Should more be done to increase the diversity of the UK’s art and artists? And if so, what? In this second of three reports, Frances Richens looks at the findings from ArtsProfessional's latest Pulse survey, with a focus on diversity in artistic work.
The majority – 57% – of the 509 UK-based respondents who completed ArtsProfessional’s latest Pulse survey in June and July 2016 said that diversity in relation to artistic work was a top strategic priority for their organisation.
A further 28% said it was ‘important but there are more pressing issues to address’. Many commented that funding and fundraising issues were more pressing, while some respondents indicated that creating “quality” art took precedence over all other concerns.
Among respondents who worked in theatre or music, 91% said that artistic diversity was either a top priority or important, but among museum workers the proportion was just 68%.
Read the full survey responses in the pdf document here, including over 800 comments related to diversity in the arts.
Respondents’ comments revealed different reasons why organisations may be prioritising artistic diversity. Several commented along the lines of one respondent, who wrote: “In return for public funding we absolutely recognise the need for our work and our staff to reflect that same public.”
Others saw more integral value in diversity. One wrote: “We believe innovation directly emerges from diversity of debate and ideas.”
Another said: “Artists should be at the forefront of critical reflection on our society and not reduced to producing ‘culturetainment’ for the white middle classes. And that requires diverse artists with diverse life experiences and diverse views.”
While the majority did indicate that artistic diversity was important to their organisation, some raised concerns about what they saw as the ‘adding on’ of diverse work. One described how they saw diverse artistic work “marginalised or ghettoised”.
Another wrote: “Diversity is addressed artistically, but can sometimes be a piecemeal approach, with a particular project addressing an aspect of diversity.”
Another said: “We do have a diverse programme but not a consistent thread of diversity within our programme, it comes in waves via the festival methodology.”
Some were frustrated by this approach, one wrote: “There has to be a better way to create diversity than bussing diverse arts groups into various sites. When African, African Caribbean artists and companies, are brought in only if it is a special occasion, Carnival, Black History Month or some other such event.”
Barriers to increasing diversity
Which of the following hinder your organisation’s attempts to be more diverse?
- Availability of quality artistic product
- Senior management and trustees who do not value diversity
- A shallow pool of diverse candidates for work opportunities
- Limited expertise in how to become a more diverse organisation
- Inadequate funding to become a more diverse organisation
Availability of art
Overall respondents disagreed that a lack of availability of diverse artistic product was a barrier for their organisation: 43% said this did not hinder their organisation’s attempts to be more diverse, compared with 32% who said it did; with the remaining respondents unsure.
Responses to this question were very varied, however. Those working in the visual arts tended to more strongly disagree: 56% indicated that there was no lack of quality diverse artistic work available. But those working in theatre were marginally more likely to agree with the statement: 38% agreed and 36% disagreed. In music responses were evenly split on the issue: 39% agreed that a lack of quality artistic product was an issue for their organisation and 39% disagreed.
Lack of diverse artists
61% of respondents agreed that ‘a shallow pool of diverse candidates for work opportunities’ hindered their organisation’s attempts to be more diverse. While this statement also captured attitudes towards the administrative workforce, some commented specifically about a lack of artists from diverse backgrounds, and in particular disabled artists and actors.
One criticised the “appalling, chronic under-funding of diverse artists – especially those making quality work, compared to their less diverse peers”.
Others pointed to a lack of opportunities for some people to develop professional artistic practice, particularly those from low socio-economic backgrounds and disabled people. One respondent said: “There are issues on the size of the pool of disabled artists producing high quality work, but with programmes like Unlimited and our mentoring and commissioning schemes in the Midlands this is changing rapidly.”
But some argued that there are plenty of talented diverse artists. One respondent said: “We are constantly overwhelmed by artists/writers of great quality that struggle to get their work shown or published.”
Another said: “The problem is often a lack of contacts to the pool of artists, trustees or managers with an interest and relevant skills.”
Diversity in theatre
Many comments highlighted issues specific to certain artforms. Some theatre workers pointed to the difficulties they face trying to cast BME and disabled actors. One said: “We do need agencies and casting directors etc. to bring a more diverse range of performers to our attention, we ask for this but it does not always happen.”
