In the spirit of economy and recycling I’m doing just that for this post. This is a revised version of a ‘think piece’ I wrote for Permeate, a project for which I sit on the advisory group. Permeate aims to redress a lack of diversity in the workforce of visual arts organizations through a series of strategic internships. There is a website to be launched very soon but in the meantime you can read more about the project on Fabrica’s website.
The photo btw is by Jane Fordham from a drawing workshop that she led at Fabrica.
Social networks and diversity
The arguments for arts organizations using social networks are well rehearsed, and I’ve made them at length elsewhere, so I won’t rehash them here. I will list some relevant points though.
If used well by arts organisations social networks offer:
- lowered barriers to engagement
- democratisation of access
- visibility and accessibility (physical, intellectual and economic)
- the opportunity for audiences to participate creatively, to engage and to be engaged in meaningful ways
- the opportunity to allow different voices entry into the organization and in turn be allowed to speak for the organisation
The last two of these points is the most relevant here and, in terms of diversity, the most exciting. The death of the silent audience will have a significant impact on diversity and the arts. (By silent audience I mean the audience that is out there in the dark with only minimal and formal ways of contacting us, and limited opportunities for engagement.) Through social networks our audience has not only become visible to us but also to each other, in all their diversity. If we let those voices into our organisations and, more importantly, allow those voices to speak alongside us, whether what they have to say is good or bad, then the impact on our organisations and the way we work will be huge.
This is a quantum change in organisational culture for a lot of arts organizations; it’s difficult for them to let go of their official curatorial voice, which is the voice of the organization – the voice that appears in their press releases, their brochures and on their websites. Unfortunately, sticking your head in the sand is longer an option. The world has changed and people are having conversations about your organization; you can join in that conversation or you can ignore it and watch your audience move on to other arts organisations that will engage in that conversation, who demonstrate that their audience’s opinions are valued by sharing them, and seeking to engage their audience in more meaningful ways.
A sole reliance on ‘old media’ methods of communication, with its curatorial voice and reliance on mainstream and/or specialist arts press to carry content, is exclusive almost by definition. It’s elitist by implication, saying to people that if they don’t get it, if they don’t understand that curatorial voice, then maybe they’re not actually welcome. At least, that may very well be the perception. In organisations that work in that way diversity will always be a bolt-on activity, not something embedded at their heart.
There are arguments that social platforms themselves are not always accessible, for economic, social and physical reasons. This is true – but it will become less so, and the time to engage is now, not in some mythical future of universal access. We must never forget, though, that this is about people, not technology. The technology offers us a platform to give people a voice and we should ensure that whatever we do in the digital world fits the needs and capabilities of as many people as possible.
Permeate recently held an event at which we asked David Bryan, of Xtend Consultants to talk, and two things that he said have really stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing here, but the first was that arts organisations have a duty to contribute to quality of life; and the second was that at the very least they shouldn’t actively contribute to discrimination.
For arts organizations, engaging with social networks is contributing to quality of life and failing to do so is contributing to discrimination.