Retort #23 A better art world? Diversity and inclusion alone won’t get us there

With the introduction of the new Diversity & Inclusion Code a better art world seems within reach. Or is it? It’s high time for a critical look at the blind spots in the current discourse.


'A Feast of Diversity: Same Old Pie, New Glazing' by Aisha Madu

In recent times, it has once again become clear how deeply rooted systematic discrimination is within our institutions. So deeply rooted that, despite decades of activism, it has long remained invisible to many. But since the worldwide protests, the fight against racism and discrimination seems to be finding wider support in general.  Within the arts, a change already took place some time ago: the call for more diversity and inclusion is echoing throughout the Dutch art landscape. Art institutions are embracing the new direction with tireless optimism. Even those who were initially reluctant to speak out can now no longer avoid it. In fact, a strict policy has recently been put in place on the implementation of diversity and inclusion. Can we lean back now, and wait for the better art world to arrive?

Let me get straight to the point: the current diversity policy of the major subsidy providers, based on the D&I Code, is full of holes. I understand that in criticising the policy, I’m on thin ice; the attention to and awareness of systematic exclusion is after all a big step in the right direction. Although I can only endorse this, it emphasises the need for critical reflection, which has so far been largely absent. There have been only a few critics of the current discourse. The existing criticism mainly concerns the use of the word ‘diversity’ and advocates for systematic changes rather than ad hoc interventions.[1] But the fact that the terms ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ are used so confidently and consistently throughout the entire field (see virtually every policy plan and opinion piece) presupposes that more diversity and inclusion will inevitably lead to a fairer and therefore better future.

Still, the question of how to achieve greater inclusion and diversity and better representation remains difficult to answer. I therefore seriously question whether ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ in fact offer the right perspective to approaching and solving the problems of systematic discrimination. In these complex matters, isn’t there more at stake than diversity and inclusion alone?

About the Code

In search of answers, I turn to the new Diversity & Inclusion Code.[2] According to the code itself, it is an ‘instrument of self-regulation on diversity and inclusion for and by the Dutch cultural and creative sector’.[3] Contrary to the Cultural Diversity Code (Code Culturele Diversiteit), the much-criticised predecessor to the current code, the D&I Code was to focus on all forms of identity categories, such as gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, level of education, age, and disability.

The code was presented on 1 November 2019, just a few months before the deadlines of the two most important multi-year subsidy applications: the government subsidies for cultural institutions (BIS) and the municipal culture documents. Due to the short timeframe, there was little time for institutions to find space for criticism and reflection. Thus, in one fell swoop, the code became the most important policy instrument in the central diversity policy. In order to receive financial support, upon which a large number of art institutions depend, institutions are obliged to accept the new code, which mainly centres on thoroughly reflecting on their own practices.[4] The Cultural Council (Raad voor Cultuur) and the commission members of the funds will also be given a major new responsibility: should they find that an art institution is not sufficiently complying with the D&I Code, then the organisation in question can forget about financial support. An important incentive for an organisation to implement diversity and inclusion in its policy and vision.

The strongest argument for making the code mandatory is that most art institutions are funded with public money from all (tax-paying) citizens of the Netherlands. Everyone should therefore have equal access to the public domain in which the arts reside. The aim of the code is therefore to achieve a better representation of Dutch society within the cultural sector, because it

is a basic requirement that the sector be equally accessible for everyone: as a maker, producer, worker, and audience member. In this way, the sector is for everyone. Everyone contributes in their own way. Everyone is valued for who he or she is, is respected and heard, and feels at home.[5]

To achieve this, the code presents a step-by-step plan based on five principles that must be followed to adequately create and promote diversity and inclusion in the organisation or practice (Fig. 1). In addition, the code presents three arguments to illustrate its effectiveness. First, it states, ‘Relating to [the societal] reality means responding to the diversity present in society.’ In order to serve a broad societal interest, it is necessary for the sector itself to reflect society accurately. Second, the authors of the code aim to contribute to the broadening and deepening of the artistic quality and content of the sector: ‘Harness the power of diversity through being inclusive.’ Third, the code lays out a range of business benefits for inclusive organisations, from attracting talent and higher employee satisfaction to access to new markets.[6]

