After being met by a sea of white faces at a recent industry event, Rebbecca Hemmings says it’s time for Birmingham’s arts sector to face up to its diversity crisis.
By Parrot of Doom (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
We have a huge problem in Birmingham and it is getting bigger. Are Birmingham’s arts organisations fit for purpose? The short answer is no. Well not entirely, and not when it comes to delivering high-quality arts for and with all.
That may hurt some of you to read, so I must warn you: if you are scared of being asked difficult questions and hearing some really honest opinions, then you might not to want to continue reading this.
This originally started out as a quick blog to reflect on my wonderful (on the whole) experience at the ‘Arts and Learning Strategic Planning Day’ in Birmingham. However, the more I thought about and researched the major problems that were highlighted during the day, the more I wrote. I make no apologies, as the issue I raise has far-reaching consequences and is currently affecting our city in a huge way.
Many are tired of being the role model, perpetually raising the issue and then facing barriers
I should explain that I am the Director of a small drama education company called Strawberry Words, based in Aston, Birmingham. I have 20 years’ experience working in drama education, which includes several years running my company Harvey Arts and working for the former Sister Tree Theatre Company, four years in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s education department, several years spent freelancing for Birmingham City Council’s education department, a year presenting on the Wassifa Caribbean Show on Big Centre TV and six years radio presenting for Newstyle Radio.
I am also an African-Caribbean woman. I say all of this to demonstrate that I am firmly rooted in the history of Birmingham’s arts provision and I have links within the African-Caribbean community.
Strategic planning day
After taking a three-year break from the arts education scene, I started Strawberry Words in 2013. Since then, I have been busying myself, establishing, defining and refining the organisation. I am only now reaching out and learning more about where Strawberry Words sits in the wider arts ecology of Birmingham.
As part of this journey, I attended the Arts and Learning Strategic Planning Day at Birmingham City University in April. It was organised by Arts Connect on behalf of Culture Central and Birmingham City University. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
The promotional information spoke of “exploring the idea of working together to improve the quality of provision, extending reach and addressing cold spots within the city”. I thought it sounded like a brilliant opportunity to get to know who is currently doing what and how we as an organisation can extend our reach.
There must have been about 90 people in this gorgeous conference room, from which we had a scenic view of the stunning and ever-changing landscape of Birmingham city centre. Before now, I had not noticed just how colourful, vibrant and unique all the structures and buildings are.
This was juxtaposed with a somewhat less varied scene within the room. I counted maybe six people who were from a black or minority ethnic background, while everyone else was white.
Hopes and concerns
You may or may not have heard about an exciting new organisation in Birmingham called Culture Central. Its aim is: “to raise the profile of the city’s world-class culture and to build upon the considerable successes already achieved through cultural bodies working collaboratively.”
Gary Topp is its new CEO. As one of the keynote speakers, his focus was on making Birmingham ‘young, digital and diverse’. I believed him. He seemed sincere, not about the fluff and in touch with reality. He made me hopeful of change.
This notion of social innovation for the city was backed up by Darren Henley, CEO of Arts Council England (ACE). He communicated his concerns about the lack of diversity in arts and cultural organisations, including all protected characteristics – disability, age, race, sex, religion – as well as those from low socio-economic backgrounds.
Rob Elkington, CEO of Arts Connect, then led a Q&A session with Darren Henley and we were asked to speak to the person next to us about the questions that had arisen from Darren’s talk.
I was sitting next to Dorothy Wilson, CEO and Artistic Director of mac Birmingham (she will shortly be retiring after 26 years at mac). After brief introductions I told her that my concern lay with the lack of diversity, in particular that of ethnicity (not that I do not care about the other forms of diversity), among leadership within arts organisations in Birmingham. She agreed that this was an important question and urged me to ask my question. So up went my hand and I spoke.
I expressed my concern that there were very few people in the room that looked like me and that worried me. My direct question was: “How can we change the diversity of arts management within the city?”
I got a politician’s answer, which was not the clear, concise reply I wanted, but could I really have expected more? I was told to keep doing what I am doing with regards to being a role model for others and to keep raising the issue. In addition, Darren Henley said ACE now has the power to take away funding from organisations that do not embrace diversity. On the one hand, it is a good start but on the other, I wonder what experience diverse staff members will have at the hands of disgruntled arts leaders who are practically forced to employ us?
The fact that I brought this point up meant that I got many people talking to me throughout the day about this. I got the sense from these individuals that they too were genuinely concerned about the problem.
However, I was also asked several times questions such as: “Is your team of workers diverse?” To which the answer is yes. And, “If I was to ask you right now for six names of people like you, could you name them?” Yes: Barbara Walker, Pauline Bailey, Oluwatoyin Odunsi, Tru Powell, Sharon Jones, Daniella Genas-Ogunbanjo… Read my blog for a much longer list.
Lack of representation
Now, these people are far from emerging artists. They are seasoned professionals, but for one reason or another most are not being fairly represented in our city. Some are doing great things in places such as mac Birmingham, Birmingham Rep and the Old Rep Theatre, the BBC and so on. But why aren’t more of these people playing a strategic role in Birmingham’s arts and cultural institutions? This is the white elephant.
I posed this question on my Facebook and Instagram pages and immediately I got a response from Daniella Genas Ogunbanjo: “Because they are not interested in us and I’m fed up with this BME thing. They lump us together like there are no major cultural differences. The problem is so multifaceted it is impossible I feel to even tackle.”
We went on to talk privately and we spoke about the number of people we know who have and are facing similar issues with ‘the system’. I have also been speaking to a number of individuals who wish to remain nameless but also felt it essential I know how they are struggling to find ways of furthering their careers in the arts. One person spoke about not knowing where ‘everyone’ had gone.
I spoke to a theatre producer who now mainly works outside the city. This person told me they knew many black and Asian creative professionals who are qualified – and overqualified in many cases – who have applied for senior management creative sector jobs in Birmingham and have not even been given an interview. Or have had interviews, only to be told that that there was a better candidate for the job and then found out that the person who got the job was a mate of the interviewer.
Because of this, many BME professionals have focused on working outside Birmingham. The Birmingham creative industries and establishments are not interested in people like us taking their jobs – they want us to attend their meaningless forums and their events like powerless participants.
In my opinion this is a crisis for Birmingham. For whatever reason, arts leaders in the city are driving BME artists away. This current state of play works for no one in the long term. Artists and producers are inconveniencing themselves by working further afield and arts organisations are losing a group of highly qualified and skilled people.
In truth, I cannot say I know what the answer to this intricately difficult and delicate issue is, but what I know for sure is that there is a lot of pent-up frustration, in the black community in particular. Many are tired of being the role model, perpetually raising the issue and then facing barriers. I feel no one person or group of people are to blame; it is a collective issue to which we all must find the answers.
Lines of communication
We all have to keep the lines of communication open. Arts venues have to be willing to do more to find and engage diverse communities. Members of these communities need to feel free to have conversations with arts organisations as well as talk among themselves.
Gary Topp is clear that he wants Culture Central to be ‘young, digital and diverse’ from the outset. His ears and mind are open. For those who are serious about making change, the final suggestion I have is to start having those difficult conversations and be willing to listen to the answers no matter how painful they might be. I for one will not be stopping at just writing this.
On a final note, it would be great to walk into a similar event and not be alerted to the fact that I am black because of the lack of other diverse groups represented in the room.
Rebbecca Hemmings is Founder and Director of Strawberry Words.
This article is adapted from Rebbecca’s three-part blog titled ‘The growing white elephant’.