Safe White Spaces

Andy Butler

Staying sane as a person of colour in the arts in Australia means being able to hold two oppositional ideas as simultaneously true. One is that there is a community of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour in the arts who are doing important and incredible work. The other is that the sector is aggressively and institutionally White.

I heard Eleanor Jackson, ex-Editor-in-Chief of Peril Magazine, say something along these lines during AsiaTOPA, and I’ve since clung onto this in the interests of maintaining my own reserves of mental and emotional wellbeing – seemingly a requirement of navigating the arts sector and its spaces when you’re not White.

There were quite a few points in this past year where the precarious balance between these two ideas was tipped over. The main incident was when I first flicked through Melissa Loughnan’s Australiana to Zeitgeist at the NGV Design Store. It was after I’d spent some time seeing Ross Coulter’s Audience (2013-16) up on level three, as a part of NGV’s Festival of Photography. I’d already read the criticisms from Abdul Abdullah and Sophia Cai about Loughnan’s book, and was so happy that they’d had the confidence to call it out. But standing there in the Design Store – having recently left my job at the NGV, where I had felt the lack of diversity acutely – the Whiteness of the contemporary arts sector seemed immovable and inevitable.

Audience offers a document of audiences standing in empty galleries. Over three years, from 2013 to 2016, the project involved more than 90 galleries and over 850 people. I’m in a couple of the images, along with many familiar faces from the Melbourne arts community. Ross had public callouts over social media for participants, and many of the featured galleries put out their own internal callouts, asking people to stand in gallery spaces in-between shows, and pretend to look on at a performance that wasn’t there. Over 400 silver gelatin prints snaked across the walls of the gallery. While it certainly isn’t a complete survey of all the people who are involved in the contemporary arts sector in Melbourne, it does offer a broad overview of who orbits in proximity to the community that Loughnan and many of the artists in A to Z are a part of.


Ross Coulter, Audience 4/11/15 #1
2013 – 2016. Silver gelatin print. Image courtesy the artist


This work has been regarded as significant in terms of providing such an extensive snapshot of the Melbourne art community, but also in the way it turns the archival impulse away from the artworks and onto the people who have a hand in forming an artistic community. Through removing everything from the gallery except bodies, Audience, as the accompanying catalogue essay suggests, allows a network of connections between the images that ‘has organic potential in the way it might change and be thought of in five, ten or twenty years’ time.’

Taking in the exhibition, with the discussion around Loughnan raging on in the background, all I could see was the stark Whiteness of our community. Across all the images, a pattern emerged in near every gallery represented.


Ross Coulter, Audience 17:08:15 #1
2013 – 2016. Silver gelatin print. Image courtesy the artist


Whiteness is the default of our sector, and without actively working against it, the arts will only reproduce it. Australiana to Zeitgeist makes that apparent. While some responsibility certainly needs to be taken by Loughnan for producing a book that renders invisible the work of non-White[1] artists, I think the question the arts community, especially in Melbourne, should be asking itself is, ‘how could she have made a book that was any different?’


Ross Coulter, Audience 17:11:13 #4
2013 – 2016. Silver gelatin print. Image courtesy the artist  


Whiteness, in an Australian context, is the set of colonial values from Northern-Europe that were transplanted to Australia and have taken on a life of their own in this country. We can see it in the Melbourne arts community – there is an implicit racial hierarchy that is evident in the sheer absence of non-White people and their practices; an elevation of Western visual arts history above all else; a one-dimensional and ill-informed view of non-White experience, that nevertheless still determines how non-White people navigate the world and the spaces of the community; an idea that racism is an individual moral failing as opposed to a structural problem; and an inability to acknowledge the fact that we’re all implicated in a system of structural racism that favours Whiteness. As an arts worker, I see these dynamics play out near every day.

I imagined the artworks and practices discussed in A to Z sitting just outside the frame of the images in Audience. It felt completely normal. The spaces that can legitimise your career as an artist, and provide you with the networks to build on your practice fare not much better in terms of diversity than Australiana to Zeitgeist. While I feel Loughnan needs to acknowledge her own accountability when replying to criticisms, the Melbourne arts community also needs to acknowledge that this is a system we are all implicated in. Scapegoating Loughnan won’t make the issue go away.

Opening Australiana to Zeitgeist’s ‘A’ with three White men who all studied at the Victorian College of the Arts, had residencies at Gertrude Contemporary, and make art about Australian identity, really sets the tone for the rest of the book. While it’s true that Loughnan could only select three artists for each theme, choosing such a culturally homogenous group to tackle ‘Australiana’ is hilarious but also completely unsurprising for the arts community in Melbourne, especially when you consider that the VCA and Gertrude are both culturally homogenous institutions.