These benefits make it seem downright unreasonable not to be in favour of diversity and inclusion. After all, as an institution or maker, you get a lot in return, the authors of the code lead us to believe. At first sight, making it mandatory to follow the D&I Code therefore seems like a great idea: finally, concrete, commercially tenable tools are being provided within the arts to combat systematic exclusion. But is that really the case? Do diversity and inclusion lead to a better, more representative art world? Or is this merely about good business management in the guise of a moral appeal? What is truly the goal and when can we consider it achieved?

It seems as though we need to take a step back. The big question behind the diversity debate is how certain ideas shape the public sector, or in this case, the field of the visual arts. The first thing we need to ask ourselves in order to answer this question is not whether more diversity and inclusion are important, or how they should be achieved. The first question is a discursive one: what do the concepts of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ mean and how do they work?

Diversity and Inclusion

To answer these questions, it’s important to consider the terminology that is used. After all, words are never meaningless. They determine our view of humanity, how we relate to the world, and the perspective from which we approach a subject. When we choose to use ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ to describe society, we are also shaping society at the same time by using this communal language. But how, exactly? What are the underlying mechanisms at work here?

The fact that the words ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ are frequently used and that institutions are obliged to incorporate them into their policy and vision presupposes consensus about the meaning of the words. Here, the first problem arises: the code states that ‘inclusion’ is difficult to define.[7] This of course raises the question of how you can make policy at all if you do not have an unambiguous definition. Nevertheless, the code makes an attempt to provide a bit more explanation:

Diversity: The code uses the term ‘diversity’ to indicate people’s differences and similarities on a range of visible and invisible characteristics. […] When it comes to diversity in your organisation and your work, the question is to what extent the diversity of society is represented in the four P’s of programme, public, personnel, and partners.

Inclusion: The term ‘inclusion’ refers to how you deal with differences and similarities. […] Inclusion is the extent to which makers, producers, workers, and audience members of all identities – visible or not – can be themselves and feel safe and respected.[8]

Diversity and inclusion point to the similarities and differences among people and that we need to address this (but not how). Both concepts leave a lot to the imagination: after all, it depends on what you measure (origin, sexuality, shoe size?), and more importantly, from what point of view. The concepts are relative and contextually determined. This is exactly where it gets tricky: the vague definition keeps the normative foundation of our society, white male privilege, invisible.

Politics of (In)visibility

In The Language of Diversity and A Phenomenology of Whiteness, writer and researcher Sara Ahmed gets straight to the heart of the problem. She argues that ‘diversity’ is often used to identify the ‘non-normative other’.[9] A person of colour is said to be ‘diverse’, but the white, male director is seen as neutral. And this is problematic: diversity is attributed to a body as if this body has something to contribute – such as gender, skin colour, sexuality, etc. – whereby, in my opinion, the most visible distinctions, such as gender and race, are often preferred. It is essential that these groups take up more space and become more visible in, for example, exhibitions and programmes. However, we should never forget that when ‘the diverse other’ enters the space, the invisible norm – white male privilege – is seen as natural. ‘It is the very use of black bodies as signs of diversity that confirms such whiteness, premised on a conversion of having to being: as if by having us, the organization can “be” diverse,’ according to Ahmed.[10] Even if the norm (temporarily) disappears from view, it still functions as the regulating societal principle.

This invisible frame of reference, a hallmark of privilege, is still the basis on which it is determined who is allowed to participate, who is included. In other words, the person who is in a position of power determines whether the personnel, programme, partners, or public are ‘diverse’ enough, whether there are enough ‘others’ who deviate from the norm. And if ‘the other’ is given access to the arts for the sake of emancipation, they often first need to adapt to the existing institutional structures and rules – and these are still white and male. Differences are therefore not necessarily celebrated, but can be neatly brushed aside by assimilation. In this way, diversity and inclusion are mainly used to combat exclusion by making the other visible.[11]

