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As ArtsProfessional unveils the explosive findings from its recent Freedom of Expression survey, Liz Hill examines the soul of a sector that believes it is owed artistic freedom but doesn’t tolerate freedom of speech within its own ranks.

A photo of statues of angels, one with a gag over its mouth

You might expect those working in the cultural sector to be open and tolerant of each other, welcoming of debate and diverse opinion, and prepared to stand up and challenge the status quo. Indeed, nine out of ten respondents to AP’s Freedom of Expression survey, published today, agreed that “The arts and cultural sector has a responsibility to use its unique talents to speak out about things that matter, regardless of the potential consequences” – a very positive endorsement of the importance of free speech.

But nothing could be further from the truth. More than eight out of ten survey respondents agreed that “workers in the arts and cultural sector who share controversial opinions risk being professionally ostracised”. The overwhelming message that comes across from more than 1,000 free text comments – running to 60,000 words – is neatly summed up by one person, who said “I often feel pressured to self-censor for fear of being 'cancelled' or bullied for not conforming to the orthodoxy”.

The rich, the brave, the powerful, the naïve and the free are being heard while the rest are muted for fear of a hostile reception

The anonymous forum offered by this research is likely to have been eagerly embraced by those who have experienced censorship or self-censorship themselves and were free for the first time to share their stories without fear of retribution. This includes those who are subject to contractual gagging clauses that have taken away their right to speak out, and one who witnessed criminal activity being covered up to protect the reputations of those involved. The anguish, fears, regret and anger expressed by the very many who left personal comments form a disturbing testimony. It shines a light upon coercion, bullying, intimidation and intolerance within a community that thinks of itself as liberal, open minded and equitable.

The research offers tentative responses to questions in four areas:

Do arts professionals speak their minds?

Based on the research, the short answer is ‘no’. Of course, it’s not only the cultural sector where people feel unable to step out of the mainstream and express a controversial view. You won’t hear many churchgoers admitting to the vicar that they favour assisted dying, or corporate lawyers telling their bosses they think they’re overpaid. Having said that, the pressure on arts workers to keep their views to themselves reveals self-delusion and even hypocrisy at the heart of a sector that believes it is owed artistic freedom but doesn’t tolerate freedom of speech within its own ranks.

What don’t people say?

Publicly stating opinions outside of the sector’s norms is widely thought to be a career-breaker. For example, it’s unsurprising to find evidence of left-leaning political viewpoints dominating the discourse, but it is depressing to read of intolerance shown towards those with other political views.

Other topics are also no-go areas. People of faith are being labelled with stereotypes; discussion of gender identity has become a no-go area; and honest conversations about the meaning and value of diversity have been all but extinguished. Hierarchical power structures within arts organisations appear to be contributing to the problem. In a tight-knit community where reputation is arguably more valuable than expertise, stepping beyond expected norms of speech or behaviour is dangerous. It is, therefore, unsurprising that complaints of sexual harassment, bullying and exploitation are seldom aired in places where action could be taken to stop it.

Why don’t people speak out?

Sometimes people don’t speak out because of sensitivity to a situation or fear of hurting someone’s feelings. That’s often understandable, sometimes laudable, but also potentially dangerous if it protects those wishing to censor debate or those incapable of dealing with honest feedback. Public derision of this has led to the term ‘snowflake’, but the right path to take must surely be determined on a case by case basis.

It isn’t sensitivity that is the primary deterrent to free speech though - it is fear of consequences. As a result, the rich, the brave, the powerful and the naïve are being heard while the rest are muted for fear of a hostile reception.

Who’s applying the pressure?

We might expect the sector to be wary of sharing opinions among those who have power over them, such as funders and others they rely on for their livelihoods. But it is deeply disturbing to find that colleagues are the ones most likely to leave arts professionals fearful of speaking openly. The clearest evidence of organisations being gatekeepers of communication is when they pay for silence using contractual devices including non-disclosure agreements. When evidence emerges of potentially unlawful activity being covered up using pay-offs and gagging clauses, the time has come to re-examine these widespread practices which have even been advocated by some funders, as well as those they fund.

This research is a prompt for everyone working in the cultural sector to take a long hard look in the mirror. Failing to respect the views expressed by others is the hallmark of people living in an echo chamber – an accusation that is often levied at the cultural sector. It would be nice to have produced evidence to refute that. Sadly, this research doesn’t provide it.

