Things I’d like to see (part 1): Real diversity in the arts

I’ve been thinking a lot, a lot, a lot about this.  And, you know me, talking about it quite a bit.

The thing about diversity is – it’s quite diverse and there are going to be certain barriers that are specific to certain groups and not others.  It’s also not always helpful to lump people into bigger groups just for the ease of not having to spell everything out.  The needs of people with mobility challenges – in wheelchairs and so on, are not necessarily the same needs as those with sensory impairment challenges (hearing or sight loss) so you can’t just talk about ‘disability’ as if it was a big homogenous group.  Ditto BAME – that’s a lot of different people you’ve lumped in their in that 4 letter acronym.  The cultural backgrounds of different ethnic groups might not necessarily depend so much on their genetic ethnicity but where they were brought up, where their parents were brought up and the socio-economic circumstances of both their own and their family’s past generations.  A third generation black kid from a family of academics and diplomats isn’t going to face the same barriers to accessing the arts as the child of first generation Somalian imigrants working in low paid menial jobs.  We are all different… Or are we.

There is a degree of homogeneity in the arts and that is white, male, privileged and in control.  Sounds familiar?  Yes, it reflects government, banking, big business, etc, etc.  Clearly women have made a bit of an impact – we are no longer quite as marginalised and you could say that on the second rung of privilege were white, privileged women.  It should be said that having a disability of any kind in these two groups – will knock you down the rungs a bit.  It’s a snakes and ladders kind of game after all.

I don’t think quotas are the answer – even for women who actually are half the population.  Ethnic diversity in the UK is not as great as one might think – sitting in the centre of London – here in the capital we are nearly half and half, elsewhere in the UK that drops significantly.  That isn’t the point though.  Diversity in the arts isn’t about representation, about giving people a proportional share, because that isn’t the value of it.  The value – as it would be if we could ever crack diversity in political representation – is in the multiplicity of viewpoints, the variety of experience, the difference in approach not just to the idea of cultural diversity, but to all sorts of things that spring from variety.  Right now a lot of the people of influence, success and power in the arts have arrived their through the same routes, learning the same things in the same handful of institutions and taking the same paths to their achievement.  Right now there might be a few of them left that had a slightly different educational route – maybe even from a comprehensive, but as those few retire, the next generation will become even more identical.  Unless we do something about it of course.

What could we do – what is this thing I’d like to see?

Education – the Department of Education needs to stop faffing about tinkering with examinations and make up its mind whether it is going to have a National Curriculum – or not.  There is no point in a National Curriculum that is only enforced on c. 45% of schools.  If they aren’t going to bother – and given that the rhetoric over Free schools is that they are better ‘ because they can make free choices about what they teach’ it seems odd to impose what they are saying are less than ideal restrictions on the very schools they have direct control of.  So how do you influence what is taught if you don’t have a National Curriculum.  By performance measures in certain subjects – that’s how.  Currently it’s STEM (Science, technology, engineering and maths) and it really ought to be STEAM – A for arts.  Every child should have the right to choose arts GCSE and A levels.

Engagement: Given that arts education in schools can be limited – there must be greater opportunities for children to engage with the arts through after-school clubs and through actual trips out to theatre, galleries, dance, concerts, etc.  I have been told anecdotally that in some areas there is no budget for trips as the parents can’t cover the costs and nor can the school – surely here is a worthy recipient of Arts Council lottery money?  The ability to attend after-school clubs can also be shut off due to weekly fees and ‘extras’ for kit and trips.  Again the poorest kids miss out.  But surely it isn’t beyond the wit of man to find a way to help out – if we can hand out free school meals, why not free school arts and sports?  It isn’t really that the stuff isn’t there for them either – there are lots of good companies, both aimed specifically at children and also big companies running education programmes – but if they aren’t properly funded to enable them to provide chunks of stuff for free then barriers pop up, but even if they do, people need to get to these places and get home again.

Visibility – it’s easier to see diversity in the arts if you are already engaged – on the stage and on tv it is possible to see all sorts of people from all sorts of background.  But that pool of diversity is shrinking and drying up, and the people behind the scenes, and the backers, producers and purse string holders remain resolutely white, privileged and often male.  It would be great to see more critical weight and more wide ranging media coverage of smaller and more interesting productions – it’s all very well to televise of live broadcast big star shows from big star companies – but how much better engagement would be if we also got some of the small stuff – maybe some of the stuff from the regions?  The Royal Exchange Manchester is churning out an extraordinary amount of theatre that addresses all sorts of different ‘gaps’ in the system – using ‘mainstream’ plays they bring different view points – recently an all black ‘All My Sons’ and coming soon Maxine Peake in Hamlet – where are the live broadcasts from Manchester?  I recently had Theatre Royal Plymouth rehearsing in the space I manage in London.  I said ‘look forward to seeing the reviews’ and they laughed, sadly, and said ‘you won’t see any reviews. No-one will come to Plymouth’ – how outrageous is that?  Fabulous things could be going on all over the country but unless you are right next door – we’ll never know – because national critics can’t be bothered or can’t get the expense budget to stay overnight.

This is just a starting point and I’d really welcome comments either challenging what I’m saying and offering an alternative approach or giving some ideas of what else we could do, how else we can make this happen.   I just want to see it happen – I don’t claim to have any or all of the solutions that can make that so.




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