Meanwhile, diversity and inclusion have become the progressive ideal, a sign of a rich, multicultural society – whatever that means – which is represented in the Dutch art establishment. But implicitly – and perhaps unconsciously – the real problem, systemic discrimination, remains unaddressed. As Ahmed says: ‘Diversity here is not associated with challenging disadvantage, but becomes another way of “doing advantage” within the context of globalization. […] It secures rather than threatens.’[12]

In the worst case, policy based on the discourse of diversity and inclusion functions purely as a smokescreen. It is associated with something positive, while at the same time, it conceals the unequal distribution of power. Racism, sexism, and every other form of discrimination remain undiscussed and thus disappear from view – for the bigwigs, in any case, not those who deal with this on a daily basis. In short, when we speak of diversity and inclusion, it is about making the other visible, but without taking into account the power relations and privileges that come with this.

Taking Advantage of This

Combatting systemic inequalities therefore does not seem to be the goal of the D&I Code. On the contrary, again and again it emphasises that diversity must be exploited: ‘If you don’t take advantage of the potential of diversity, you exclude part of society’.[13] Taking advantage, appropriating and deploying someone’s identity and body, is exactly what we must oppose, especially when we talk about emancipation and equality. No one has the right to subjugate anyone else or take advantage of them. In the code, however, even the social argument – that the cultural and creative sector is for, by, and belongs to everyone – is used out of self-interest (instead of moral convictions): diversity is important in order to stay relevant and attractive.

In this way, the code leads us to believe that the fight for diversity and inclusion is a win-win situation, as Anand Giridharadas keenly observes, in which everyone can benefit equally. For one thing, it counteracts exclusion (Welcome, ‘diverse other’). It also generates new capital along the axes of race and gender, among other things (new audience, new makers, new art, new ideas). Diversity and inclusion can therefore easily be used to strengthen one’s own position and moral superiority: ‘Look at me being woke.’ At the same time, it condones other forms of marginalisation of communities, individuals, or organisations that need to be ‘saved’ or are not woke enough.

This is problematic, but also makes the policy very productive. For the sake of emancipation, the ‘new, diverse other’ is included in the art institution, without systematic inequalities having to change. On the contrary, the unequal power relations, which are ultimately the cause of the problem, are reproduced. I therefore suggest that when diversity is seen as something to be exploited, a system of inequality and exclusion is maintained. Ultimately, the policy is about inclusion as expansion, not about dismantling the current power balance.

Justice and Capital

This is because the words ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ as we now use them have been detached from the historic struggle for justice and the redistribution of power.[14] The focus is on who is excluded, but not on the systems that perpetuate inequality. The policy is like treating the symptoms, but does consider the underlying problem. This leads to my last point, and perhaps the biggest blind spot in the current debate. When we talk about equal access to the arts, the aim of the D&I Code, there is more at stake than diversity and inclusion alone. It is about the power relations, the distribution of resources, and on what basis this is justified.

If we take this as a starting point, the perspective shifts from making the other visible to (re)distribution of power and capital. After all, how can we combat inequality without examining power relations? How can we talk about emancipation without taking the relations between power, capital, and oppression into account? In the end, we will not make much progress with diversity and inclusion alone. They are important terms, but they remain superficial. If we want systemic solutions, we will also have to look at the systems.

On one end of the spectrum are people who have little or no access to the public domain. When we speak of moral issues, also within the diversity debate, this group often takes centre stage. Fortunately, more and more attention is also being given to the other end of the spectrum: those in positions of power who have easy access to the arts and play the role of gatekeepers. Think of curators, programmers, directors, and board members. Then there is a third group that has so far gotten off scot-free but is part of the problem of inequality. These are the people within the walls of the art world who enjoy extraordinary privileges and status: the patrons, both companies and individuals. With their generous donations, they make an important contribution to the art sector, but at the same time, maintain the unequal power relations. From a democratic point of view, this is problematic: thanks to the cutbacks, art institutions have become so dependent on these parties that they have come to have a major influence on the public sector. How can we speak of equal access when patrons enjoy exclusive dinners, hotel stays, art trips, and tax breaks, while a mother of three does not have the time, energy, or money to go to an art institution at all? On what basis is this inequality justified?

