It was supposed to be a chance to discuss race and identity in the UK, at a critical moment in the fight for racial equality following months of Black Lives Matter protests and growing concern over anti-Asian hate.
A film exploring what it means to be British by artist Eelyn Lee was to be screened at the Centre For Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester, northwest England, which describes itself as the leading organisation for promoting Chinese contemporary culture and art in the UK.
Lee, an artist of Chinese and English heritage, was part of the Artists Working Group (AWG), a group set up as part of the gallery’s “revisioning” process supposed to address concerns about structural racism and a lack of Inclusion at the gallery. In March 2020 artist JJ Chan had written an open letter to the gallery, saying that Asian voices were underrepresented in an organisation predominantly run by white people.
In January 2021, Lee suggested that recent incidents of alleged institutional racism at the CFCCA should be included in the discussion following the screening, which was initially scheduled for November 2020 but delayed. At first the gallery said, in an email seen by VICE World News, that it was “open to conversations about CFCCA and the institution's past, present and future, and to engaging with the revisioning process through the programme, and we recognise the relevance in the context of this panel discussion,” but said that this would need to be urgently discussed. “There are some concerns about this given the relatively short turnaround, and we'd like to explore what options we have for realising the event as effectively as possible,” the email said.
By mutual consent, the discussion was delayed until February to allow the revisioning process to get started. However the gallery then decided to delay the panel until April 2021. Then, at the end of March 2021, the CFCCA emailed Lee to cancel the panel discussion entirely.
When Lee pressed for more information about the panel’s cancellation, CFCCA Director Zoe Dunbar told Lee in an email seen by VICE World News, that the reason for this closure was due to the organisation’s issues with their own “white fragility”.
Dunbar said that the centre was doing “some depth work with the staff team to consider what it means to be white within the organisation and how we might interrupt our white fragility to build capacity to sustain cross-racial honesty and move to an actively anti-racist position.
“We know challenging our racial comfort is necessary but it is shamefully rare for us all and we are working through how to build the mental and emotional capacity to sustain this discomfort.
“Some of the team are finding this process a challenge at best and unbearable at worst but we are all completely invested in the necessary change and within it are actively questioning the validity of our roles and actions...”
While the AWG had already been concerned about the process it was engaging in and the agency it would have – the CFCCA hired an external consulting company to manage and deliver the revisioning project for double the fees the AWG were being paid – the cancellation was met with shock from Lee.
“Whether they actually understood the term fully, I'm not really sure,” Lee told VICE World News. “But to turn it around and use it [white fragility] as an excuse for not being able to engage, it just kind of then means… they were censoring their whiteness yet again… retreating into the boardroom and canceling an urgent conversation that needed to be had.”
This is one of just several incidents of what artists and former workers described to VICE World News as institutional racism and a toxic working environment at the gallery. Artists and former workers say that an organisation that claims to promote Chinese art in the UK has instead become an institution which accepts racism outcomes as normal and in which white people “gatekeep” Chinese culture.
VICE World News heard stories of artists of Chinese heritage being treated as "token faces" while the centre simultaneously failed to hire staff from Chinese backgrounds.
The allegations came during a climate of rising violent attacks against Asians in the West. The coronavirus pandemic, with its origins in China, has caused an explosion of racism and bigotry. In the UK, east and southeast Asian communities have seen a 300 per cent rise in hate crimes according to End the Virus of Racism, a UK based advocacy group.
JJ Chan, an artist who has challenged the CFCCA about its treatment of Chinese artists, saw the gallery’s silence on racism around the pandemic as indicative of a wider problem. “The most powerful people in the world, people like Donald Trump... using phrases like ‘Kung Flu’, ‘the Chinese virus’… This was a remark that implicated anybody who looked East Asian across the world that would associate our bodies with the virus… The organisation didn't react to that in the same way because it didn't meet them with the same urgency.”
It was against this backdrop that the CFCCA’s own problems with race started to come to light.
These problems were experienced firsthand by the centre's non-white staff.
A curator – speaking on condition of anonymity in an effort to distance themselves from the gallery – told VICE World News how they were the only Chinese curator at the CFCCA until leaving in early 2020. They complained to management about workplace bullying and was met with indifference, they said. In response to the complaint, the curator says that in a meeting, senior CFCCA management accused them of unprofessional behaviour. They said they was made to feel unprofessional by management for raising concerns and asking for senior staff support.
“I realised that the organisation wasn’t interested in getting involved or solving the issue; they kind of turned a blind eye. It wasn't just that they neglected my claim, but they had twisted it around and said, 'hey, it's your problem, too’… I was seriously doubting my sanity,” they said.
The curator said the CFCCA allowed both institutional racism and a toxic working environment to go unchecked while ignoring those who spoke out.
“The institutional racism at the CFCCA is so heavily embedded. [There were] quite a few obvious things; when I left, they replaced my position with an assistant curator role and they hired someone that's not Chinese to do it… When I first started, the issue of race and under representation in the staff was kind of like the elephant in the room.”
“I remember being the token face,” they said, “because it's not the first time someone called them out [for having a majority white staff]. Whenever they needed a Chinese person for interviews they were like, ‘here’s X’.”
