Culturally diverse work is becoming more prominent, but the infrastructure supporting BAME artists still needs to improve, argues Pawlet Brookes.

Photo of EVIDENCE DANCE COMPANY in New Conversations featuring Annique Roberts, Courtney Paige, Ross Keon Thoulouis & Shayla Caldwell
LDIF19 presents EVIDENCE DANCE COMPANY in New Conversations featuring Annique Roberts, Courtney Paige, Ross Keon Thoulouis and Shayla Caldwell
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© Matt Karas

Whether Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) artists are getting the opportunities they deserve is certainly a question that requires unpacking, and the answer is both 'yes' and 'no'. I have seen many initiatives that have made a significant and positive impact on the lives and careers of BAME artists.

Although diversity is on the agenda for almost all arts organisations, it is not reflected as a reality in the statistics

I believe there is growing presence, visibility and representation of BAME artists, as well as a vision that they should be part of the mainstream. Ballet alone has seen growing numbers of Black dancers, going back to pioneering dancer Brenda Edwards, the first Black British woman to dance with the English National Ballet in the 1980s, and her contemporaries Precious Adams, Misty Copeland and Michaela DePrince. Now companies such as Ballet Black are making a national and international impact.

Invisible representation 

However, we now need to move beyond visible representation to look at who is commissioning, directing, producing and programming the work of BAME artists. Although diversity is on the agenda for almost all arts organisations, it is not reflected as a reality in the statistics. Only 9% of CEOs and 12% of artistic directors of Arts Council England’s NPOs are from BAME backgrounds, compared to 16% of the working age population.

One Black artistic director or producer in an organisation cannot speak for everything labelled as ‘diverse’. It is essential that we nurture and empower more BAME arts administrators. We all benefit from the creativity that comes from bringing diverse perspectives together. 

Wider programming

Mainstream institutions have a responsibility to recognise the role they play in curating and programming work. The Edinburgh Fringe, National Theatre and Southbank Centre are held up as benchmarks. But there also needs to be a recognition that high-quality BAME work exists outside mainstream institutions. 

Serendipity’s flagship festival, Let’s Dance International Frontiers, has sought to achieve this by programming high-calibre, culturally diverse work from internationally acclaimed dancers and choreographers at venues such as Curve in Leicester. In doing so, we have actively changed the landscape of culturally diverse programming for dance in the city. 

There has been a positive step-change in putting Black arts centre-stage, and Black arts being part of the mainstream, not just branded as ‘community’ or ‘niche’. However, programming work by BAME artists is not enough on its own. Work also needs to be done to develop and nurture audiences in understanding that work by BAME artists is for everyone. 

Initiatives and showcases

I am privileged to have seen at first hand the positive impact that platforms have played in nurturing, showcasing and commissioning culturally diverse artists. Initiatives such as Arts Council England's Decibel supported and raised the profile of African, African Caribbean and Asian artists through programmes across artforms. It had a positive impact on infrastructure, funding and showcasing opportunities.

As a result, increasing numbers of artists from culturally diverse backgrounds received funding. They became part of a step-change that meant better representation, action-led creativity and giving artists a voice. The demise of Decibel had an impact on nurturing this creativity, and for a few years opportunities were few and far between.

But in recent years, the desire to support the work of BAME artists has been rekindled through a range of independent commissioning opportunities. These include 2Faced Dance’s THE BENCH (focusing on BAME female choreographers), The Spark Arts for Children’s Vital Spark, One Dance UK’s Trailblazers, Beyond Face, Project X, Take the Space and Signatures, our own call for commissions in Leicester’s Black History Month. 

These opportunities often provide much needed seed funding. They also act as a showcase for producers, programmers and directors to find new work, and have helped to change the landscape around work. 

An issue that still exists, though, is progression routes for artists. Many showcasing and commissioning platforms are focused on emerging artists. For BAME artists in particular,  progression routes can be very few or non-existent. I have seen talented artists give up on a professional career, or be unable to emerge from being ‘emerging’. While culturally diverse work is slowly starting to take more of a centre stage, the infrastructure supporting BAME artists needs support.

Creating a legacy

One of the challenges for BAME work is the lack of legacy. Since the 1960s, there has been a wave of initiatives seeking to bring diversity to the forefront in the arts, from the Black Dance Development Trust to the Minority Arts Advisory Service. Recognition of those who have come before is essential, as it informs contemporary practice. But access to and recognition of the work of pioneers from BAME backgrounds is still often underrepresented or absent in mainstream programmes at museums, theatres, cinemas and educational programmes.

Equality is about empowerment: providing tailored tools and opportunities that provide individuals and communities with access to resources and a voice. A knowledge of what has come before is part of this legacy. Without wanting to focus purely on Serendipity's work, the archives and the publications we produce are examples of entrepreneurship that provide opportunities for artists to showcase their work (at all career levels, from the emerging to the established), to capturing and documenting legacy and history, that can then be preserved and shared.

I hope my legacy will be to have provided a platform for representation and access to opportunities for artists and practitioners. I hope that high-calibre work and training from culturally diverse practitioners will gain the same recognition as European techniques, and that the legacy of trailblazers that have come before is recognised and celebrated.

Pawlet Brookes is CEO and Artistic Director of Serendipity.
serendipity-uk.com

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Comments

I have never understood the subtle differences that are applied and mixed into the established cultural conversation about diversity. Surely, today's EU culture can only be a mixture of different languages and heritages. And that is avoiding a mention of the C-word: Class. Sub-cultures are all different and I include colour, Asian, disabled, gender and, I hope, somewhere along the line: mine, the Indonesian-Dutch. So are the majority of people who cannot cook...just joking. I believe in that difference, it is and has been my personal and professional conviction that established culture should be more accepting of this contemporary fact and recognise the richess it is offered. I suppose: to argue that black minority artists have received justified recognition in terms of funding and opportunities but need more, such as cultural careers, rings strange to me. It reminds me of always asking for more, the funding model established during the 1970s. Henceforth it became the mantra for those managing culture: always ask for more. Now it just doesn't work and hasn't for quite some time. Sticking to it any longer obstructs a more visionary approach.