The short answer is: capital. We legitimise this inequality on the basis of socioeconomic status that is clearly divided along the axes of race, gender, and some other traits that people have or are at least attributed to them. In the current policy, of which the D&I Code is the cornerstone, simple egalitarian beliefs are too easily assumed without considering the standard by which equality and dignity are measured. The structures that facilitate the system of inequality are left out of consideration, causing the unequal power relations to be reproduced. Easy for those who profit from this quietly or not so quietly (Hello, gatekeepers!). Impossible for the rest, who are left behind and don’t have hundreds of thousands of euros to spend. The goal, a better representation of Dutch society in the cultural sector by means of more diversity and inclusion, may already be a fait accompli.

The distribution of power and capital in the cultural sector is damn similar to how our society is structured. As long as we allow this system of inequality, there will be little change. So instead of obediently addressing the words ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’, I advocate a broader and more complex perspective that goes beyond the four P’s. After all, these are complex political choices that determine the future of the sector, and at the same time are inextricably linked to society.


[1] Joris Luyendijk, among others, points to privileges in his lectures (including Museumkennisdag 2019 and Publieksprogramma Centraal Museum) and argues for inclusion with his ‘seven check marks’ theory (‘zeven vinkjes’-theorie). As super-diversity reporter for the platform Nieuw Wij (New We), Zoë Papaikonomou writes extensively on diversity and inclusion. Recently, an article by Lucette ter Borg titled ‘Diversity is the policy but the director is always white: A study of museum diversity’ (‘Diversiteit is beleid maar de directeur is altijd wit: Onderzoek diversiteit musea‘) appeared in the NRC Handelsblad. Also, three open letters were published on the theaterkrant.nl site and the site of Metropolis M.

[2] The Diversity & Inclusion Code is a revised code of conduct based on the Cultural Diversity Code commissioned by Federation of Employers’ Associations in Culture (Federatie van Werkgeversverenigingen in de Cultuur), written by Bureau &MAES. It is part of the Inclusive Cultural and Creative Sector Action Plan (Actieplan Cultuur en Creatief Inclusief, ACCI) that is led by the steering committee formed by the different branch associations that take part. See: www.codedi.nl.

[3] D&I Code, 3.

[4] This is an important moment for the future of the sector, because in addition to the introduction of the D&I Code, the implementation of the Fair Practice Code and the Good Governance Code will also take shape. However, each fund will deal with this differently. Based on the recently presented assessments of the funds and the advisory committees, it appears to be mainly concerned with ‘thorough reflection’ on one’s own practice. For the time being, applications will not be rejected purely on the basis of the implementation of diversity and inclusion.

[5] D&I Code, 3.

[6] The full list of benefits is as follows: attracting and retaining (top) talent, ability to better respond to the needs and expectations of a diverse clientele, access to new markets, greater ability to adapt to change, a more positive image, more innovative and creative teamwork, improved cooperation among colleagues, better decision-making based on different cultural perspectives, higher employee satisfaction, and more engaged and loyal employees.

[7] D&I Code, 8.

[8] D&I Code, 6.

[9] Sara Ahmed, ‘The Language of Diversity’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 30, no. 2 (2007): 235.

[10] Sara Ahmed, ‘A Phenomenology of Whiteness’, Feminist Theory, vol. 8, no. 2 (2007): 164.

[11] I’ve borrowed this idea of regulating visibility, or the politics of (in)visibility, from the NOISE summer school of Utrecht University. See: https://graduategenderstudies.nl/education/noise-summer-school/.

[12] Ahmed, ‘The Language of Diversity’, 244 & 238.

[13] D&I Code, 3.

[14] Ahmed, ‘The Language of Diversity’, 254.

About Cathelijne Tiel

Cathelijne Tiel is an art historian and writer. She held various positions at Martin van Zomeren Gallery, Kunsthalle Amsterdam, and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, among other places. She is currently finishing her MA in Philosophy, focusing on aesthetics, critical theory, and philosophy of history.