Ross Coulter, Audience 21:10:13 #7
2013 – 2016. Silver gelatin print. Image courtesy the artist  


It continues in Loughnan’s book with ‘B’ for ‘Body’ – all three artists are White, one artist studied at the VCA, the other did a Gertrude residency, the other has done neither, but she studied at COFA and had a solo show at ACCA. What’s funnier than the connections between the educational and exhibition history of the three artists in this section is that Loughnan didn’t think to include anyone who doesn’t have a White body.

Honestly, I quite like a lot of the artists in Australiana to Zeitgeist. Even if not all the work is to my taste, the majority have a practice of a calibre that is deserving of recognition. I wholeheartedly agree with Loughnan that Australian visual art should be taken more seriously. The quality of the artists represented in the book reflect the amount of time and energy that is put into executing projects, to experimenting with ideas, to failing, to building a community around you who can support you and help develop your practice. We are lucky in Melbourne to have a network of art schools, galleries and institutions that form a strong enough ecology to build a career in the arts.

I’m focussing on Melbourne for this article because it is the community that I am most familiar with. Out of the 78 artists from around Australia who are featured in Australiana to Zeitgeist, 27 of the 78 have undertaken a Gertrude residency, 29 have studied at the Victorian College of the Arts, 36 have been involved in exhibitions at TCB, and 45 have been involved in exhibitions at West Space. Whiteness is a systemic problem for the Contemporary Art in-crowd. If these numbers aren’t convincing enough, then Audience is.

Audience is the best visual representation of Whiteness in Melbourne’s art community that we could hope for. It is also demonstrative of the way that ‘diversity’ functions in these sorts of spaces.


Ross Coulter, Audience 15:07:14 #3
2013 – 2016. Silver gelatin print. Image courtesy the artist  


Whiteness isn’t just measured by numbers, even though they do help to show the extent of the issue. Whiteness is also about what’s considered normal, and who holds power. Institutions are defined by the bodies that inhabit them, that exist in proximity to them, who are reflected in their history and culture, and who are involved in and have influence over their decision-making processes. Many of the people in Audience have a closer connection to contemporary art and its production than the general population. The outcome is a sea-of-Whiteness.

There are non-White people in the arts community in Melbourne, and in Ross Coulter’s Audience project. The way that these bodies function though, especially in this series, is as a deviation from the White norm. The institutional Whiteness across the arts community makes the majority White make-up of these spaces relatively invisible, unless you’re actively looking for it. It’s very noticeable when you’re not White ­­– when your body or cultural background is thrown into relief because it can’t be assimilated into unmarked Whiteness and its values. I’ve felt it when my own non-White body is understood and determined and interpreted for me by the Whiteness that frames it in these spaces, even when my Kalgoorlie-to-Perth-to-Melbourne-Australian accent comes out.


Ross Coulter, Audience 22:01:15 #2
2013 – 2016. Silver gelatin print. Image courtesy the artist   


When I don’t have the emotional energy to try and swim upstream against it, I assimilate into Whiteness as much as I can, even though my skin-colour will never allow me to fully fit in. I’ll do things like talk in my best White-person-customer-service-voice, give subtle and overt cues to people that they’re not racist, and not bring up the fact that a space is culturally homogenous while at the same time claiming to be progressive and inclusive. The main thing to remember when trying to assimilate is to never make progressive White people feel uncomfortable about the fact that they benefit from racism, or that they exist in a bubble that excludes non-White people.

When I walk into a space that is very White I notice when other non-White people are in the room, and especially notice when they’re not there. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. To me there’s a difference in feelings of openness and joy as the burden lifts from you when you walk into a room in the arts community and White people are the minority. When you don’t have to navigate White fragility, entitlement, feigned innocence and concentrated power anymore – when I realise how much effort it has taken me to be visibly different, to play along with a system of values that over my lifetime has reinforced that I need to see myself as lesser-than, or think of my skin-colour as a misfortune that assimilation will help me overcome.

Whiteness is the default of our sector. In Australiana to Zeitgeist, Loughnan thought very little about how race functions in the arts. In Audience, because of the process of how the groups of people were bought together (through open calls for participation), it wasn’t an operative thought either. This is normal for our sector and the spaces we congregate in, where there is often little-to-no active engagement with trying to counteract the homogeneity of the arts. This is what happens when non-White people in positions of power in the arts are the rare exception to the rule, when Whiteness is embedded into everything we do. It’s White all the way down from the NGV to the art schools, and all the way across from board members, directors, curators to the audiences.

‘Diversity’ is functioning perfectly in both Australiana to Zeitgeist and in Audience if one sees it solely as ‘the inclusion of people who look different.’ There are a relative handful of non-White participants in both projects. For many in the arts sector, this seems to be enough.

