The Boster Group Venice Report: Going Beyond Access to Drive Inclusion at ‘The Women’s Biennale’

29th April 2022

Without partnership, empathy and purpose, the ambitious goals of institutions from across sectors – from financial services to arts and culture – to build more diverse teams, audiences and communities becomes an often-futile exercise in frustration, at best, and race-washing, at worst. At the 2022 Venice Art Biennale, Boster Group was once again delighted to host a roundtable featuring leaders from across the corporate sector, government, and cultural institutions to talk about how organisations of all types are identifying barriers to access and inclusion and share learnings on what can be done to address them.

When the COVID-19 pandemic caused institutions to invest in a sudden, mass pivot to online content – much of which was available for free – many in the arts community hoped their overall reach and the diversity of their audiences would improve. What most found, however, was that their online audiences mirrored their physical audiences. The lesson? Admitting a problem is the first step. Solving the problem is another thing entirely and is rarely as simple as reducing a ticket price or increasing potential distribution. It relies on actively seeking out and working with networks, communities, organisations and leaders to identify the source of the problem and structuring cross-sector solutions to address them.

The 2022 Biennale was an ideal context in which to explore this conversation further. Heralded as ‘The Women’s Biennale’ which ‘turned the patriarchal art world on its head’, in this edition female and gender-non-conforming artists outnumbered men for the first time in the Biennale’s history; black women took home the top awards; and, not by coincidence, the first female Italian curator of the event was in charge of it all. It was also one of the first major international gatherings of the art world since 2019, and leaders had lessons to share about building back better in a post-COVID, post-George Floyd world.

We are delighted to share some of these learnings, experiences, insights and anecdotes. At Boster Group, we believe in the power of partnerships to drive impact, innovation and value, and one of the most valuable things partners can share with each other is knowledge. The cultural world’s push towards inclusivity is neither unique to this sector nor new; but their ways of addressing it, which are informed by artists, curators, government and the general public among other stakeholders can provide valuable ideas and inspiration for other leaders from any sector, helping to scale impact and get everyone where they need to be, faster.

Understand the ‘lived experience’

One participant opened our conversation with a key question: “What is the ‘lived experience’ of your organisation?” An approach which appreciates the qualitative nature of evaluating inclusion, this participant pushed everyone present to think beyond achieving diversity benchmarks to considering the nature of different stakeholders’ interactions with your organisation and how that might differ between, for example, a woman who presents as Anglo-Saxon and a man who presents as Afro-Carribean.

Another participant seconded this point, explaining that their own organisation has invested in multi-year stakeholder groups in communities that are underrepresented both in their organisation and across their sector. Referring to these ‘feedback loops’, the participant explained that in addition to helping to shape organisational output and processes to be more inclusive, prioritising these investments over a long period allows trust to build between an organisation and underrepresented stakeholders. That trust is a critical component of an organisation’s relationship with targeted audiences and helps to create resilience around inclusive practices and diversity-oriented partnerships.

Trust enables the evaluation of lived experience over the long term

Expanding on that point, another participant explained how maintaining an inclusive environment, once diversity metrics are achieved, requires trust built through long-term relationships and empathy. Their internal staff is 60% people of colour (a target which is aligned with their local environment), and over the COVID-19 pandemic – which disproportionately impacted people of colour – the lived experiences of 60% of their staff was dramatically different from the needs and experiences of the other 40%. Leadership styles, in turn, needed to change to reflect that. Systemic issues do not change once an organisation achieves diversity benchmarks; such problems will impact an organisations’ employees well beyond the hiring phase, and institutions investing in diversity need to recognise and plan thoughtfully for this.

“If you’re in a decision-making position, then it’s incumbent on you to think about these things very thoughtfully and keep evolving, thinking and pivoting.”

Partnership can be invaluable in tackling these challenges through sharing learnings, resources and perspectives that help all organisations involved continue to innovate their approach to inclusion and access. By identifying partners who will support you on that journey and listening to each other to create institutions and organisations across sectors that are relevant to diverse stakeholders, respectful of the different barriers that underrepresented groups face and ultimately committed to inclusion not because it is nice to do, but because they understand that it supports their core purpose and mission.

Align with organisational purpose and partner to accelerate best practice

It is valid to say that an organisation should invest in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) because ‘it is the right thing to do’; however, in the absence of a clear logic which communicates how that responsibility relates to an organisation’s purpose, trade-offs will always be made that de-prioritise investment in inclusion. Articulating why inclusion actively contributes towards your organisation’s purpose is key to securing investment and progress towards inclusive goals.

One roundtable participant explained how their team goes further than these generalisations to outline how diversity brings a specific benefit to their tech company. In a sector that trades on scale and ideas, diversity in product design is essential to attracting and retaining the largest possible employee and user base; moving forward, that is one major way in which the companies that are building Web 3.0 can learn from the mistakes of building Web 2.0.

When tech tools are at their best, they’re doing what art does, which is catalysing conversations, introducing new perspectives, giving people a voice, and creating thinking around important topics

The art at the Venice Biennale represents some of the best talent from countries around the world. That enables an incredible cross-pollination of ideas as stakeholders from across governments, businesses and the creative sector converge in one place for just one moment every two years. There are unprecedented opportunities to learn and collaborate, and that is what makes the Vernissage such fertile ground for open and engaging conversations.

What struck everyone in our conversation was that the desire from organisations to support underrepresented stakeholders exists, but the structures which traditionally connect organisations with their stakeholders are systemically homogenous. Efforts to address the latter were championed across our roundtable, such as initiatives that support curators and gallerists of colour – ensuring that the people who select and place work in its final context are as diverse as the artists making it and the audiences experiencing it. As significant investment in supporting underrepresented stakeholders continues to grow, efforts need to be made to ensure that future decision-makers will be as diverse as the stakeholders they will serve. Building a robust pipeline and support system for this is essential.

“Until we start to diversify the people who are deciding what we see and how we see it, we can’t make the kind of progress we need to make.”

Applicable in nearly any organisational setting, action around diversity starts with the people making work happen; it is led from the top, and one of the best ways to impact an organisation’s diversity is to surround senior leadership with diverse voices in a way that is authentic, long-term and mutually beneficial. As one frequent Boster Group collaborator has said – it is not about people of privilege needing to move away from the table; it is about pulling up more chairs and filling them with people who can bring a diverse array of perspectives on their own lived experiences.

As we heard at our roundtable this year, partnerships can be invaluable in tackling these challenges through sharing learnings, resources and perspectives that help all organisations involved continue to innovate their approach to inclusion and access.