in, getting on, getting out: Black, Asian and Minority ethnic staff in UK higher education. In: Journal of Race, Ethnicity and Education (Accessed 28 November 2019]

Major, L.E and Banerjee, P.A. (2019) Social mobility and elite universities. (Policy Note 20), Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI)

 

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