The mere inclusion of diverse artists involves no necessary redistribution of power, or attempt to remedy the structural issues that have excluded non-White perspectives or practices. It only allows non-White participants in on the terms of the White people who hold the power and determine the character of the spaces the community occupies. That’s why White institutions love ‘Diversity’. It’s comfortable. What’s most depressing is when this inclusion is used to hide the unequal distribution of power and institutional Whiteness in an organisation. I’m constantly thrown by how difficult it is for a group of well-educated, progressive, middle-class White people to acknowledge this.


Ross Coulter, Audience 23:11:15 #4
2013 – 2016. Silver gelatin print. Image courtesy the artist


Diversity is so ‘on-trend’ right now, but without any real critical reflection on Whiteness in the sector it will be a passing fad. If we want to overcome and decentre Whiteness in these spaces, given that it functions as a set of values, power structures, a whole framework for making sense of experience, and a way of determining what’s good art – as well as being invested in skin colour – then we’ll need more than a body count.

The criticisms levelled at TCB for the internally curated exhibition, The World is Waiting for the Sunrise, happened while I’ve been working on this article. In terms of the issues about Whiteness, it was the most unsurprising and common occurrence for our arts community — there are exhibitions all the time that only feature White artists. The ways the criticisms have been dealt with by TCB have been questionable. While I understand that all board members of TCB are volunteers, and crisis management is difficult terrain even when you have paid staff, the way it has played out is indicative of how Whiteness is dealt with in the sector. There is talk, there are apologies, and it’s swept under the rug as the program rolls on. All the while the distribution of power in terms of who has a say in the character of the space remains culturally homogenous.

The TCB show got a lot of attention because it also involved an artist against whom allegations of sexual assault have been levelled. While this issue and the problem of Whiteness are different, and need to be discussed separately, the artist in question has previously been included in exhibitions at West Space, Gertrude, ACCA, studied at the Victorian College of the Arts, and is in Australiana to Zeitgeist. Again, while the TCB Board Member who curated the exhibition needs to be held accountable, it is symptomatic of our community and its structural issues.

I don’t want to make it sound like the problem of Whiteness is too big to overcome. While it is true that it is bigger than any one person, these institutions and spaces aren’t functioning independently of people. It’s the bodies that come together in them that make them, it’s the accumulated history of different decisions, along with the exhibitions and other contributions that play a huge part in making them so White. While I don’t know the answers on how to fix a system that’s so broken, right now the Melbourne arts community certainly doesn’t feel like an open and safe space for non-White people to be a part of long-term, especially while White people are patting themselves on the back for embracing ‘inclusion’ while at the same time maintaining a structurally racist distribution of power.


Ross Coulter, Audience 18:08:15 #2
2013 – 2016. Silver gelatin print. Image courtesy the artist   


I regularly ask myself why I keep on coming back to these spaces. The reality is, I wholeheartedly believe in the central importance of creativity in a community. It also happens that the VCA, Gertrude, West Space, TCB and the NGV have more resources than a lot of other spaces. In monetary terms, Gertrude receives over $200 000 a year from the Australia Council, West Space over $100 000[2], and TCB receives significant enough funding from various places to offer free exhibition space and artist fees. I don’t want to be taken to be saying that they don’t deserve that money, but on my view, with those resources should come a sense of responsibility to the communities they are meant to serve. When these spaces are the ones that can offer the opportunities required to develop a career as an artist, and to legitimise your practice to the point that you could be included in a publication like Loughnan’s that will go out to schools, and be given national and international attention, things don’t look promising if you’re not White.

A lot of us don’t have the privilege of being able to work outside of the system to find the support we need to build a career. Not everyone has the resources to start their own gallery, and for the moment it seems that near every other space distributes power along racialised lines.


Ross Coulter, Audience 23:12:14 #5
2013 – 2016. Silver gelatin print. Image courtesy the artist 

*Andy wishes to sincerely thank Ross Coulter for his time and expertise during the research of this article.


[1] I want to acknowledge that using the White/non-White binary in this essay glosses over nuances and differences in the distribution of power and experience across the communities who’d fall under the ‘non-White’ umbrella. Trying to find terms to understand groups of people is difficult and never perfect. I feel like this conversation is alive and well in many non-White spaces I’ve been to and I hope to see it continue. Given the paucity of critical reflection in ‘flagship’ Melbourne galleries and spaces, the White/non-White binary is useful in turning the White gaze back on itself, and making clear the centrality of Whiteness in the spaces and communities I describe.


Andy Butler is a Filipino-Australian writer and curator. He was a participant in Footscray Community Art Centre’s 2017 Emerging Cultural Leaders program, the recipient of...


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