A response to Black Lives Matter and Structural Racism

Over recent weeks we have received a number of enquiries regarding structural racism and Black Lives Matter. We have responded to these individually and now would like to share that response even more publicly and transparently.  We welcome the conversation around these issues and have tried to be as open as we can. Whilst we have some distance to go, we wish to illustrate some of the work GoMA and Glasgow Museums have undertaken in recent years to address the areas of concern around the uncomfortable histories of our collections and buildings, alongside the under-representation of POC artists and lives in our programmes.  We want to assure you that the conversation on embedding anti-racism in our museums has already started and is not limited to perceived performative social media posting.

For context for some of the information below, it’s useful to bear in mind that GoMA is part of Glasgow Museums, which is in turn part of Glasgow Life.  Glasgow Life is an arms-length external organisation (ALEO) to Glasgow City Council and Glasgow Life acts as a registered charity in Scotland (no. SC037844).

Recognising the history that the museums collections and their buildings represent in Glasgow

For some time now Glasgow Museums has been running a blog looking at the legacies of slavery in Glasgow museums and collections. Many objects and documents in Glasgow Museums’ collection, the City Archives, and Special Collections testify in one way or another to this grim part of our collective heritage. But through exhibitions and projects we aim to draw attention to them and explore the ways in which they can shine a light on Glasgow’s relationship with transatlantic slavery during the 17th to 19th centuries.

With a particular focus on the history of the GoMA building, Stones Steeped in History is a permanent display installed on our balconies that directly addresses the history of the building that GoMA is housed in. The display describes that the original building belonged to William Cunninghame of Lainshaw and that he was a wealthy merchant. We are explicit in detailing that his wealth, gained by trading American tobacco and Caribbean sugar, relied on the exploitation of slave labour on plantations. The information on display also gives the further context of how Glasgow’s Georgian New Town in and around Cunninghame’s mansion developed as a business quarter ensuring visitors know this new city grew through wealth acquired through slavery and selling addictive tobacco, sugar and alcohol.

This display was in tandem to work with CRER to provide free spaces for their talks and events during Black History Month and other events in our Library and the Studio spaces. Further to the research by all of our subject curators to date, Glasgow Museums are recruiting a curator’s post for the Legacies of Slavery and Empire. However, this recruitment process has currently been delayed by the impact of Covid-19 but will be a priority when we re-open.


In our programming, we hope to answer several points inquiries have raised and illustrate a range of work undertaken, both around Black Lives Matter and addressing structural racism/anti-racism, over recent years and planned for the future.

GoMA has a track record in creating space and opportunities specifically aimed at supporting Black people, both for artists and audiences. Where possible, we have waived hire fees for Black promoters / Black centred parties/events – though this can be complicated by our own charitable status – and we will look to do this again.  We do not have a huge capacity for externally produced events of any nature due to limits on numbers for the Studio and loan conditions for spaces.  Nonetheless, in the last few years we have supported Black centred programming, including talks,  dance, workshops, and events,  in the public programme. We have also commissioned works like After Dark and Baldwin’s Nigger Reloaded II and offered support for younger emerging artist like PJ Harper, selected by the GoMA Youth Group for their exhibition GROWTH. Working with artists is a key part of what we do and ongoing conversations and events, for instance with Alberta Whittle (Associate Artist 2018 –2019) Ajamu (After Dark 2018) and Camara Taylor (Domestic Bliss commission 2019), inform our thinking.

We also recognise that our exhibitions are a key space for POC work to be seen and enjoyed, so have been involved in commissioning and collecting work for permanent exhibitions like Familiar Strangers: Portraits by Ajamu X, Polygraphs, Domestic Bliss and upcoming exhibitions like Drink in the Beauty (currently planned for 2021) and AfroScots: Revisiting the Work of Black Artists in Scotland through New Collecting  (co-curated with Mother Tongue  and currently planned for 2021).

This recognition of POC artists also extends to our collecting activities, which create a more visible presence in the city. Recently, these have been supported by the Art Fund funded New Collecting Awards and acquisitions for gifts of other works by artists like Ajamu (2009), Amanda Thomson (2013) Walter Price (2017), Lisandro Suriel (2020); alongside the Art Fund Award of John Akomfrah (2019) and, just last month, through the Contemporary Arts Society and Frieze London Rapid Response Fund, we were able to acquire works by Rabiya Choudhry. We also began an ongoing photographic commission with Matthew Arthur Williams with new artists added every year.

Alongside artists, we have a history of working with groups in the community to put on exhibitions in GoMA, initially in our balcony spaces and now in Gallery 2 – COMMONSpace. Most recently this included Everyday Racism. This public programme developed by our learning team sits alongside the work they regularly do for example, with handling kits and legacies of slavery workshops for primary and secondary schools , to discuss and educate our audience about our past, or working with the objects in our current Domestic Bliss exhibition.

We were asked about donations to support Black people and activists on the front line. Again, our charitable status complicates this in terms of monetary donations but some of our projects do address this in terms of support in kind and paid commissions for artists and activists, e.g. Baldwin’s Nigger Reloaded II and Transit Zone.

Staff and Training

Glasgow Life staff, including Glasgow Museums, have had and continue to have training on Critical Whiteness to support us being able to address racism and lack of equality in an open and constructive manner. We have also addressed the issue of “unconscious bias”, especially in recruitment, to drive towards genuine equality of representation. Our programme in the past, and hopefully in the future, has engaged with academic, artistic and activist thought on these issues and, where possible, we work with colleagues in other departments to support our work – those in Communities and Arts, more specifically, the Senior Arts & Music Manager: Diversity.

These staffing examples may not be as comprehensive as points raised regarding staffing across all areas, including senior management. Nonetheless, we are committed to making opportunities for POC employees. We have taken part in Museums Galleries Scotland intern programme, Heritage Horizons/Skills for the Future which opened up employment opportunities for POC participants.  We are also currently involved with the similar British Council-led Our Shared Cultural Heritage initiative, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Kick the Dust programme. We recognise that the workplace can be problematic and our employment procedures, including grievance and discipline, include guidelines around all forms of discrimination in the workplace and would be subject to the Equality Act (2010).

GoMA’s collecting and programming has diversity at their heart and, whilst the form of the programming may change in response to the practicalities of our post-Covid-19 operations, we intend to maintain this path.

We understand that our city participated fully in the slavery economy, yet the journey of re-discovery and coming to terms with that participation is still in its infancy, and it has a long way to go. There is still much to do but we hope that this response goes some way to address the points raised in recent weeks.

Gareth James
Museums Manager
Gallery of Modern Art, Kelvin Hall

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