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black and white photo of artist Louise Bourgeois

Portrait of artist Louise Bourgeois


The following essay 'Breaking the Code: new approaches to diversity and equality in the arts' is a chapter from 'Beyond Cultural Diversity: the case for creativity' - a publication compiled and edited by Richard Appignanesi for Third Text

Expanding equality and democratic possibilities in the realm of arts and culture can take us all – arts institutions, theatres and galleries, arts companies, artists, academics, curators, critics, audiences and participants – on a journey that leaves behind increasingly outmoded approaches to our artistic and cultural life in favour of new ways of seeing and telling and making. We can begin to overcome notions that have wrongly cast diversity and equality policies as an unwelcome obligation or burden on the artistic world, and instead turn this ‘deficit model’ into its opposite – a progressive force that can renew the arts in this country and lay the foundations for its artistic and democratic renewal.

Arts Council England is committed to developing the creative or artistic case for diversity – that recognises that art placed in the margins through structural barriers and antiquated and exclusive approaches needs to be brought to the centre of our culture and valued accordingly. The Arts Council believes that the creative case approach demands three interlocking progressions:

1 Equality
There has to be a continued drive for equality to remove barriers in the arts world, releasing and realising potential and helping to transform the arts so that they truly reflect the reality of the diverse country that we have become but still do not fully recognise.

2 Recognition
There has to be a new conversation that attempts through various means to resituate diverse artists, both historically and theoretically, at the centre of British art – whether that is the performing arts, the visual arts, music, literature or film.

3 A New Vision
There must also be the construction and dissemination of a new framework for viewing diversity, one that takes it out of a negative or ‘deficit’ model and places it in an artistic context. Diversity becomes not an optional extra but part of the fabric of our discussions and decisions about how we encourage an energetic, relevant, fearless and challenging artistic culture in England and the wider world.

The belief that there is only one way of defining taste, only one canon by which to judge what is great art and what is not, has increasingly been challenged over the past forty years. In many respects, old fashioned elitist notions of a universalist Western canon have been hollowed out by streams of critical thought that have succeeded, in part, in infiltrating even our biggest arts institutions.

However, those who have the power to define what is ‘great art’ still give the impression that their judgments are based on ‘expertise’, following universal rules traced all the way back to the Greeks and the Romans, and that only those who are trained to decipher the code can understand the true intrinsic value of the work of art, the recital or the performance.

So, although there may have been an intellectual tilt towards a more egalitarian view of history and of diverse arts practice, the reins of power, and thus authority, largely remain in the same privileged hands. In a sense a culture of middle-class entitlement still prevails. A significant shift in the access to resources, to galleries and stages and to academic legitimacy has yet to take place.

Also, there are many fields of endeavour that have yet to be fully opened up. For example, there needs to be an appreciation by policy makers and funders that much innovation takes place at the margins, yet it is this experimentation with ways of seeing and telling that reinvigorates culture and connects it to present realities, not those of past times.

This is not new thinking: the innovative potential was highlighted in Sir Brian McMaster’s 2008 report to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport into excellence in the arts: "Within these concepts of excellence, innovation and risk-taking, and running through everything that follows below, must be a commitment to diversity. The diverse nature of 21st century Britain is the perfect catalyst for ever greater innovation in culture and I would like to see diversity put at the heart of everything cultural. We live in one of the most diverse societies the world has ever seen, yet this is not reflected in the culture we produce, or in who is producing it. Out of this society, the greatest culture could grow… it is my belief that culture can only be excellent when it is relevant, and thus nothing can be excellent without reflecting the society which produces and experiences it." [Supporting Excellence in the Arts: From Measurement to Judgement, Department of Culture, Media and Sport, London, January 2008, p 11]

We can all be enlightened by new ways of telling the story of the development of contemporary art in Britain. Post World War II immigration has forever changed the essence of British life – so why cannot this be properly articulated within the arts? There needs to be an acknowledgement that, for example, artists whose work has been marginalised through inequalities and structures of discrimination in wider society have nevertheless had a significant and sometimes pivotal influence on artistic genres, forms and styles that have developed over the years. Diversity in its widest sense is intrinsic to the development of art and culture, yet this viewpoint is often obscured by orthodox and dogmatic narratives and histories.

Rasheed Araeen of 'Third Text' has already identified a ‘missing story’ in the context of post Second World War visual arts:
"The presence of artists in Britain originating from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean is totally absent from the official narratives of art history… Although some Afro-Asian artists have been received benevolently and with admiration, there is little institutional recognition that the absence of non-white artists from mainstream art history has falsified the history of modernism."

Similar points can (and have been) been developed around the way in which women artists have been situated in the mainstream discourse. When the artist Louise Bourgeois died recently at the age of ninety-eight, obituary writers and art critics praised her for her ‘persistence’ and noted that she had not gained deserved prominence until she was into her seventies.

However most did not touch on how she was excluded from the charmed circle of male artists whose work was purchased and exhibited by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the late 1930s: "Because I was French and kind of discreet, they tolerated me – with my accent I was a little strange, I was not competition – and I was cute, I guess. They took me seriously on a certain level, but they refused to help me professionally. The trustees of the Museum of Modern Art were not interested in a young woman coming from Paris. They were not flattered by her attention. They were not interested in her three children. I was definitely not socially needed then. They wanted male artists, and they wanted male artists who did not say they were married. They wanted male artists who would come alone and be their charming guests. Rothko could be charming. It was a court. And the artist buffoons came to court to entertain, to charm." (Donald Kuspit, An Interview with Louise Bourgeois, Vintage Books, London, 1998)

It took MoMA fifty years to mount a major exhibition of Bourgeois’s work (and thereby the first retrospective of a female artist). According to the artist herself this finally came about in 1982 because a female curator, Deborah Wye, ‘convinced them [the trustees] that I was important’.