The prompt for ArtsProfessional is to create more safe spaces where the sector can speak out, which is why, next week, we’ll be launching a new anonymous platform where those working in the sector can tell us what’s going on – and we can investigate.

As a completely independent voice in the cultural sector we are free to speak out while others can’t; we’re brave enough to challenge the status quo; we’re powerful enough to worry those who would like the sector to stay silent; and we’re naïve enough to believe that change can happen if someone starts talking about the things that need to be said.

Liz Hill is Director of ArtsProfessional

Read the Freedom of Expression report, including over 1,000 comments and personal testimonies relating to freedom of expression in the arts and cultural sector.

Next week AP will launch an anonymous platform where you will be able to:

  • Tell us about things you suspect are going on that should be made public
  • Talk about themes and areas that need more investigation by our journalists
  • Suggest ideas for new Pulse surveys
  • Write a blog about anything causing you concern or making you rage.

We won't share your identity anywhere.

Link to Author(s): 
Liz Hill

Comments

It is hopeful and a feather in the cap of Arts Professional’s Liz Hill, that the findings published in the report, ‘Free to speak? Not if you work in the arts’, are both relevant and accurate. I have not taken part in this study, a victim of the inner workings of culture, that I contend bedevil the inclusive success of the arts in England. Views of visual arts’ success are not tolerated by implication if they deviate from the secret norm. Had I remained in post, I would have been excited to be able to express this. Instead, I can now make a contribution here. A (Dutch) national, immigrant, and visual arts curator educated in England from the 1970s onwards, my inability to strike the ‘correct tone’ while working in the arts has puzzled me for longer than I care to remember. When I started my career as curator of the visual arts, first at an arts & community centre, then at an art college reinventing itself as an arts uni, the secrecy surrounding selection for funding was continually being cemented by Arts Council of England (ACE). Tory and Labour governments may each have had contrasting policies on paper. But when in government, the result for arts funding amounted to more of the same. I discovered that a hallowed circle of hand-picked professional curators, often employed in HE, operated in the visual arts with preferential access to public funding. It was circular movement to the exclusion of everyone else that occurred with impunity. I only need to think back to my predecessor in the early 1990s, who merely needed to have a chat with ACE officers and write the amount for his solo art installations on the back of a fag packet. At the time, the visitors to the Galleries were few and my appointment was intended to remedy this: with some justification the emptiness of the white cube gallery, a.k.a. the empty swimming pool, had become an irritant to senior management. Batting for diversity, inclusion and participation, ostensibly ACE’s official policy throughout its years of existence, I continued to fail to strike the ‘correct tone’. During two MA’s I researched into the arts sector and its funding system; it revealed a plethora of reasons for excluding diversity, that walked the talk. One of my MA’s was in Cultural History at the RCA, the other an MBA from the University of Surrey, where my dissertation investigated the National Touring Programme run by ACE between 1999 and 2003. The issues signaled in this study became the focus of my curatorial interest and led to further research: ‘Connectivity’ (2008). Still read internationally today, academic models are investigated in the study with which the effectiveness of arts policy can be evaluated and lead the organisation towards self-learning in terms of more effective advocacy for the arts. The Galleries I curated received 25.000 visitors per year, clearly the result of a diverse exhibitions’ and education programme: no mean feat for a provincial commuter backwater with its cultural focus on London. I employed these programmes to consistently study and monitor participation in arts exhibitions and events and realized, that my curatorial practice constituted applied research; it targeted the interaction between arts and public, and consistently measured and valued this contact with a view to increasing interest and participation. In the creative arts sector this stubbornly remains the known unknown. It is therefore telling that my approach to the visual arts proved too great a success to those eager to defend positions of privilege, power, and secrecy. For too long unaccountability has characterized the operation of arts funders, such as ACE; its pedigree of over seventy years has contaminated HE in the arts. Putting backs up in this arts’ enclave, even by implication, is not tolerated, as I can testify: for several decades critical discussion of the role of the arts has been filtered out and instead produced the expectation of a ‘sucking up’ relationship with funders. Without wanting to go into too much detail, this sad situation is, I fear, associated with the ‘arm’s length’ principle that allows ACE to keep the struggling and unfunded majority of galleries and artists at bay, while bestowing the ultimate creative freedom on the select few. I am convinced that, if this development is allowed to continue, it shall spell disaster for the public will needed to fund the arts; their liberal role has been undermined for a considerable time now anyway. Due to the continuation of this arts funding climate, any remaining funding will be concentrated in the hands of an ever-smaller clique, while condemning the rest to passivity and compliance.