“I remember having conversations about hiring more non-white people and then one of the management said, ‘we can’t because there are just more white people out there’.”
This culture seemed, to the curator and others, a long way from the CFCCA’s founding purpose.
Originally beginning as a festival in 1986, set up by artist Amy Lai, the CFCCA began as the Chinese Arts Centre and was based in Manchester’s Chinatown until it moved to the city’s Northern Quarter in 1996. A rebrand followed in 2013 and the gallery became known as the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art.
JJ Chan withdrew their commission from the CFCCA in light of the curator’s departure. Chan realised that, with the curator gone, their work would inevitably be framed by a white, eurocentric perspective. In March 2020 they wrote an open letter which called to engage discussion about how “conversations in the UK about 'Chinese' arts are white voices”.
“The open letter felt like a last resort really, rather than being the best option.” Chan said. “I was commissioned in 2019… I raised concerns about what I saw was a danger that they were gatekeeping, or for presenting a very particular narrative of what it meant to be living in the UK or living anywhere in the world and in an East Asian body.”
In September 2020 following Chan’s letter, the CFCCA committed to a “revisioning” process, “a process of reflection, reassessment and visioning” – working with seven Chinese artists who formed the Artists Working Group (AWG), to help the centre learn how to improve its services to the Chinese contemporary art community.
However, following their first meeting with the wider staff and board as well as the creation of a ten-session revisioning work plan, the process was immediately and indefinitely paused by then Chair, Lisa Yam. In March 2021 the CFCCA informed the AWG that its input was no longer needed.
Lee and the other members of the AWG would not be deterred. They compiled a report and on the 17th of May 2021 the AWG made its findings public.
The AWG report was damning in its criticism. Its authors said that had experienced “an entrenched acceptance of racist attitudes in the organisation and a habitual expectation in the leadership of CFCCA that inequality and racially discriminatory outcomes in society were normal” and said that the CFCCA “exists to perpetuate itself through tokenistic programming, paying lip-service to equality, and through various strategies of organisational ‘yellowface’.”
As the AWG released the report, it released a petition with a series of demands, including for the leadership of the CFCCA to step down and for Arts Council England to stop funding the gallery and to investigate.
One former volunteer anonymously commented on the petition: “There were a few Chinese volunteers, and they would apply for paid jobs with CFCCA but were never successful – it felt as though CFCCA was happy to exploit these people by having them at the Front of House to give off the impression of being run by East Asians.”
“The idea that white Europeans can frame and gate-keep what is another person's culture is unthinkable in the 21st century… It follows a long line of Orientalism. That goes back to how Chinese culture has been framed in a racist way,” a spokesperson for the AWG said.
“There's something about how… people don't seem to feel that racism against Eastern Southeast Asian culture is serious,” the AWG spokesperson continued. “It’s serious if you have an all white organisation running an African arts centre but for some reason, people don't think it's serious when it's a Chinese organisation. That's to do with a particular history of subjugating and feeling entitled to subjugate Asian culture.”
VICE World News reached out to the CFCAA for comment and it directed us to a statement on its website which was written as a response to the AWG and its calls to boycott the centre.
“The focus for CFCCA’s Revisioning is our commitment to realise a new direction and genuine change… The Artist Working Group’s contribution is integral to CFCCA’s self-reflection, and their views and recommendations are an important part of the process.
“We are listening intently to the criticisms around representation across the organisation and are fully committed to ensuring we work towards being an actively anti-racist and pro-equality organisation. We are reviewing and improving CFCCA’s recruitment procedures and are investigating alternative models of leadership, to address representation within the team at a senior level.
“We recognise that there has been hurt caused. We are concerned and saddened to read of negative experiences from staff and artists.”
VICE World News approached Dunbar for a comment but did not get a response.
As a publicly funded institution with charity status, the events surrounding the CFCCA bring into question how Arts Council England funds centres such as the CFCCA and how it grades them in regards to this funding.
In 2020, Arts Council England published the “Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case” a data report that analysed representation across a number of National Portfolio Organisations (NPO) in the period 2018-2019. The report includes the “Creative Case” where NPOs, including the CFCCA, have been assessed under a four-point grading system. The Creative Case graded the CFCCA as having “met” the criteria, two of which were “engaging a diverse range of people in developing and delivering their programme” and “participating or driving initiatives to promote equality and diversity in the arts and culture”.
In a statement to VICE World News, a spokesperson from Arts Council England said: “We take allegations and accounts of racism very seriously, and we recognise how difficult it is for anyone to speak out and share such experiences.
“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. We are currently in active conversation with the board of the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art and are awaiting receipt from them of the final report by Diverse Matters. Once it is available, we will then require CFCCA to tell us how the organisation will respond to recommendations within the report, including any actions it will take in response to the serious issues that have been raised. We have also met with the Artists Working Group and our dialogue with them will continue.”
“Culture belongs to the people... But that’s not the world that we are living in,” Chan told VICE World News “So, in a non-ideal world, we do need things like CFCCA, we need places that elevate marginalised voices. What we want CFCCA to be in this non-ideal situation is we need it to be a voice... that challenges the status quo, not one that tries to become part of the status quo and it should be something that is constantly confronting, what contemporary art looks like.”