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As we rebuild the arts sector there are some things we must not lose. If we narrow our priorities too tightly we will limit our potential too, says Amanda Parker.

Amanda Parker presenting at a meeting
It’s time to plan for a diverse future.

As the shock of our enforced distancing wears off, as furlough and social isolation become our new temporary normal, many of us are using the time to reflect, plan and rethink strategies. Some of that thinking involves heart-wrenching decisions about business viability, and priorities.

When necessity forces organisations to revise their priorities, many will be tempted to remove diversity and inclusion from the list. It’s a false premise, based on the assumption that inclusion is a ‘nice to have’. Fantastic progress is being made now on inclusion right across the arts: from the funding to the networks, the work placements and the training, some great actions are future-proofing our sector by building a workforce and audiences that resonate with the rest of the nation, not just a sub-section of our own demographic makeup.

The planning that is happening now, in the certainty of lean times ahead, risks losing focus on the vital and transformative power of inclusion.

Consultative crumbs

Behind the scenes, sector bodies like Creative Industries Federation have lobbied hard for provision for arts workers and freelancers working in the sector. Government has been in constant communication with senior arts leaders, taking advice on how the sector is affected and trying to work out how best to support it.

And this is why I’m deeply worried.

Before Covid gripped the UK in earnest I was assured by senior arts leaders that government was actively consulting with the sector, mindful of its value to the UK economy. As the pandemic took hold, the next wave of discussions saw a widened consultation group: more arts leaders talked of having a ‘hotline’ to the DCMS.

It took a further round of conversations before disability was represented in these conversations. Ethnicity only made it to the fourth tier: diverse leaders were invited to the fourth round of consultation. Perhaps social class and other protected characteristics also made it to that table, but by now we’re talking consultative crumbs.

Priority

More worrying still, in its own response to coronavirus, the arts sector itself took far too long before reaching out beyond its overwhelmingly white, male, older, able-bodied, neurotypical, middle-class leadership. This is at odds with what’s happening elsewhere in the world, where people are realising the power of connection, communion, and practising a joyous awareness of others not like them. It’s one of the few wonderful aspects of current events that are otherwise a nightmare for us all.

One of the sector’s leading membership consortia has informed its members that, given the financial demands the months ahead will bring, it is not going to be prioritising its own in-house national diversity initiative. At a time when under-representation and inequity should be uppermost in all our minds, that out of sync with what’s going on elsewhere in the UK.

The nation is having a collective awakening: the nurses, the supermarket workforce, the delivery drivers – millions of people who work in our neighbourhoods are suddenly visible, and we are enormously grateful for their work. But they’ve always been there, and we’d be wise to remember that when we get back to ‘normal’ – whatever that normal might be. The same is true in the cultural sector: there are hundreds of workers who come from under-represented backgrounds, who are a vital part of our sector’s achievements. Our arts sector needs to experience a similar collective awakening and not only recognise the value of these individuals, but also support their transition to leadership. Come the next crisis, diversity shouldn’t be left to the third or fourth pass of consultation.

Inclusive planning

When a crisis offers opportunities for access to power, it takes a truly inclusive thinker to look around the table and share that access. Those leaders do exist: people like Stella Duffy who consistently and forcefully articulates the need for those who’ve already benefited from opportunities to take a back seat, and push others forward. We need our current leaders to ‘be more Stella’, and plan into their strategy their own inclusive succession planning.

If we narrow our priorities too tightly, we are in danger of limiting our potential too. The UK’s future is increasingly diverse and if current planning doesn’t take this into account then our sector leaders plan us into extinction. Let’s make sure the positive work on inclusion achieved so far is firmly embedded in the solutions we’re building now. Those under-represented voices need to be part of the building process – not part of a consultation some months later.

If inclusion remains an afterthought in arts leadership then we are lost as a sector. We will be back to that place where representation of non-normative experience is given to a few lone voices. Those voices will be expected to represent vast swathes of society, and they will continue to be seen only through the prism of their ‘difference’, not their work. The sector will dwindle into irrelevance if we allow the experiences of any subset of society to dominate the thinking and shape of our collective futures.

Have your say

Inc Arts is working with organisations that understand their future existence depends on being inclusive, not just adding inclusion as an item low down on the business agenda. And we are working directly with those who are under-represented in the sector, especially at leadership level.

Your contribution can help to build the biggest, most in-depth picture possible, to show in cold, hard facts, exactly what it takes for everyone to progress in the arts. This is why Inc Arts is launching the UK’s biggest survey into careers in the arts. This research is for – and about – everyone, not just those who’ve had to struggle to get in, and get on.

To shape a future that is fair, rewards and recognises talent, and refuses to let people be put in boxes based on their race, class, disability, neurodivergence or gender, then please add your voice to this survey and send it to everyone else who you wants the same.  

This is a rare opportunity to make positive change. What’s happening in our neighbourhoods and our virtual networks is showing us the importance of supporting others, of interaction, of inclusive community. We all have a right to help shape the future we want to see. And we can all play a part in making our new futures brighter. Let’s start now.

Amanda Parker is Director of Inc Arts, whose mission is to diversify the workforce of the creative and cultural sector.

Add your voice to the Inc Arts survey

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Photo of Amanda Parker