Another wrote about how, since they are often pushed to employ actors on less than the Equity minimum, they struggled to employ BME or disabled actors, as “fully paid work elsewhere will always be a priority and they tend to be more in demand than less diverse candidates”.
One respondent said it wasn’t enough for artistic work to be thematically diverse or for diverse performers to be employed. They wrote: “We also need to get diverse writers, getting the larger scale commissions to write diverse stories.” They went on to criticise the commissioning of David Hare to adapt ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’, saying “he is not the best person to understand that world”.
Diversity in classical music
Many also commented about the particular barriers that classical music organisations face when trying to employ musicians from a more diverse range of backgrounds.
One said: “It’s a problem from the earliest of training days – professional music organisations can only choose from those who reach the highest standard and if there has been no training over many years for all types of people, not just those from an informed, educated or privileged background, then there will not be sufficient diversity at the professional level.”
Another thought the issue was self-perpetuating: “The lack of BAME and disabled artists in our music genre are a barrier in terms of attracting young musicians into the profession and for attracting diverse audiences to attend events.”
Overall, only around 15% of respondents thought that senior managers or trustees were a hindrance to increasing diversity. However, this figure increased to around 30% among respondents who said they worked in junior positions, and some respondents made a connection between the profile of their organisation’s workforce and the profile of its artistic work.
One said: “It does feel like the lack of diversity onstage is partly due to lack of diversity behind the scenes – when only white middleclass people are making artistic decisions then this does limit what happens onstage and in turn this can put off audiences.”
Another wrote: “For some, ‘diversity’ is synonymous with ‘compromise’, making their approach to diversity negative from the outset. Organisations require a degree of cultural competence to understand and respond to the needs of different communities. If the organisation lacks diversity, and the social circles of those employed by it lack diversity, it’s difficult to see how the organisation can deliver programmes for those communities or support ‘other’ staff.”
Respondents also tended to disagree that a lack of expertise was limiting their organisation’s attempts to be more diverse, although a significant proportion (32%) did think this was the case. One commented: “There hasn't been enough staff training, awareness building and knowledge of how to access diverse artists of good quality.”
Art and excellence
The issue of white middle-class dominance in the arts workforce was linked to ideas of ‘excellence’ in art by a few respondents. One said: “Until we challenge the white middle class ‘hegemony’ in terms of what constitutes excellence in art, nothing will change.”
Another wrote: “Wondering about the definition of ‘art’… if, for example, we exclude creative activities such as urban music from our definition of ‘art’ then what does that say about us and our ideas about diversity? And the endless pursuit of ‘excellence’ – does ‘excellence’ come out of privilege?”
Many respondents pointed to a lack of funding as a barrier to increasing diversity for their organisation: 41% agreed this was an issue, compared with 32% that disagreed.
One respondent said: “When you are struggling to survive, your priorities and passions focus on playing to the paying gallery! We become risk-averse and for us, this means programming rich old white acts for a rich old white audience.”
Many pointed to the pressures put on them by funders. One respondent, who said they worked for one of Arts Council England’s (ACE) National Portfolio Organisations, wrote: “ACE are setting unrealistic targets without sufficient increase in funding to develop our offer for more diverse communities.”
A lack of support for organisations that specialise in diverse work and those that support arts organisations looking to increase their diversity was also identified as an issue. One respondent wrote: “It’s hard to find the right networks who specialise in diversity because funding for them often shifts and changes.”
Another said: “The opportunities to present any other cultural narrative is remote, and when the only revenue funded black company spends its money on Arthur Miller or Shakespeare, things are even worse. It is a constant struggle for companies with a diverse agenda to get funding, venues, or recognition.”
Others wrote about their difficulties finding funds for specific access work, such as providing a sign language interpreter or captioned performance.
Improving artistic diversity
What should be done to improve diversity in the cultural sector?
