How do we unlock cultural entitlement among everyone?

There is still much work to be done to achieve diversity in arts and culture, says Liza Vallance

This summer’s Edinburgh Festival saw Selina Thompson’s show Salt, which retraced one of the routes of the transatlantic slave triangle, win the Filipa Bragança Award. At the same time, Selina and other BAME artists were consistently ignored by the hundreds of people giving out flyers along the Royal Mile. Sharing his own experiences of this discrimination, theatre director Matthew Xia, wrote in The Stage: “In the split second required to work out whether to hand a flyer from the stack or not, it becomes easy to cast away ‘the other’. This extends to age, disability and gender – for example, I spoke to several people who were older than me who also reported a degree of exclusion”.

The ongoing narrative about diversity in the arts shows that there is still stark inequality. In 2015, only 13 per cent of board members of UK theatres were non-white, while 4 per cent of the workforce in Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisations in 2015/16 identified as disabled.

The creative industries contribute about £90bn to the UK economy, and account for about 1 in 11 jobs. How do we ensure that cultural institutions, programmes, jobs and opportunities are truly accessible? Here I mean access in every sense, not just physical but psychological, emotional, financial and intellectual. To what lengths does the industry go to confidently ensure the workforce, venues, output and marketing are representative? Conversely, how do we grow a sense of confidence so everyone feels able to take up jobs, opportunities and seats in the sector?

I’m from a working class, Welsh Valleys background. I’m a woman and I am disabled. I tell you these things because I believe they’re important lenses through which I view the world, do my job and form my opinions around cultural access, entitlement and equality. That said, I’m critically aware that my opinion is just that; I cannot and would not speak for lived experience that is not my own. I live with white, cis-gendered privilege and I’m learning all the time about the unearned access to the world that this affords me.

As artistic director of Studio 3 Arts; a socially-engaged participatory arts practice based in Barking, I believe in democratising art. Our work happens in hospitals, car parks, GP surgeries, care homes, schools, theatres and more.

We recently delivered a programme for Arts Council England and DCMS called Cultural Citizens, which challenged our socially-accepted norms around cultural ownership by giving 300 young Londoners in receipt of free school meals the opportunity to curate seven months of incredible arts experiences. Some commissioned street theatre, some made work in response to an exhibition at the Barbican; all 300 saw a ballet at the Royal Opera House. I learned that unlocking a sense of cultural entitlement is key to cultivating the innate confidence required to navigate the cultural landscape.

However, as Xia’s experience proves, confidence alone doesn’t open doors. As leaders we must also address the structural inequalities that impede access.

Liza Vallance is artistic director of Studio 3 Arts

This article first appeared in the launch issue of LEAD magazine. To get access to more articles like this one, hot off the presses, subscribe today. Next issue published on 18 Jan 2018.


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