On the Wider and Historical Contexts Around the Withdrawal of Transmission Gallery’s RFO* Status

TIFFANY BOYLE, for MOTHER TONGUE

 

This text has been published with the consent of the current Transmission gallery committee. 

In 2010, I worked as part of a small team on the cataloguing of Transmission Gallery’s archive, in the newly-created Resource Room in the basement for which they had recently been allocated funds by Creative Scotland. I had not long finished my undergraduate in Dundee and, in many respects, taking on this voluntary work in the archive was an attempt to map out (for my own understanding) the visual arts in Glasgow, of which Transmission Gallery has played a significant role since its advent in 1983.

The archival material was rich and varied, from slides and posters, to VHS tapes and zines, correspondence and photographic documentation. However, what left its mark on me – then and now – were a number of early, radical exhibitions presented by artists of colour. These exhibitions included: Oladélé Bamgboyé’s participation in four projects (1986, 1988, 1992),1  Keith Piper’s The Devil Finds Work (1990), Eddie Chambers The Black Bastard as a Cultural Icon (1985), and Lubaina Himid’s Vernet’s Studio (1994). They jumped out at me from between the slipfiles, spacers and storage boxes, first and foremost because the work of the artists was incredibly exciting but also for a second reason; because they were exhibitions I could never have imagined taking place in the Transmission Gallery I knew of in 2010. The disjuncture between the then-and-now of the programming left me with questions, began to permeate my collaborative curatorial practice, Mother Tongue, with Jessica Carden.

In 2012, Mother Tongue was invited into the archives of the CCA Glasgow and its predecessor, the Third Eye Centre, as part of the gallery’s AHRC project with Glasgow School of Art, and as part of the forthcoming exhibition What We Have Done, What We Are About To Do. There were a number of items in the archive relating to in-house exhibitions from Oladélé Bamgboyé and Maud Sulter, held in the 1980s and early 1990s. These shows and the practices of Bamgboyé and Sulter were the catalyst for our contribution to the 2012 exhibition, which put on public display these archival materials, alongside an essay written by ourselves, asking questions regarding the invisibility of both artists in the dominant local narratives of the visual arts, the reasons for both artists leaving Scotland, and the overriding whiteness of the visual arts work made locally when considered as a set of cultural practices.

Archival Items Relating to Maud Sulter’s Exhibition ‘Alba,’ held at the CCA Glasgow, 1995. Author’s Own.

Our understanding of this research slowly developed over time, and in winter 2015 we received a research support grant from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art to undertake archival and collection research towards a future AfroScots project. This, in essence, has been seeking to bring together into a single narrative for the first time the history of Black artists in Scotland, beginning (as this research stands at present) in the 1860s. The archival and collection research has brought a number of exciting practitioners, exhibitions, initiatives and projects to our attention, and we are beginning to write, speak and produce projects responding to this. At the same time, there are less positive common threads which run throughout the material consulted, the two most prominent being PoC artists’ sense of isolation when practicing in Scotland and their subsequent decisions to move elsewhere, and a cyclical pattern of investment and disinvestment on the part of funding bodies.

I have begun with this personal positioning, firstly, as a kind of testimonial to the importance of Transmission to my own curatorial practice, and to underscore the significance of Transmission’s early engagements with conversations around race, representation, and diversity. More importantly, I wish to use information gleaned from archival research, since 2012, to flesh out the context within which I believe the removal of Transmission’s RFO status should be understood, in order to ask three key questions.

Transmission Gallery Archive, Lubaina Himid Vernet’s Studio 1994 Poster. Author’s Own. Permission Transmission Gallery.

 

REACTIONS, RELATIONS, REPRESENTATION, REPORTS

On the 25th January 2018, Creative Scotland announced its decisions as to who was and who was not to be stabilised through its three-year grant as a Regularly-Funded Organisation (RFO), decisions that had been delayed since 2017 due to a late Scottish Government budgetary announcement. With this came the news – widely met with dismay, disbelief, and dissension across the arts community – that the funding of the groundbreaking artist-led Transmission Gallery had been withdrawn. In the eighteen months before this decision was made, the gallery had embarked on a radical overhaul of their programme and structure, responding to issues of representation, race, sexuality, gender, and decolonisation. These changes permeated not only the programme of public exhibitions and events, but the demographics of the committee and audiences, as well as the collaborations and partnerships forged. Although I have described this as an “overhaul,” in fact these changes represented more of a return to the initial remit of the organisation, with the current committee emphasizing the ‘direction [taken] from the original constitution.’2 At the time the RFO decisions were made, the Transmission committee was headed up entirely by PoC practitioners, a first for the organisation, but also a sadly unique instance within the visual arts in Scotland.3

The statement issued by Transmission made a firm case for the decision on their RFO funding being a discriminatory and political one, displaying institutional bias and raising questions around whose needs Creative Scotland is willing to cater for. Running concurrent to the release of this statement were a number of responses on social media and articles on visual arts platforms which, instead, framed this decision within Transmission’s historical role as an artist-led space, a blueprint for many other galleries, and an organisation through which many prominent figures had emerged – whose names have been repeated enough elsewhere. Thus, there appears to have been a noticeable gap between what the current committee members’ understanding of the concerns at stake here were, versus how the decision was computed by the wider arts establishment. To the author’s mind, the latter is not only a mis-understanding but, by framing the decision this way, distracts attentions away from the real issues – of representation, race, and diversity.