- Quotas relating to artists/artistic work
- Financial incentives or penalties by funders
- Targeted initiatives to boost diverse organisations and work
- Staff training
Respondents came out slightly in favour of quotas for artistic work: 40% said they should definitely or probably be introduced, compared with 35% who said they should definitely not or probably not be introduced. 23% said they should possibly be introduced and the remaining 2% had no opinion either way.
As was the case with workforce quotas, there was a significant difference between the responses of different groups. Those who identified as white were, on average, slightly against artistic quotas: 38% said they should definitely or probably not be introduced, compared with 36% who were in favour of them. This contrasted with the responses of those who identified as ‘BME / other’, 60% of whom were for artistic quotas, compared with just 20% who were against them.
There was also a significant difference between workers from different artforms. Those working in theatre and the visual arts were most likely to favour artistic quotas. Those working in museums and across multiple artforms also tended to be in favour, but those working in music and dance tended to be against them.
Despite the positivity expressed towards artistic quotas in the poll, the majority of comments about quotas were negative. One respondent shared their concerns: “This will only lead to more tick boxing and lazy programming (It’s ‘sorry we’ve had the wheelchair dancers earlier this year so we’re not looking to programme diversity at the moment’ territory).”
Another said: “I have always been against positive discrimination as I feel it leads to more segregation rather than less.”
But some left more favourable comments. One described artist commissioning quotas as “a positive temporary fix” and another pointed to the BBC’s use of quotas as a successful model.
Incentives and penalties
The majority of respondents agreed that something needs to be done to improve diversity in the arts: just 3% said it should be left up to market forces. But respondents displayed a preference for incentives over penalties: 63% were in favour of ‘financial incentives by funders to improve diversity’, while just 29% were in favour of ‘financial penalties by funders for poor diversity’.
As with quotas, responses varied greatly. Respondents who identified as BME / other were twice as likely to support the idea of penalties: 50% said penalties should be introduced, compared with 24% of respondents who identified as white. BME respondents were also more likely to support ‘naming and shaming’ those with a poor track record of diversity: 52% of BME respondents voted in favour of this, compared with 24% of white respondents.
Many thought that the current expectations put on funded organisations do not go far enough. One said: “Good-will and the hope that diversity issues will rise up into the consciousness of funders and decision-makers have not worked, it will need sanctions.”
Another said: “The Creative Case rhetoric is strong, but NPO equality action plans are treated as a ‘box ticking’ exercise by some and no weight is brought to bear on them to change.”
Another agreed: “More pressure needs to be put on venues to programme work by diversity-led organisations and to value the quality work of these companies/artists, rather than just seeing them as ‘token’ or ‘box ticking’.”
Overall respondents agreed that targeted initiatives to boost diverse organisations was a good idea: 80% said this should be done. But some did raise concern in the comments about the segregation of diverse work to certain companies.
One commented: “Arts Council tends to ghetto-ise diverse companies by treating them separately.”
One respondent described how venues also treat diverse-led companies differently, in particular when it comes to negotiating fees. They wrote: “When venues ensure the same fees are paid for a 20-strong cast to a diverse programme compared to what they would offer their traditional programming, then we are going to make steps towards addressing equality.”
Some called for the breakdown of diversity categories. One said: “It’s about opening opportunities across the board and not so much putting on ‘disabled’, ‘transgender’ or ‘black’ programmes, but rather projects/programmes that are inclusive of different groups of people. This type of approach needs to be woven into how the arts is researched, developed, programmed, advertised, funded and evaluated.”
Another called for what they described as the “mainstreaming of diversity”, and one said: “We need to get to a point where diversity is the norm, where work is not considered excellent if it is exclusive.”
Widening the definition of art
Several respondents commented about the need to reconsider the traditional definition of art and how some artforms are considered.
One wrote: “Diversity should not be ‘held’ in silo’ed ‘diverse’ organisations but embraced by all and that may mean some challenging discussions around what constitutes ‘art’ and how it is created, produced, distributed and shared and how we can re-frame it for the rapidly changing digital future.”
Another said: “With regards to subsidised arts, there needs to be a shift in thinking and funding from the forms we consider ‘arts’ now to properly include art-forms that younger and culturally diverse people consider art and not to focus so heavily on large cultural institutions but recognise and support the independent creative and producer.”
