“White Fragility” Impedes Change at CFCCA
By Chloe Chu
Seven artists are leading a petition, now signed by over 680 people, calling for the Arts Council England to defund the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) in Manchester, and for other creative professionals to boycott the Centre. In a report published on May 17, the artists claim that there is a “deep-rooted racism at the core of the institution” and that it is “unfit for purpose.” The Centre had originally assembled the seven practitioners—Eelyn Lee, Enoch Cheng, Erika Tan, Gayle Chong Kwan, Jack Tan, Whiskey Chow, and Yuen Ling Fong—all of Chinese heritage, as an Artists Working Group (AWG), to help review its equality and inclusion practices, beginning September 2020, after it had received complaints about the lack of Chinese staff on its team.
Issues of representation at the CFCCA first surfaced in March 2020, when artist JJ Chan rescinded their participation in a group exhibition and penned an open letter, citing the sudden departure of curator Tiffany Leung—one of two non-White people on the CFCCA’s staff of 13 at the time—as a serious cause for concern about the institution’s practices. Later, speaking on a radio show in October 2020, Leung revealed that her resignation was due to racial discrimination and bullying. In their text, Chan argues that “whilst we continue to operate in systems that privilege and offer more authority to the white voice, that voice will inevitably become the perspective that is heard the loudest: the narratives that become histories.”
Spurred by Chan’s letter and artists withdrawing from the exhibition “A New Constellation: Chinese Diaspora Now,” which was eventually canceled, the CFCCA pledged “to deliver a revisioning project to enable positive change within the organisation,” as director Zoe Dunbar wrote to AAP in July 2020. However, according to the AWG’s statement, the first “revisioning” workshop with all board and staff members in January suggested “a habitual expectation in the leadership of CFCCA that inequality and racially discriminatory outcomes in society were normal.” Specifically, the report alleges that the board used meritocratic excuses for the staff’s lack of diversity, with one board member saying in the meeting that “there were no qualified Chinese or curators/employees of colour in the job market.”
These preconceptions were challenged by the AWG, and, according to an AWG representative, “two members of the board intervened to express concern about exposing the staff members in attendance to [the AWG’s] blame”—a statement that the AWG took to be “framing AWG as a harmful and threatening group to White staff.” “Just when we need [the] UK’s only ‘Chinese’ visual arts centre to be speaking up for the Stop Asian Hate and BLM [Black Lives Matter] movements, CFCCA is doubling down on protecting white privilege and white occupation in the organisation,” the report reads.
The CFCCA formally halted AWG’s activities on March 31, in order “to recruit a new Chair of Trustees as this is essential to the project’s successful delivery.” The former chair, Lisa Yam, told AAP that she had stepped down because she “did not feel able to devote the time and effort necessary to guiding the CFCCA through what is clearly a demanding and challenging period in its history.” In late May, five other trustees from the board of 11 people and all five curatorial staff resigned for various reasons. Nick Buckley Wood, director of private sales in Asia at Sotheby’s and previously a board member, has been named the interim chair.
After pausing its relationship with the AWG, the CFCCA also canceled a public talk about race, identity, and migration that was to coincide with the exhibition “Multiplicities in Flux.” In an email addressed to one of the AWG members and seen by AAP, the Centre explained that the CFCCA’s current focus is on “how we might interrupt our white fragility to build capacity to sustain cross-racial honesty . . . we just aren’t ready and when we are the conversation will be richer for it.”
The CFCCA’s origins date back to 1986 as an artist-led nonprofit platform for British Chinese artists. Now a National Portfolio Organisation, it has received GBP 1.15 million (USD 1.63 million) for its operations in 2018–22. In a statement from May 20, the CFCCA claims that it is “working with Arts Council England to ensure our policies and approaches are robust and equality led.” Aside from demanding that the Council reallocate the CFCCA’s funds to support the practices of East and Southeast Asian artists, the AWG is urging for the Council to acknowledge its role in the CFCCA’s failures and for it to establish a diverse, independent body to monitor its accountability and that of the organizations it finances.
Chloe Chu is the managing editor of ArtAsiaPacific.
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