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Classism in the U.K.'s museums and galleries faces renewed scrutiny with the establishment of The Working Arts Club.

What Is the Status of Class in the Art World?

Exhibition view: Dion Kitson, Rue Britannia, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (10 May–8 September 2024). Courtesy Ikon. Photo: Tom Bird.

This summer, a new initiative to empower the art world's working class is emerging. Working Arts Club, a networking group for art professionals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, will officially launch on 16 July.

'Starting Working Arts Club had been on my mind for some time, but it took a while to gain the confidence to put it out there. As seems typical of people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, I felt worried about being judged,' said Meg Molloy, WAC's founder and Head of Communications at Stephen Friedman Gallery.

Molloy recognised a need to bring working class art professionals together, building solidarity for those trying to break the 'class ceiling' in a notoriously exclusive industry.

Serena Brown, Clayponds (2018).

Serena Brown, Clayponds (2018). Courtesy the artist.

'I got so frustrated with the lack of conversation around class—and the ways that those from working class backgrounds still aren't being seen or welcomed into the industry—that it made me even more determined to do something,' she explained. Some 500 museum and gallery workers have already registered their interest.

According to Josie Dobrin, 'the U.K.'s creative economy is different, with nepotism and classism ingrained in its fabric.' Dobrin is the founder of Creative Access, which provides professional development and employment opportunities for underrepresented individuals in the creative industries.

Several major players, including Sotheby's and Pace Gallery, have partnered with Creative Access to diversify their recruitment. Adjacent initiatives, such as Art History Link-Up and New Curators, which was launched last year, are working to fund, teach, and train working class and state-educated youth in the visual arts.

Kavi Pujara, Maharana Pratap & PC Ravat, Marjorie Street (2021).

Kavi Pujara, Maharana Pratap & PC Ravat, Marjorie Street (2021). Courtesy the artist.

More resources for working class artists are also appearing—the Working Class Creatives Database, founded in 2020, aims to provide a platform and mentorship for its membership of over 1,000 artists.

'I created the WCCD during my time at the Slade as I felt there were differences socially, culturally, and financially,' said co-founder Seren Metcalfe. 'A lot of the time I felt like I was the problem rather than the institution or system itself.'

Photographer Hannah Starkey recognises that without the free education she received at the Royal College of Art in the 1990s, it is unlikely that she would have gone into art. She is one of 26 working class British photographers featuring in Hayward's touring exhibition, After the End of History: British Working Class Photography 1989–2024, currently showing at Focal Point Gallery in Southend-on-Sea through 14 September.

Hannah Starkey, Untitled, May 2022 (2022).

Hannah Starkey, Untitled, May 2022 (2022). Courtesy the artist.

Starkey notes that access to wealth can make or break an artistic career.

'For many artists and photographers, it's a waiting game,' she said. 'Waiting to be picked up while still making work is a privilege that only the artists with background money can afford to do.'

In a 2024 survey, Creative Access found that a staggering 92% of U.K. art world respondents agreed it is harder for working class people to find work in their field, with 87% feeling that working class representation was lacking most at the senior level.

But class not only denotes contrasts in wealth and education. It implies access to networks and people—notably rich clients and collectors—as well as differences in culture and even language. In the U.K. especially, accents are as much tied to socioeconomic status as location. When asked if class has impacted his career, artist Dion Kitson acknowledged, 'people still can't get past an accent.'

Dion Kitson at J.W. Evans Silver Factory.

Dion Kitson at J.W. Evans Silver Factory. Courtesy English Heritage. Photo: Tom Bird.

'Too many senior leaders hire in their own image and, especially in the art world, there is a shorthand in cultural understandings,' explained Dobrin.

Naturally, London is not the only culprit of classism. One New York insider noted the prevalence of 'invite-only' recruiters (reminiscent of exclusive British websites Radio HP and Lowicks, advertising opportunities only accessible to the upper classes). They also labeled class as the 'defining factor' for promotions and sales jobs, alongside race and caste.

Back in 2016, New York-based writer Dan Fox co-edited a special section for Frieze on class to mixed responses. When asked if much has changed since, he was encouraged by more conversations and initiatives around the issue but confessed that otherwise 'class problems have become markedly worse' with the cost of living crisis.

Nathaniel Télémaque, White City's Mapping (2022).

Nathaniel Télémaque, White City's Mapping (2022). Courtesy the artist.

'Homogeneity breeds more homogeneity: artists mix with collectors, dealers, and curators from their own class background,' said Fox. 'There is little friction of a productive kind, little social mixing, only a gloss of empty rhetoric around challenging this and subverting that.'

Starkey, however, was more optimistic.

'The visual world is a much better place than say 20 years ago or even recently. As more artists from diverse backgrounds push through and are being seen and heard, we inch closer to an art world of parity.'

Kitson, whose first major solo exhibition Rue Britannia is on at Ikon Gallery through 8 September, offers an alternative vision.

The art world needs 'to move beyond the notion of class distinctions,' he said. 'I wish I wasn't working class because I wish class didn't exist.' —[O]

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