One identified a lack of understanding about diverse artforms. They gave the example of Indian classical dance: “[It] is a heritage artform in the same way as ballet, yet it is rarely given support to ensure its continuation, and very little distinction is made between the classical and contemporary when talking about this form of dance.”
Others were concerned about existing ideas of quality and excellence. One wrote: “If we want change to come through arts funding, funders have to be willing to fund aspiration and take risks. Otherwise we will endlessly be fed the same ‘excellent art’ we have got now, and it’s going to look pretty un-diverse.”
Targeted initiatives and training
Staff training and ‘targeted initiatives to boost diverse work’ were other popular suggestions. Over 80% agreed these should be done.
Suggestions included “an 'arts sector' training session across the nation for all organisations”; management and governance training schemes; artist showcases; and networking opportunities.
Some identified costs associated with improving diversity in artistic work, such as audience development, and called for funding. One respondent said: “Efforts to improve the diversity of an artistic offer presents many risks – the most concerning being financial, ie low ticket sales, not speaking to traditional donors.”
But others disagreed. One wrote: “Anyone that lists lack of funding to become more diverse clearly has no intention to really embrace diversity! Mostly fear of what an audience will accept limits diversity as well as poor quality products proclaiming to represent ‘diversity’.”
Many pointed to a need to support under-represented people to become artists and 81% supported the idea of ‘incentives to increase the diversity of those entering arts careers’. One respondent said: “If we want diversity in the arts we have to enable (ie fund!) a diversity of people making art.”
Another said: “Start with the capacity building and professional development of the artists and expose venues and programmers to the work. When there is proper investment and support mechanisms for artists the bookings will follow.”
Many thought efforts need to be made to address the root cause of a lack of diversity amongst artists. One respondent wrote: “We probably need to go back to schools and see why children do not go to art college etc.”
Another said: “Long term projects to improve diversity, with organisations working with local schools and educational establishments would lead to a steady improvement over time.”
Many pointed to the education system as a barrier to increasing artistic diversity. One wrote: “The most useful measure to address diversity in all its forms would be a wholesale reform of the entire education sector (schools and HE) to reverse the trend of the arts being only the preserve of the white, male with the money and the education/experience that brings.”
The survey revealed a strong commitment among arts organisations to improving the diversity of their artistic work.
However, comments about the need to represent the population and increase audience diversity raises questions about why arts organisation are making this a priority. Do arts workers see artistic diversity as something that will fundamentally improve the artistic offer or something that will increase ticket sales and satisfy funders?
This issue is perhaps reflected in what many see as the segregation of artistic diversity. There are widespread concerns about diversity being ‘siloed’ to diversity-orientated organisations, and within other organisations being segregated through programming. The sector, and funders, appear to be conflicted about whether diversity-orientated organisations are a positive or necessary thing, or a symptom of inequality that may even perpetuate an already pervasive problem.
The current system of segregation also raises questions about how diversity quotas could be introduced: would they aim to put an end to segregated programming? What would they mean for diversity-orientated organisations that may more than fulfil one quota, but fall short in another area?
The survey revealed that the sector is divided about whether or not there is a lack of availability of diverse artistic product. Although respondents as a whole thought this wasn’t the case, many identified barriers for people from certain backgrounds developing professional artistic practice.
The reasons for a lack of diversity in the UK’s artists, actors, dancers and musicians are clearly numerous, but perhaps the key barrier to artistic diversity relates to the notion of what is art, and specifically what is ‘excellent’ art as defined both by arts organisations and funders. Many indicated that the top-down imposed concept of ‘quality art’ limits attempts to increase diversity in the art that organisations present.
There are clear calls for more support to help the sector increase diversity in its art: training and networking opportunities for arts workers; increasing support for diverse artists to develop their practice; making funding available to help organisations develop audiences; increasing access to arts education.
However, the survey has raised more complex questions about what diversity in an organisation’s artistic work should look like, and revealed a deeper need to change attitudes within arts organisations about the value of diversity, as well as the more pervasive definition of art. This will surely be harder to achieve.
Frances Richens is Editor of ArtsProfessional