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Southbank Centre’s Creative Director has called for a “much more disruptive intervention”.

Photo of Madani Younis
Madani Younis

Hugh Glendinning

Senior arts figures have criticised the sector for co-opting drives towards diversity into conservative institutional structures, thus holding back progress.

Speaking on a panel at the Roundhouse in London, Madani Younis, Creative Director of Southbank Centre, said: “… we are in an age when we are suffering from what I describe as a new paternalism. And this paternalism on the one hand allows institutions to co-opt the concerns of diversity, of gender, of class and so on.

“On the one hand, you say: ‘That’s super good. These guys are on it, they hear the cry and they are looking to change something’.

“But on the flip side of that new paternalism, those very institutions then get to decide what the pace of change is. And for me that is perverse. Because how can the very institutions that have been so stagnant and so slow in their response, then feel the responsibility is on them? For me, that has to change.”

‘Step aside’

Responding to Younis’ comments, theatre critic and journalist Lyn Gardner said: “People are putting in place initiatives in order to increase the diversity of the number of people who are on stage or who have particular roles. But the change is not actually happening at the top. And the only way that change will ever happen is if people step aside.”

Gardner added: “You can co-opt people onto your boards, you can look to make a kind of change. But actually you only really make change in an organisation if your board perhaps is run by people directly from the community and is not actually full of people who really are the gatekeepers.”

Younis continued: “I think we need a much more disruptive moment…we have got to take a leap of faith to undo the old values that have held us back for so long.”

Calling for “a much more disruptive intervention”, he said the key question regarding the arts was “what is subsidy for, and who is it for?”.

He added: “We should not accept the status quo and not feel like the job of our funders is to police the status quo.”

Diversity data

The sector’s slow pace of change on diversity was highlighted by a recent Arts Council England (ACE) report, which found that National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) were “treading water” on the issue.

The report also confirmed that the quality of diversity data provided by the sector is a serious ongoing concern, with record numbers of the largest arts organisations claiming their diversity figures are ‘unknown’.

ACE’s Diversity Director Abid Hussain commented on this issue at the same event, saying the funder was focusing its spotlight on organisations that were failing to supply requested data.

“If you’re a NPO, you may have received a letter recently from the Arts Council on the importance of data,” said Hussain.

“One of the things we’re introducing into the annual survey for 2018/19 is a question around ‘If you don’t provide the data, why is it that you’ve not able to provide the data.’ Because we felt we needed to understand better the reasons why the organisations are not capturing data.

“We’re picking up on trends, for example, which are more specific to our sector. We work with a lot of staff who are contracted or work on a temporary basis. And it’s much more likely for there to be no data for temporary or contract staff. So how can we work with organisations to address that. I think a lot of it has to be being prepared to have a conversation with people when you don’t necessarily get the results you were expecting.”