On my first reading of the statement issued by Transmission I found myself remembering what has been described in conversations, on more than one occasion, as the poor relationship the forerunner to Creative Scotland, the Scottish Arts Council (SAC), had with Scots-Ghanaian artist Maud Sulter (1960-2008). The conveyance of this fact has normally been proceeded by a pause, followed by the pseudo-explanation “that she was very difficult to work with.”

With these comments likely refering to exchanges dating from the early 1990s, the first question I would like to pose here is: Why has Scotland’s national funding body for the arts (as both the SAC and Creative Scotland) been unable to forge positive relationships with artists of colour, over a period of at least two decades?

The Transmission statement referenced a text from writer and curator Morgan Quaintance, who previously wrote for Art Monthly in 2014 on the successive and significant cuts to InIVA (Institute of International Visual Art, London) beginning in 2012,4  whose founding remit had been to address an imbalance in the way culturally diverse artists and curators were being represented in the UK. InIVA and the work of the current Transmission gallery committee cannot be compared on a like-for-like basis for a number of factors, however, there are two questions that can be brought up purposefully via the problems faced by InIVA since 2008. Firstly: Why has it taken an artist-led gallery run by a committee of volunteers in Scotland to have some semblance of a visual arts space akin to InIVA; that is, a gallery devoted to diverse programming dealing with representation, race, gender and sexuality, delivered by a diverse organisation? The second point is made with reference to Transmission’s underscoring of minority-led activity, and ‘an understanding that change must be instituted beyond the public programme.’5 Quaintance discusses that one of the issues faced by InIVA was that its original remit had been encroached upon by ‘established London-based institutions (Tate, Whitechapel Gallery, South London Gallery, Camden Arts Centre, etc) [introducing] a tentative internationalist stance into their own programmes.’6 It is suggested that there was a bias towards existing, dominant, majority-led institutions being funded to deliver diverse work – from marginalised groups, and in both international and local contexts – rather than fund minority-led groups to produce this work directly. The applicability of this scenario is highlighted in Transmission’s response statement, and also in the examples of “good practice” selected by Creative Scotland in their 2017 ‘Mainstreaming: Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI)’ report. The three visual arts case studies highlighted by Creative Scotland in this report – whilst doing important work – are each directed, and primarily staffed by, white practitioners. Therefore, we should ask: Why does it appear to be more comfortable for funding bodies that work in the visual arts around race, representation and diversity to be housed within larger institutions, and not directly undertaken by minority-led groups, committees and collectives?

 

“BEST PRACTICE”

The issue of PoC cultural leadership is a point on which Creative Scotland appear to have been focusing upon for some time. A further EDI report on ‘Outcomes’ from 2017 describes that their:

‘equality impact assessment of Creative Scotland’s portfolio of Regularly Funded Organisations 2015-18 identified the lack of ethnic minority-led arts organisations … consultation identified the need for proactive leadership, for involvement of minority ethnic leaders at management and operational level in the arts, screen and creative industries in Scotland.’7

Whilst these reports refer to initiatives in place that will target the issue-area of diverse cultural leadership, it is not the first instance that such schemes have been put forward by Scotland’s national funding body for the arts. Whilst there have been schemes in the past, such as ‘Mainstreaming’ initiated still in the days of the Scottish Arts Council, these are never continuous and flatline the potential momentum of such programmes.

In 2016, Creative Scotland undertook a Visual Arts Sector Review – with Open Sessions in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness – at which there were three speakers each.8 All nine of the speakers were white, which raises questions over the scope of the intended conversations, whilst also creating a gap between the kinds of “best practice” asked of the sector versus that which Creative Scotland does itself. The speakers’ presentations were on allotted topics such as ‘infrastructure,’ and, according to Creative Scotland’s Visual Arts Sector Review, the selection placed emphasis upon:

‘artists’ voices [being] central to the conversations; experiences of working beyond Scotland’s cities [being] reflected; and [that] there was an opportunity to hear the perspectives of those working across, and in partnership with, a range of stakeholders.’9

The presentations were intended to act as provocations for roundtable discussions, where attendees were required to move to a different table after each provocation, with the exception of a nominated individual from the sector for each table who took notes which were then reported back on to Creative Scotland. Despite the fact that Creative Scotland offered attendance bursaries for freelance practitioners, the demographic of attendees was fairly homogenous, demonstrating that barriers to attendance exceed the financial. In a similar, but slightly tangential vein, Creative Scotland’s Mainstreaming: Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) document from 2017 notes that in the two years prior, there has not been a single complaint made to the funding body related to EDI issues.10 Rather than a sign of success here, I find this suggests that something is not working (absence of evidence not being evidence of absence).

