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21 June 2021updated 31 Aug 2021 5:16am

Barbican Stories: the arts centre’s lack of action against racism feels like a “punch in the gut”

A new book, written by Barbican employees of colour, details more than 100 instances of alleged racist behaviour at the London institution. 

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

“Speak up if you see something that needs changing,” is number seven in a list of “10 things you need to know about the Barbican”, according to a company-sanctioned handbook handed out to new staff joining the London arts organisation. In another section, a “letter to yourself on the day you started”, comes the advice: “It’s frustrating at times, but never dull.” The guide, which has a bright yellow cover and is printed with the Barbican’s trademark sans-serif “Futura” typeface, was written by employees of the centre in September 2016. 

Now, its design has been subverted to highlight allegations of institutional racism at the Barbican. A new book, Barbican Stories, compiled and produced by current and former Barbican employees of colour, mimics the handbook’s aesthetic style and tone. Subtitled “An indispensable record of discrimination in the workplace”, the book details more than 100 instances of alleged racist and prejudiced behaviour directed towards Barbican employees, including accounts in which staff members recall being referred to as “diversity hires”, and being routinely mistaken for other people of the same ethnicity in staff meetings. Current and former staff shared their stories anonymously for the book. The alleged incidents date back to 2014, while some are said to have occurred during the past year.

Barbican employees who worked on the team who produced Barbican Stories, and who asked to remain anonymous, described the project as a “method of radical archiving”. “The reason we created a record in the format of a book is because we were faced with an unflinching institutional structure that wouldn’t record our experiences” or would “forget them by institutional amnesia”, they said. 

As well as the stories, the book features two forewords – one for people who have experienced racism, and one for those who have not – and an overview of the Barbican’s “radical histories”, starting with a description of the poor conditions for workers (many of whom were migrants) constructing the building in the 1960s. It also includes a component of speculative fiction, which imagines a revolutionary future following the book’s publication: “Whiteness clings to the walls like moisture. Visitors are too ashamed to cross the picket line… One unremarkable day, the Barbican ruins collapse in on themselves. The debris blows away to reveal an ON SALE sign.”

Barbican Stories, the employees said, was forged in June 2020 by staff members “looking for a more radical space within the institution”. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests of that summer, the Barbican, like many other institutions, released a statement (see the “June 2020” subheading) that acknowledged the centre’s lack of progress on issues relating to race and privilege, and outlined a plan committing to “eradicating racism in all its forms”. But, the employees said, many staff members “felt like we were being fed the institutional narrative – this kind of ‘We need to be better; we care’ – but were never spoken to personally by management or the directorate. The institution’s inability to show they were genuinely committed felt like a punch in the gut for all of us.”

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In May 2021, the Barbican issued an update to its statement detailing plans to “entirely rewrite” the institution’s equality and inclusion strategy, including recruiting for an equality, diversity and inclusion role for the first time. The centre has promised to publish an update on its progress in July. Following the publication of Barbican Stories on 10 June, it released a statement in response, which described the organisation as “shocked and saddened to hear about these allegations” and promised to launch an independent review into them. The employees who worked on Barbican Stories said the Barbican had not contacted the project directly to discuss the allegations. The centre’s statement, they said, used “the same language as before, quite predictable” and followed a year “of receiving loads of emails and not seeing any change. There is no reason for us to believe this is any different.”

The Barbican declined an interview with the New Statesman for this article. A Barbican spokesperson commented: “The content of Barbican Stories and the broader context of our anti-racism work will be looked into by the independent review, and therefore it is not appropriate for us to respond on any specific details at this time. As we have said to our staff, we welcome that people have shared their experiences, and our priority is the welfare of all of those affected. We remain committed to our ongoing programme of action to advance anti-racism in the organisation to ensure that we are inclusive, open and welcoming to all and that everyone’s voice is heard and respected here.”

Physical copies of the book, which is also available to read online, were sent to the Barbican’s directors, heads of department, and selected members of the board last week. Rather than highlighting the issues within the institution via an open letter or a protest, the staff behind Barbican Stories decided upon the format of a book “because it pretends to speak a language that power understands, but it is actually ‘Trojan horsing’ a collective complaint”. They said it felt like a statement of subversion to “wrap human complaints in the Barbican’s own design”.

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The focus of Barbican Stories is on systemic racism. “That’s why we’ve not named ourselves, but also why we’ve not named the perpetrators,” said the employees, who also suggested that change has been so slow at the Barbican because of the institution’s “bureaucratic” set-up, which has a “steep hierarchy that makes it incredibly difficult to change culture from the bottom”. But the nature of racism as systemic does not exclude the need for accountability, they said. By sending copies of the book to senior staff at the Barbican, the project is saying: “The people who hold power in this current way of working are the people who should be held accountable for allowing the system to exist.” Staff of colour working on Barbican Stories sought out white “allies” to donate money to fund the printing of the book. Now, the employees said, they hope white colleagues will continue the book’s work by “stepping up and holding people accountable for the culture that has been created”. They asked Barbican members and visitors who care about these allegations to write to the centre expressing their concerns.

The employees acknowledged the existence of similar problems at other UK arts institutions. “I think real change will come when people in power leave,” they said. “How can we let the same people who have let this happen on their watch over the past 20 years say that they will make things better? Ultimately, the book invites you to completely reimagine what art institutions could be.”