Law firms have known for a long time that diversity matters. City institutions have understood that equality, access and inclusion should be pillars of their working culture. And yet, in recent months law firms have reckoned with a truth that James Baldwin pointed out back in 1963, that “people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.” Acknowledging that their efforts to date have not gone far enough, major firms such as Allen & Overy and Linklaters have set new diversity targets, and a wave of firms have pledged to invest in initiatives supporting equality.
Diversity and inclusion begin at home, and businesses must get their own house in order. It is the right thing to do, and there is growing evidence that it is good for business. But this should be only the first step. Given diversity’s financial upside, to not also support it outside their four walls can look hypocritical and opportunistic. This means supporting the people who are already out there doing the work, and artists are among the most vocal and effective agents for change working today.
How artists are advancing social justice
In her speech marking her historic election as Vice President of the USA, Kamala Harris, who will become the first woman and person of colour to hold the office, encouraged any children watching to “see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they’ve never seen it before.” This underlines the fundamental importance of representation, in the literal sense. And representing is what artists do. If seeing is believing, artists help us believe that something else is possible.
We see this in the work of Kerry James Marshall, which redress the stark absence of people of colour in the Western canon of art. “I had never seen a grand, epic narrative painting with black figures in it,” Marshall has said, “and that’s the kind of painting I became interested in making.” Or in the drawings of Toyin Ojih Odutola, who imagines a present-day Africa that was never ravaged by colonialism, slavery and racism. Ojih Odutola considers the artist’s role to be “creating space for people to dream, to think, to engage and tell stories.”
Olafur Eliasson uses his platform – and a major exhibition at Tate Modern last year – to address the climate emergency, while Wolfgang Tillmans runs a foundation called Between Bridges, which he has mobilised in recent months to sell posters to generate financial support for cultural venues closed during the pandemic.
In that same speech, Harris also quoted the late Congressman and civil rights campaigner John Lewis, who said “democracy is not a state. It is an act.” In other words, change does not come easily; it requires struggle and sacrifice, action and organisation. And again, artists are leading the way, harnessing their unique ability to visualise the issues that affect us in ways that help us all process, understand and respond.
How law firms can get involved
All of these artists have received recognition for their work. More in need of support is the next generation; younger creatives who need the backing to realise their vision and carry on this work.
A business supporting this kind of activity would stand out from its fellow corporate sponsors, who typically go by a tried-and-tested formula. Sponsoring a museum exhibition, for example, allows quality time with existing clients, the chance to meet new ones, and some degree of brand awareness. Undoubtedly, these benefits bring value, but it is often long-term and difficult to quantify, and it doesn’t distinguish you from anyone else doing the same thing elsewhere. To illustrate the point: if your firm sponsors museum exhibitions, can you remember the last one it sponsored?
Needing to trim the budget in the face of economic uncertainty, it is understandable that a sponsor might react to these circumstances by removing its support. However, doing something different, something that stands out, something that people remember, will deliver these valuable benefits in a more robust way. And, by centring the narrative on the artists, it could also help you deliver on diversity.
For example, law firms could consider funding a bursary scheme for artists who are working to advance social justice, whose art harnesses and celebrates the power of diversity. The money would make a huge difference, allowing recipients to focus on their work and propelling a new generation of artists to sustainable and successful careers. And, crucially, it would centre the narrative on them, their work and its impact.
In recognition of their support, law firms could virtually bring clients and staff to the artists’ studios to engage them in important issues and see how their work is achieving change. This would provide that all-important one-on-one client time, in a novel and safe environment, and its combination of experience and education is exactly what brands are looking for to distinguish themselves in the current climate. And even during the COVID-19 pandemic, it could be done right away – no waiting for blockbuster museum exhibitions to reopen and large crowds to be allowed back in.
The artists are out there, today, doing the work; by helping them we can deliver on diversity and inclusion outside our four walls as well as inside.
Joe Dunning is founder of Dunning & Partners, specialising in supporting the arts through creative collaboration with business.