British Chinese artists call for boycott of ‘racist’ Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art
- Centre in Manchester appoints white people to top jobs, doesn’t require staff to speak Chinese, and all but one non-white board member has quit, artists say
- As Chinese in the UK they can’t ‘get a word in on how we want our culture represented’, one says. Centre says it is ‘listening to the criticisms’
British artists of Chinese heritage are calling for a boycott of the long-established Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) in Manchester, northern England, amid allegations of “deep-rooted” institutional racism.
The seven artists in question – Eelyn Lee, Enoch Cheng, Erika Tan, Gayle Chong Kwan, Jack Tan, Whiskey Chow and Yuen Ling Fong – were recruited by the CFCCA last September to address concerns over lack of representation in the decision-making process.
But six months later, the so-called “revisioning process” was abruptly halted by the centre, and the seven artists have since called for the resignation of the board and senior management, as well as for Arts Council England to stop funding the charity.
“It’s so Orientalist,” said one of the members of the artist working group, artist Jack Tan. “No one who has lived the experience of being Chinese in the UK can get a word in on how we want our culture represented. You would never accept an all-male staff looking after a women’s organisation, so why would we accept a Chinese organisation like this?” he says.
The allegations include a habitual and systematic preference for appointing white people to top jobs, no Chinese language requirement when recruiting, the resignation of all but one non-white board member over the past few years, and the “inexplicable” termination of contracts with Chinese heritage groups and artists.
The failed “revision” exercise was triggered by the sudden resignation last year of one of the few non-white curators, Tiffany Leung, who later alleged racism and bullying at the centre. In support of Leung, another artist, JJ Chan, pulled out of a diaspora exhibition at the CFCCA and penned a public letter accusing the centre of white, colonial attitudes in March 2020.
The seven artists were asked to join the revision exercise after they published an online petition in May last year calling for change at the CFCCA.
The centre was founded in 1986 by a group of local Chinese heritage artists frustrated by the lack of representation in the mainstream British arts scene. The allegations are especially poignant given the CFCCA’s role as the “keeper” of British Chinese art given its extensive archives.
Over the past 10 years, as China has emerged as a major economic and political power, the centre has increasingly turned its focus to the international art scene, and in 2014 it hired as its director Zoe Dunbar, previously head of exhibitions at the Imperial War Museums in the UK, who had no background in east Asian arts.
It recently appointed as its interim chairman Nick Buckley Wood, director of private sales in Asia for the auction house Sotheby’s, following the resignation of board member Lisa Yam.
The CFCCA receives an annual grant from the Arts Council, which for the four-year period from 2018 to 2022, is £287,481 (US$407,000).
“There is a real sense of entitlement, but they can’t see there is a problem. It’s only when we tried to address it that they acknowledged the problem, but then failed to do anything,” says Tan. “We got the feeling we were just there to yellow wash the organisation and then rubber stamp their heel dragging, and it got to the point when it became intolerable for us.”
Tan said the only Chinese person working in the centre is an outreach worker for elderly Chinese people in Manchester. The main activity is a “Dumpling Social Club”.
Some of the seven artists met with the Arts Council on June 2. The funding body has given the CFCCA a June 11 deadline to respond to the allegations.
“Although we are not responsible for the governance, management and operations of the organisations we fund, we do have policies and agreements in place to monitor our funded organisations and to hold them to account,” the Arts Council said in a statement.
“We have raised this, as a matter of urgency, with the board of the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art and we expect them to take appropriate action in response to the concerns and very serious issues that have been raised.
In a statement released in May, the CFCCA said it was “listening intently to the criticisms around representation” and that it was “fully committed to ensuring we work towards being an actively anti-racist and pro-equality organisation”.
“We recognise that there has been hurt caused,” the statement said. “We are concerned and saddened to read of negative experiences from staff and artists. The independent audit process was intended as a space for past and present collaborators to reach out and share, with autonomy and confidentiality, their experiences of working with the organisation.”
The CFCCA was unable to comment further to the South China Morning Post.