On March 31, the national decibel programme came to a close. Colin Beesting looks at how the project has changed the landscape for culturally diverse artists and how Arts Council England will pick up the mantle.

?More please! Stimulating and inspiring. Fantastic to get so many arts practitioners together in one space to discuss and network?
Delegate at A Free State conference

?decibel are themselves mechanisms of control manufactured in order to stifle real change?
Art Monthly magazine

decibel has caused a strong reaction in all who have encountered it. Positive and negative, rarely indifferent. As Samenua Sesher, decibel programme manager said, at the launch of the visual arts platform in Bristol last November, ?It?s what happens when you start talking about cultural diversity.? Visual artists intellectualise, theatre administrators look to audiences for the answers and orchestra managers blame the education system.

When decibel, Arts Council England?s short-term initiative to profile, develop and support culturally diverse art and artists, started a year ago these were all issues we were aware of. But how could we move the debate on? What actions would start to cause real change ? not only in terms of what audiences see and how artists are funded, but also in the ways that people react to issues of cultural diversity.

?One of the difficulties we have, is with so-called liberals who absolutely refuse to acknowledge that the effects of what they do is racist.? This contributor to the decibel publication In Full Colour, sums up the problem concisely. The arts are a liberal industry. No one likes to think that they are racist. But many Black and Asian artists still operate largely on the fringes of the arts world and are under-represented. And only positive action can change this.

decibel has been the catalyst and driver for this positive action. Arts practitioners have come together, networked, debated and argued passionately. Research has uncovered and proven institutional racism and started action to address it. Producers and creators of live arts events have done business with those who have the power to distribute their work, visual artists and curators have received funding. Artists and issues have received greater attention and achievement has been rewarded. More culturally diverse artists have been seen, heard and funded than ever before. However, all this action is of little use unless it is embedded back into the practice of the Arts Council and is not simply a flash in the pan. The decibel legacy will ensure that this happens.

One of decibel?s real successes has been the work of the funding ambassadors. Artists, administrators and arts educators, our ambassadors were practitioners in the culturally diverse arts sector and took up the challenge of bringing more Black and Asian artists and organisations into the funding system. Through making contacts, encouraging and supporting Grants for the Arts applications and helping artists to develop their skills in attracting funding, increasing numbers of artists have been receiving money. They have been an example of good practice to the organisation as a whole and will continue their work throughout 2004.

Arts Council England set a 10% target for culturally diverse arts, through the Grants for the Arts programme. This target has begun to address inequity in funding and channel money to those who have been historically neglected. However, this universal target is only the beginning of the journey for each Arts Council England regional office. Taking into account their local demographics, in 2004/2005, regional offices will set new targets to ensure continuing support for culturally diverse artists.

A second decibel performing arts showcase will take place in 2005. The first showcase brought together 44 companies with 480 programmers and promoters. This resulted in high numbers of companies reporting increased bookings for their work and several national tours booked solely as a result of the opportunity. Equally importantly the showcase also challenged programmers? perceptions and platformed the range of work being produced by culturally diverse artists.

On March 19 2004, Lord Waheed Alli announced the nine recipients of the decibel visual arts awards ? six artists and three curators shared £260,000 to research, make work and develop exhibitions in national art institutions. These awards will continue to ensure a constantly changing visual arts landscape.

A legacy needs people to make it happen and a team of three people at Arts Council England national office will continue to work alongside colleagues in regional offices to ensure that these projects take place and the decibel principles and learning are embedded into the Arts Council. This team will also ensure that projects such as research into employment in the publishing industry and representation of culturally diverse artists at conferences and networking events continues to have an impact on the arts landscape.

decibel?s regional programmes will also continue to have an impact. Festivals, roadshows, platforms, research and debates will ensure that the echoes of decibel are heard throughout the country long after the national programme has ended.
A year is a short time to change a large and diverse industry, one that thrives on its independence of spirit, thinking and creativity. However, the noise that decibel has made has changed the landscape for the better. The voice decibel has created is not just one that is loud, but one that is also intelligent, insightful and based in action. Hopefully it has also been a voice that has shut up and listened from time to time too.

The decibel page is prepared by Arts Council England. On March 31 2004 the decibel website ceased to be active.
All current and useful information about the decibel legacy and regional news can now be found at http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/decibel