Nearly two Decembers ago, I attended an event at Sadlers Wells where Peter Bazalgette delivered one of the most important speeches I have ever heard. It set out, quite simply, hope.
Thinking back, the speech had come at a point where I was questioning (again) whether I could carry on in an industry that was structurally unfair and unequal. At the time I did not believe that even with twenty years of experience in this sector I had a future or a career; or that this sector cared about those who did not feel part of the country’s cultural life, as audience, participator or maker. I had watched as all the work and investment that had been made 10-years earlier through Decibel, had been eradicated and dismantled in one decade. And I am embarrassed and humiliated that I was part of a cultural generation that oversaw this, along with some of the worst figures of cultural inequality I had ever seen. Even today, I find it unfathomable that processes and systems were in place that enabled us to get to that point. How could we have overseen, and then accepted a structure where spend for Black and minority ethnic-led work was £0.69 per attendance, compared with £3.90 per attendance for non-Black and minority ethnic?
In fairness, there were a few of us - individuals, institutions and organisations - who at the time where inequality peaked, did our very best to try and influence change. We did not want to forget the cultural voice of the 14% Black and multi-ethnic community who despite paying their taxes into our sector, were receiving so little as return on their cultural investment.
Two years on from that important speech, we are beginning to see the impact through the strategic diversity investment funds, alongside a strong message for change articulated through the Creative Case.
Forgive me that what I am left with is little celebration of our sector. The strategic diversity funding is welcome and needed; ACE’s leadership is welcome and needed; as is the renewed intentions around Creative Case. And yet, I am still left with so many questions. Why was it so easy to produce collective outcomes of huge inequality, and somehow build a case for accepting it? What have we learnt so that we don’t ever go back to it? Will we be able to move forward finally? And importantly, what do we do with the residues of those times, because some of that thinking is still present? For example, ‘Quality’ was and still is, used as one of those cases to dismiss work – ‘our audiences expect quality work’ is a stock phrase – I still wonder who ‘our’ audiences actually are.
To move forward, we now need to adopt a new mindset to think about some of these issues differently – firstly so that we can assess the impact we were having collectively; and secondly to understand the structural barriers in play. No practitioner turns up as the finished article, that’s why we have rehearsal rooms, R&D, scratch performances and 1st, 2nd and 3rd drafts. The ‘attributes of quality’ in our sector usually include access to resource, be that space, time or funding; long-term relationships, a supportive environment – all these necessary components for quality work to emerge. In those days, access to all these areas were disproportionately shut down for Black and minority ethnic practitioners. We became educators rather than creators; we were at the receiving end of processes that were bias particularly in recruitment, we were unable to access funding because we had no partners, we were unable to present work because we couldn’t access space, or in-kind support or long-term relationships. When we complained or dared to challenge the system – as many of us tried - we lost our jobs, the phone didn’t ring – we were simply made disruptor. It was easy. And it concerns me that it was so easy, and so unchallenged. And it concerns me that some of the thinking that hindered us before, is still present.
So as we end this year, I hope that it is with a commitment to moving forward without going back. Alongside achieving a fairer distribution of funding and resource, I hope we invest in transforming our sector mind-set, by acknowledging and learning from the issues that have blocked progress in the past; by challenging systems and ways of thinking that have served as barriers to access; and by building awareness of the attitudes and behaviours that could easily take us back. And for me, perhaps I can finally trust that this time we won’t move two steps forward and five steps back.
I believe that long-term change is possible, and I hope that in the coming year, we invest in a new relationship based on mutuality, and a bigger vision - for a future that enables all of our communities to be a part rather than apart from this country’s cultural life.
Take the Space is a creative agency set up by Jenny Williams in 2006 with the aim of enabling artists to tell their stories. TTS works across arts, heritage and digital providing producer-led services, where artist’s ideas and creativity form the basis of new projects and new work. At its core, TTS is committed to telling stories that are generally not seen and not heard – and finding spaces that connect people with each other.
Jenny works with individual artists and organisations to deliver projects that fulfil this vision across policy and practice.