Beatings with a Carrot – Mike White on Arts and Diversity

Mike White, CMH Arts in Health Correspondent, writes: It has been the Arts Council’s misfortune that in the past it has interpreted ‘diversity’ as culture’s prerogative to go off in all directions, leaving it to mediate successive governments’ melting pot metaphors of an inclusive multi-racial Britain. But recently in a sharp policy announcement that is symptomatic of a dearth of funding it now warns of the death of a thousand paper-cuts to arts organisations who don’t get their act together on diversity. I cannot understand how the arts establishment is still stuck in a hole on this almost forty years on from the landmark report ‘The Arts Britain Ignores’ (1976), and despite numerous strategy documents aimed at advancing a vigorously (or superficially?) PC arts sector, most recently in ‘Beyond Cultural Diversity’ (2010). The Arts Council has now decided to lay the responsibility on its clients because the issue is “too complex”.

This seems an untimely relinquishing of duty by a public body. It appears to me that the diversity issue is currently and primarily not about encouraging equality in career paths, staffing and arts programming, but rather about ensuring equity in the geographical spread of arts funding through the country so that a thriving arts sector is available to all. The unnecessary edict pronounced by the Arts Council chairman last week is just a diversion from the historical injustices aggravated in the North-South divide that have affected all UK minorities and underclasses in consequence of cultural funding policies in recent decades, as highlighted in last year’s Stark and Powell report ‘Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital’. To require arts organisations the length of the land to understand their multi-racial audiences better appears to be just a patronising variation on this week’s parsimonious axiom, courtesy of Baroness Jenkin, that those who plead starvation of funds actually just cannot cook. A serious grasp on the matter would recognise firstly an unfairness of distribution in arts funding and express some humility that we may never know quite what constitutes meaningful art in and for the population in its interface with artists. I accept the need for a collective responsibility expressed in Arts Council chair Sir Peter Bazalgette’s declaration that the “white-cliff face of the arts establishment” must go – but it feels too late when the funding system is in entropy and makes only an appeal to doing the show in the barn through an extra £25 million for the Creative People and Places programme. Attempts to revitalise our national culture in its myriad conflicting forms with the last carrot of an audience development strategy seems somehow banal – I mean, in our post-Lottery Capital age, culture should never be an ‘offer’ but a necessity – so let’s be thankful those delivering on the ground are at least attempting to make a difference even when it means dressing up diversity in stuffy quantitative measures.

Perhaps the diversity issue is more acutely felt by the Arts Council through its relationship with London-based and national companies on account of the capital turning into a dormitory for international finance, but it does not mean that arts organisations in the regions are likewise challenged in engaging with their demographic. That demographic extends across the life-course too, not just through the panoply of ethnic origins, and further complicates the ‘arts for whom?’ question. We cannot resolve this through culture by quota. Rather we should look for issues of common ground and how they are expressed and reflected upon through arts engagement, highlighting how differing world views can strike agreement when the chips are down. I have always held that arts in health is a portal to such an understanding for both individuals and society because they touch on matters of ultimate significance, and it is frustrating that the practitioners in this field have to spend so much time justifying themselves as a worthwhile therapeutic diversion rather than as an instrument of social change.

This is no time for the Arts Council to bale out and leave its clients to seek new patronage within a diversity model waving the awfully-named ‘brown pound’. Its greatest virtue, even under the patriarchal aegis of Matthew Arnold and Maynard Keynes, has been to recognise that its mission has never been about entertaining a comfortable elite but to nurture a popular understanding of excellence and autodidactic opportunity. The report that will one day really trouble me is the one titled ‘The Poor Whom Britain’s Arts Forgot’.

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