LONDON — Whilst 2017 has seen a growth in the consciousness of unequal workplace practices in the art world and further afield, there is still much work to be done. Social media campaigns such as #metoo and #wearenotsurprised — which followed upon accusations of sexual harassment and abuse by film producer Harvey Weinstein and Artforum’s co-publisher Knight Landesman — raised awareness of the difficulties faced by women in the arts and media. The complaints brought attention to issues of gender discrimination in these fields. There still remains, however, a mountain to climb in terms of addressing the interlocking issues of empowerment, especially when associated with class, gender, race and sexual orientation.
In 1972, the late John Berger — critic, novelist and poet — said in Ways of Seeing, the British Broadcasting Corporation TV series: “The art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class.” Such sentiments still clearly ring true as earlier this month Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of Rupert Murdoch, media mogul and executive chairman of 20th Century Fox, was appointed as a national council member of Arts Council England. The role will see Murdoch serve alongside 13 other council members responsible for the governance of Art Council England (ACE), one of England’s key public arts bodies, which defines its mission as providing “great art and culture for everyone.”
The appointment has met with widespread protests across social media due to Murdoch’s power and influence in the media and her prior links to ACE’s Director, Nicholas Serota. The decision to formally appoint Murdoch to her position was officially taken by the British secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Karen Bradley. However, given Serota’s prior appointment of Murdoch as a Tate Trustee between 2008 to 2016, and as a Chairman of the Tate Modern Advisory Council from 2009 to 2016, it seems likely that the former Tate Director played a role in her recruitment.
Serota’s apparent disregard for conflicts of interest in selecting Murdoch to the role does not stop here. Elisabeth Murdoch is founder of the Freelands Group, an investment fund that comprises two non-profit bodies: Freelands Ventures and Freelands Foundation, which respectively give support to media, technology, and visual arts projects. The Freelands Foundation has given financial support to the Cornubian Arts and Science Trust (CAST ) an educational charity run by Serota’s wife, Teresa Gleadowe. Murdoch has also in the past given donations to Tate, including a sum of at least one million pounds towards the extension of Tate Modern during Serota’s tenure.
Following the appointment of Murdoch, alongside nine other council members, Serota made a statement that: “It is so important that boards address diversity in the process of recruiting new members,” pointing both to the appointment of 24-year-old George Mpanga, a second generation Ugandan poet born in the UK, and the equal male-to-female ratio of the board. Yet this does not compensate for the disproportionate power Murdoch now yields within the art world or the conflict of interest presented by having her serve in what is effectively a managerial capacity on ACE, a public institution, whilst holding shares in both News Corp and 21st Century Fox, media companies with an explicitly right-wing, tax-avoidance, and low-public-spending agendas.
Nicola Triscott, independent writer and researcher and director/CEO of Arts Catalyst, a recipient of ACE funding, said that the move, “sends a disturbing message about power and privilege to the arts sector at a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult for those without family wealth and powerful connections to make careers in the arts.”
One body looking to overturn the appointment of Murdoch is the Artists’ Union England (AUE), who have launched an open letter and petition. The union was established in 2014 and, in its words, aims to, “challenge the economic inequalities in the art world by working together to negotiate fair pay and better working conditions for artists, as well as promote models for good practice.” Union member Shiri Shalmy stated in interview that:
As a cultural worker and union activist, I am extremely concerned about Murdoch’s appointment to a pubic body responsible for deciding cultural policy on a national level. Murdoch is currently the acceptable front for a family business famous for racism, sexism, xenophobia, and an opposition to workers’ rights — in complete contrast to the values ACE claims to promote.
Serota himself is no stranger to scrutiny. In April this year it emerged that low-paid staff in the midst of pay disputes at Tate Modern had been asked via a letter posted to a notice board in a communal workspace to donate money for a leaving present for Serota as outgoing Tate director: a boat for his retirement. He had already secured his position as director of Art Council England prior to leaving his post and took with him a record jaded by controversies. To take one of many examples of the issues that undermine Serota’s position, in 2005 Serota purchased £700,000 of work from Chris Ofili, one of 14 Tate-appointed trustees appointed by the UK prime minister to develop policy and set the strategic agenda for the Tate’s galleries at the time, signaling a clear conflict of interest.
At the end of this past year in which the art world has appeared tenuously open to discussing inequality — at least on gender and race terms — it is time to question the seriousness of these apparently honorable intentions. Taking the powerful to account for unfair work practices within the art world will involve a serious look at the social composition and hierarchy of the art world. For now, a reversal of Elisabeth Murdoch’s appointment would signal a serious commitment on the part of ACE to provide art and culture for all.