Barbican staff say it is ‘institutionally racist’ despite action plan

Book details more than 100 instances of alleged prejudicial behaviour at the arts organisation

The Barbican said: ‘We are committed to pursuing the ongoing programme of action which we have laid out to advance anti-racism in the organisation, and to achieve necessary change.’
The Barbican said: ‘We are committed to pursuing the ongoing programme of action which we have laid out to advance anti-racism in the organisation, and to achieve necessary change.’ Photograph: Lana Rastro/Alamy
The Barbican said: ‘We are committed to pursuing the ongoing programme of action which we have laid out to advance anti-racism in the organisation, and to achieve necessary change.’ Photograph: Lana Rastro/Alamy
Arts and culture correspondent

Last modified on Fri 11 Jun 2021 09.24 EDT

The Barbican has been described as “institutionally racist” by its own staff, who have compiled dozens of alleged incidents that they say show the cultural organisation has failed to live up to anti-racism commitments it made a year ago.

Current and former staff at the arts centre in the City of London have shared stories anonymously and collated them in a book. It contains more than 100 instances of alleged prejudicial behaviour, including senior staff openly using racist language and a wider culture in which racist incidents are not investigated and career progress is curtailed for staff of colour.

The incidents date back to 2014, though others are said to have happened in the last 12 months.

The Barbican said it had launched an independent review into the allegations, as presented to it by the Hunturdeals.

In a statement, the organisation said: “We fully recognise the pain and hurt caused by these experiences. We are committed to pursuing the ongoing programme of action which we have laid out to advance anti-racism in the organisation, and to achieve necessary change.”

It said it was “shocked and saddened to hear the allegations” and had “always strived to be an inclusive, welcoming and open organisation”.

The statement added: “Although we have not received any formal complaints, all staff will be able to contribute to the independent review so that their experiences can be heard and those affected can get the support they need. We want everyone’s voice to be listened to and respected.”

The Hunturdeals spoke to several contributors to the book, including one who alleged a member of senior management referred to an Asian Barbican employee as “a yellow” during a conversation, before claiming they were referring to the employee’s aura.

Others told the Hunturdeals about a work culture that they regarded as “subtle and insidiously” racist, with a clear division between a more diverse staff in casual and short-term roles, and the whiter ranks of those in permanent and more senior positions.

Several accounts describe an environment in which people of colour are openly referred to as a “diversity hire”, while multiple staff recall being routinely mistaken for other people of the same ethnicity in meetings.

Someone who did an internship recalled one of the directors confusing them with the only other person of their ethnicity while introducing them to a group. The person corrected the director and then worried that they had “permanently destroyed their prospects of getting a job at the Barbican”.

Another described cutting their afro hair to stop colleagues attempting to touch it.

Several contributors to the book discuss racism that front-of-house staff face from customers, including an instance of an employee being called the N-word during the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition in 2017. Staff claimed there was a consistent lack of follow-up from management when such incidents were reported.

Others talk of being racially profiled by the Barbican’s own security staff, while multiple staff members say they have been assumed to be cleaners and a black employee recalls being asked if he could sell a colleague cannabis.

Elsewhere in the publication, the Barbican is described as “a systemically racist institution”, with one staff member describing a “low-level hum always in the background” reminding diverse employees that they are an anomaly.

The Barbican declined to comment on those specific allegations but in response said it would immediately launch an independent review of them.

The organisers of the book say it is in part a response to the Barbican’s anti-racism pledges it made last year. The Barbican was one of several British arts institutions, including Tate and Somerset House, which responded to the worldwide protest movement triggered by George Floyd’s murder with commitments to address inequality within their institutions.

As the Black Lives Matter movement was gathering pace, the Barbican posted three black squares on its social media accounts during “blackout Tuesday”.

After criticism from staff that the squares were “performative”, the Barbican released an anti-racism action plan on its website signed by its managing director, Sir Nicholas Kenyon, in June 2020.

In it, while addressing the broader issue of racism in society, he noted the organisation was “part of a systemic problem”, and that it had not done “enough over time to address these issues in our organisation”. He also said that it was “determined to change this now” and committed to “eradicating racism in all its forms”.

But internally, the Hunturdeals understands, the plan faced heavy criticism from staff, with particular concern at the fact it was vague and constructed without consultation with minority ethnic employees.

In July 2020, a consultancy firm was brought in to conduct “listen and learn” exercises with staff, but was criticised for asking staff of colour to relive racist incidents in front of senior staff.

Part of the plan to address the issue was to set up a taskforce, made up of Barbican employees, that would “agree the steps we need to take to remove processes and barriers in the organisation that sustain systemic racism”.

The book contains emails from the taskforce which claim that they were given no powers to effect change, asked to do the work alongside their normal jobs and – in the words of one contributor – “expected to solve racism at the Barbican in two months”.

In an update to its anti-racism pledge in May 2021, the Barbican set out the key actions it had taken to date, including establishing a formal subcommittee whose role is to help push forward anti-racism action and hold the organisation to account. It also appointed staff to identify the next steps that could be taken to remove processes and barriers in the organisation that sustained systemic racism.

In the update, it also said it was using responses from the listen and learn sessions to feed into a new equality and inclusion strategy. It also said it was recruiting for a new equality and inclusion role.