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We are at a crossroads, says Jamie Beddard. Access, democratisation and engagement must not be sacrificed in the rush to return after the pandemic.

Extraordinary Bodies production: ' What Am I Worth?'
Extraordinary Bodies: ' What Am I Worth?'

The emergence, envelopment, and erratic progress of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought about infinite collective and individual interpretations of ‘before’, ‘now’ and ‘future’ of the arts sector. ‘Before’ seems a rose-tinted idyll we inhabited far longer than five months ago, ‘now’ a rollercoaster of firefighting, second-guessing and failing livelihoods, while a new world beckons at some undetermined point in the ‘future’: a world in which previous assumptions, norms and people have been irrevocably altered or lost.

At present, the arts remain suspended in limbo, whilst other sectors, locations and businesses frantically open up and close down as our leaders engage in reckless games of policy whack-a-mole. The £1.57 billion was a welcome shot in the arm affording many organisations and venues much-needed breathing space, but many more will not be so fortunate, and there are still far more questions than answers in terms of long-term recovery.

The mantra of ‘we’re all in it together’ seems long gone, as the bland calls to civic and individual responsibility have floundered amongst ‘do as we say, not as we do’ hypocrisy. An unfair and broken system has been revealed; the fiascos of care homes, immigration policies and exam pin-balling but three examples. The interplay between science and politics is increasingly baffling, and we in the arts are left guessing as to the ‘lengths of strings’ in terms of returning to work, operating businesses, and for so many, remaining in employment and in the sector.

A Brave New World

We need radical revisions of these polemics to conceive a future in which we all design, contribute and are valued. In this climate of unknowns, principles become ever more important, the only tangible things we can hang on too. The piecemeal approaches of yesteryear need recalibrating to make the arts fit for purpose, impacting across society and essential in making the world a better place. If the ‘levelling up’ agenda is to have any teeth, all agencies, government included, need to be working together to rethink possibilities.

What can be done to mitigate the growing inequities in life-chances that are dependent upon where people live, what they do and how much money, resources and infrastructures are within their grasp? These are all magnified by the differing timelines to which we are all operating, and the current easing of lockdown is revealing fractures between peoples – in particular those with or without disabilities and underlying health conditions.

These schisms are deepened with the dominant language of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘at risk’, and the ways so many have been de-prioritised and damaged. If the arts cannot step into the prescient issues and make a difference, all arguments around public subsidy, relevance and purpose are lost. We must decide, who and what we are for. Our collective efforts and stories should be at the heart of sustaining our communities, societies, climates and wellbeing going forward. The lens of arts needs to open to reveal the broader landscape as we move into the ‘new’.

Towards an inclusive reopening

As the rush to digitise and release everything dies down and we fully understand the opportunities presented, access, democratisation and engagement could underpin the arts and activities we deliver. NT Live’s audiences of more than ten million exceed all engagement targets many times over (equating to filling all three of their auditoriums for 11 years), as the particular barriers of attending in person – expense, access, unfamiliarity, timings – are dismantled. Access rather than polish is key, and those so often considered hard-to-reach are engaging in new and different ways.

Of course, despite being inundated with digital offerings, there is a yearning for the live experience, a return to communal gatherings and a deeper interconnectedness between us. Live performance offers the antidote to isolation, and as we take tentative steps to coming together it is incumbent that none are excluded, that we create environments that are safe and accessible to all and that Deaf and disabled artists and audiences are a part of the mix.

The gains made by those traditionally excluded cannot be lost in the rush to return. This is a one-off opportunity to build back inclusively, nurture the expertise of those with lifetimes of problem-solving and negotiating barriers and ensure public subsidy equates to public benefit.

As ever, the combination of carrot and stick will be needed. An understanding of the Social Model of Disability and the legal framework underpinning the 2010 Equality Act must inform decision-making, opening up venues, and responsibilities to the public. Reasonable adjustments should be made, and Equality Impact Assessments made to ensure ‘opening up’ is considered and inclusive. Collaboration with Deaf and disabled artists, audiences and stakeholders – real and potential – is key to this process.

Of course, we all need to be advocating together, escaping the silos which so often dissipate responsibility, and make changes around the edges rather than at the core. Our voices must not be lost in the din, pressure must continue to be applied on those making critical decisions and our experiences and expertise must be at the core of rebuilding.

In the light of this, a consortium of organisations, including #WeShallNotBeRemoved, Ramps on The Moon, What Next?, Attitude is Everything and British Paraorchestra, has developed  a set of principles, published this week, for a fair, equitable and inclusive ‘opening up’. The importance of this is highlighted by UK Disability Champion for Arts & Culture Andrew Miller: "Whilst government guidelines gave the industry a high level framework to make reopening possible, the sector needs specific guidance to maintain access for disabled artists, employees and audiences, to ensure we don't become victims of unintended discrimination from Covid-19 safety measures".

The world we seek must re-assess the ways in which we are valued, recognise the importance of working collectively and have access and inclusion embedded throughout. The arts have an opportunity to create a radical blueprint for this and initiate the changes needed to survive and flourish. We are at a crossroads.

Jamie Beddard is co-artistic director Diverse City, lead artist Extraordinary Bodies, and Agent for Change New Wolsey Theatre

Extraordinary Bodies has made a short film exploring human value and the judgements people are subject to, which suddenly acquired a new relevance as Covid took hold. Replacing the postponed rehearsals and tour of What Am I Worth? this summer, it will act as a prequel to the live production next year, as we seek to mix the live and digital with flexibility key to maintaining and building our engagement with artists and audiences. What Do You See In Me? is streaming on YouTube and Facebook Wednesday 30 September at 7.20pm.

Link to Author(s): 
Jamie Beddard