“Diversity” came up in the vocabulary of that event and its discussions many times, but was used more akin to “variety” in meaning. Whilst in written form it appears that equalities, diversity, and inclusion are fairly specific in their intended usage, in their everyday application things become slippery. Their malleability potentially allows for many aspects of programming, staffing, and audiences to be contorted and skewed in ways which help fulfill set remits. This is to the benefit of comparatively well-funded RFO organisations rather than the intended beneficiaries outlined on paper.

 

BEING FIRST HAS ITS TRIUMPHS, KEEPING GOING IS WHERE THE HARD WORK BEGINS11

In her essay, Mapping: A Decade of Black Women Artists 1980-1990, artist Lubaina Himid discusses the matrix of factors – funding, arts education, art history, gallery programming, and art world bias – which have been colluding to make near-impossible working conditions for artists of colour for decades. The essay recalls in my mind another of Himid’s texts, the second from 2005, titled Inside the Invisible: For/Getting Strategy. Published as part of Shades of Black: Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain, it is one of a number of texts taken from the conference of the same name organised at Duke University in April 2001. In it, Himid offers up a provocation, before asking the audience in turn to each open up an envelope placed on their seat in advance, before offering up responses to these. I do not have the answers to give to you for the questions posed in this essay. Himid’s answers and questions are listed in the publication, such as ‘[Q1] I have organized an exhibition of black artists’ work in the past fifteen years, [A1] Your name must be Eddie Chambers, Maud Sulter, Gilane Tawadros, Rasheed Araeen, or David A. Bailey.’12 I have often wondered what it must have been like to sit through that event. It is an incredibly difficult thing to ask peers and colleagues self-scrutinising questions. Nevertheless, at junctures such as the current situation with Transmission, it must be done, and we should demand this of all those around us, holding them to account.

 

* There is a variety of terminology used in this essay, often with many terms used throughout for a single word or phrase, partially due to the time period in discussion. Rather than standardise this, the range of terms has been kept messy, to represent fully the tangled language in use.

 


 

1 These were: Oladélé Bamgboyé, Debbie Coombes, 1986; Oladélé Bamgboyé, Stephen Birrell, Stephen Dunlop, Stan Shepherd, 1988; Land of Opportunity, 1988, and Contact 552-4813, 1992.

2 Transmission Gallery, Transmission’s Creative Scotland Funding Response Statement, Accessed: 02.03.2018, Available: https://mailchi.mp/5941e5be915a/transmissions-creative-scotland-funding-response-statement

3 To the best of the author’s knowledge, there are no other RFO-funded visual arts organisations in Scotland directed by PoC practitioners, in contrast to other artforms including dance, theatre and music.

4 Morgan Quaintance, InIVA: Fit for Purpose?, Art Monthy, Issue 380, Accessed: 02.03.2018, Available: https://morganquaintance.com/2014/12/22/iniva-fit-for-purpose/

5 Transmission Gallery, Transmission’s Creative Scotland Funding Response Statement, Accessed: 02.03.2018, Available: https://mailchi.mp/5941e5be915a/transmissions-creative-scotland-funding-response-statement

6 Morgan Quaintance, op. cit.

7 Creative Scotland, EDI Outcomes: Creative Scotland’s EDI Outcomes: Process for Revision., 2017, Accessed: 04.03.2018, Available: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:K2p7VBDWKWQJ:www.creativescotland.com/__data/assets/word_doc/0011/23411/EDI-Outcomes-2017-FINAL.docx+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=uk&client=firefox-b

8 The speakers were i) Glasgow: Sarah McCrory, then-director of Glasgow International; artist Torsten Lauschmann; and Emma Nicolson, director of ATLAS Arts (Skye). ; ii) Edinburgh: Director of Edinburgh Art Festival, Sorcha Carey; artist Rachel Maclean; and  then-director of Scottish Sculpture Workshop, Nuno Sacramento; and iii) Inverness: then-director of Timespan, Helmsdale; Frances Davis, artist Anne Bevan; and Director of Fife Contemporary Art and Craft, Diana Sykes. Author was present at the Edinburgh session. Information available: Creative Scotland, Visual Arts Sector Review – October 2016, Pg. 10, Accessed: 2.03.2018, Available: http://www.creativescotland.com/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/36481/Visual-Arts-Sector-Review-Final-Report.pdf

9 Ibid.

10 Creative Scotland, Mainstreaming: Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI): EDI Report 2017, Accessed: 05.03.2018, Available: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:OZ21-LHXuKEJ:www.creativescotland.com/__data/assets/word_doc/0012/23412/EDI-Mainstreaming-report-2017-FINAL-v2.docx+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=uk&client=firefox-b

11 Lubaina Himid, in: Maud Sulter (ed.), Passion: Discourses on Blackwomen’s Creativity, (West Yokshire: Urban Fox Press, 1990), 64

12 David  A. Bailey, Sonia Boyce, Ian Baucom (eds.), Shades of Black: Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 44 – 45

 

Tiffany Boyle is a curator, researcher, writer and lecturer, based in Glasgow. Together with Jessica Carden, she founded the curatorial project Mother Tongue. In 2015, Mother Tongue were awarded a research support grant from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art to undertake Afroscots, an ongoing archival and collection research project.