Engaging Black audiences in rural areas
The arts, culture and heritage sector in rural areas of the UK must do more to engage Black communities, says communications and engagement consultant Elma Glasgow.
Black people can sometimes find visiting arts, cultural and heritage sites in rural areas of the UK an uncomfortable experience. As well as being part of a small and visible minority, there is the potential for encountering triggering content – such as links to the transatlantic slave trade in heritage settings – plus additional challenges such as a lack of transport options.
‘Now is the time to reassess and innovate’
The arts, culture and heritage sector has a huge opportunity to address – and fix – this issue, as it continues to recover from the impact of the pandemic. Now is the time to reassess and innovate.
In large UK cities there is greater ethnic diversity among audiences, staff and programming. Yet even in urban areas, many venues could still do more to welcome global majority communities. Some have ill-equipped employees, a lack of buy-in at senior level and/or a reliance on tokenistic community engagement activities. Word travels fast through global majority communities, with stories of racism – accidental or deliberate – swiftly shared with friends, family and colleagues.
But the arts, culture and heritage sector can’t afford to ignore such a large potential audience: according to the Black Pound Report 2022, the disposable income of minority ethnic consumers totals £4.5bn a year.
‘Attracting the most diverse visiting public in the museum’s history’
As rural cultural organisations have long overlooked the need for better inclusion practices, there is much work that needs to be done, from educating existing customers to training volunteers. There are also specialist consultants available and ready to help organisations make critical changes. There is really no excuse.
I have spent the last three years working on Power of Stories, a movement that started out as an award-winning exhibition by Ipswich Museums in Suffolk featuring three original costumes from the first Black Panther film. It was co-curated with the local Black community, comic book experts and allies.
The stunning costumes of T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Shuri (Letitia Wright) offered a catalyst for the honest storytelling of local Black communities and other cultures. The outfits sat alongside Marvel comics and historic museum items, which were carefully chosen to echo objects in the film.
Despite the challenges of Covid-related travel restrictions, the exhibition broke footfall records during its four-month run at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich in 2021, attracting the most diverse audience in the museum’s history.
‘Black stories were told in a pioneering way, modernising old curatorial practices that often led to imbalanced storytelling’
Thanks to the quality of the co-curation, Black stories were told in a pioneering way, modernising old curatorial practices that often led to imbalanced storytelling. With regards to decolonisation, it has become an example of best practice in the sector.
In 2022, the Museum and Heritage Awards – the ‘Oscars of the museum world’ – named Power of Stories as the top Temporary or Touring Exhibition with a budget of over £80,000 from a strong shortlist that included cultural titans such as the V&A, the Natural History Museum and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Blenheim Palace. Over the last 12 months, Power of Stories has toured various locations in Suffolk, including Moyse’s Hall Museum, the Food Museum and the rural arts complex of Snape Maltings.
‘Black Lives Matter sparked our determination to express ourselves without inhibition’
My community interest company, Aspire Black Suffolk, was born out of the original Power of Stories exhibition. I won the Museums Association's Museums Change Lives 'Radical Changemaker' Award in 2022 for creating meaningful opportunities for the Black community to engage with the exhibition in a way that worked for us. Too often white-led cultural organisations tell Black and minority ethnic communities what to do, then wonder why long-term engagement and audience development is so difficult.
The iconic Black Panther costumes helped us to reject longstanding biases. It also coincided with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 (though planning for the exhibition was well underway beforehand). The global protests sparked our determination to express ourselves without inhibition.
Power of Stories demonstrates that arts, culture and heritage organisations and sites in rural areas can achieve amazing things when there is creativity, focus and the courage to push back against outmoded practices.
Recommendations for rural cultural organisations that want to engage Black audiences
- Be ready to sit in discomfort. If you’re not feeling challenged on a deep level, you’re probably doing engagement wrong.
- Book in-person diversity and inclusion training across all levels – from board members to volunteers. If budgets are an issue, team up with other organisations.
- Give members of the local community a greater say and autonomy when engaging with them on projects. Offer payment for their time and knowledge.
- If your organisation is accused of racism, take it seriously and address the issue.
- Recruit inclusively – offer remote jobs, cover travel costs where required, and collaborate with schools to start developing new career pathways into the sector for young candidates from diverse backgrounds.
- Partner with local travel companies to offer affordable rural transport options.
- Create content that educates all customers about any racial justice issues involved in a particular exhibition or event.
- Don’t allow bias to seep into your marketing materials (something that happens all too often in the arts).
- Innovate income streams so you are freer to build more inclusive and sustainable practices.
- Collaborate with other organisations on developing new practices – this can help set new standards for the sector.
Change is upon us. For rural cultural organisations, failing to engage Black audiences is a gamble that isn’t worth taking.
Elma Glasgow is the founder and co-director of Aspire Black Suffolk CIC and a communications and engagement consultant
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust