Mainstreamism: Reflections upon Arts Council's Creative Case for Diversity
21 December 2015
Recently, Arts Council England (ACE) launched their new strategic fund for diversity at Birmingham REP; a response to the low engagement of BAME audiences in the arts and low representation within the sector. It was a positive move that we welcome and applaud. Delivered by Chair, Sir Peter Bazalgette with genuine intent for change and with a new CEO, Darren Henley is on a mission to engage 55 million people with the arts in England. Both the ACE Chair and CEO have worked with the sector to avoid cuts in the recent comprehensive spending review and articulate a strong purpose for the Arts and their value for society. They are driving the Arts and perception of them in the right direction. This gives me great hope for the future.
As Bazalgette observed, specialist organisations struggle to make lasting change to the arts establishment when they are "on the outside, looking in" and therefore ACE's aim going forward is to make diversity "part of all the work we all do. That it had to go mainstream." It is a positive action that ACE are dedicated to supporting the mission of NAE by appealing to other National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs), yet this comes with challenges and may need to be refined. It raises questions, not of semantics, but of perspective, experience and impact. The use of 'mainstream' to describe the wider arts and cultural sector and the NPO network is not a comfortable term for many. It does not reflect the situation of marginalised communities, both within the arts but also within society among communities who do not feel 'mainstream', who are not part of the 'mainstream'.
ACE's strategy for diversity holds promise and realism. ACE recognise that this is at very least a long-term strategy, and as Bazalgette explains, "We are not looking for dramatic change... we want sustainable progress." And there is no easy, quick-fix solution to achieve fully equitable representation in art and society. From the position of leading the UK's largest space for culturally diverse Art, what we see is not a short term or a long term challenge, but a continual one that all institutions and sectors must be mindful of. This challenge will evolve as the status quo continues to shift and diverse communities begin to overcome the inequalities and barriers they face.
In the arts, as ACE's Equality, Diversity & the Creative Case data report shows, BME engagement and participation over the past nine years has remained relatively static, with the gap marginally widening. As white consumers of the Arts grow, BME consumers remain the same or decrease. Why is this still the case at the end of 2015? This may be a challenge for the Arts sector, but it may also be a challenge for other areas of life too. Why is one group benefitting more from the Arts than others?
At New Art Exchange we have been addressing this imbalance since we opened in 2008 by 'stimulating new perspective on the value of diversity in art and society'. We specialise in exploring artistic and social aspects of cultural diversity, amongst those described in Bazalgette speech as "brilliant champions of the cause". We have had continued success in engaging an increasingly culturally diverse audience, with 39% of NAE's visitors from a BAME background this year.
Over the years our position has shifted, our mission refined, our skills honed. We have adapted as the challenge has evolved, but the aim throughout has been to ensure there cannot be 'Arts Britain ignores'. And this is the continual issue, an aim that may never be achieved, but can at least be truly tackled. There will always be art that is ignored, perspectives that are ignored. There will always be a minority and a majority, a marginalised and a mainstream.
As a Black led organisation with 75% of our Board and 55% of our staff team from BAME backgrounds, we have been on the outside looking in. We are yet to be on the inside looking out. What we'd prefer is that we look at each other, at the distinct strengths we each have, at the benefits they bring and how they can be used together to continually challenge the mainstream. It's only in this way that we can evolve. We exist to provide a different perspective and to increase understanding that no single perspective should dominate, that all perspectives should be given the same consideration. This is how we programme, this is how we make our product ever more rich and this is how we suggest the challenge continues to be addressed.
CEO New Art Exchange