Robin Simpson considers why arts organisations struggle with diversity and shares how Voluntary Arts made its breakthrough.
Why do so many arts organisations struggle with diversity? Most people working in the arts seem to have a genuine belief in the importance of diversity and are sincere in their determination to ensure the arts are accessible to all. Yet report after report tells us how arts organisations are poor at reaching diverse audiences and employing a diverse workforce.
I am aware that there are some arts organisations who buck the trend and act as models of best practice but I'm interested in why the rest seem to fare so badly in this area.
"I suspect many arts organisations become victims of their own good intentions."
I suspect many arts organisations become victims of their own good intentions. From my own experience at Voluntary Arts, we spent years in our Board meetings bemoaning the fact that none of our Trustees or staff, and few attenders at our conferences and training events, came from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. We consistently agreed that diversifying our reach, our workforce and our Board was a top priority. We stressed that this issue was an urgent imperative. We agreed that we could no longer accept this blatant lack of diversity within a national organisation which claims to represent and support voluntary and amateur creative cultural activity across the whole of the UK and Ireland. And yet... nothing changed.
With hindsight it is clear that, though determined to do something, we really didn't know what to do - how to take that first step. And precisely because our Trustees and staff believed in the importance of diversity, and the dangers of prejudice and discrimination, we kept hesitating. We were incredibly nervous of saying the wrong thing, causing offence, betraying our ignorance, embarrassing ourselves or those we might approach to join us. We were desperate to avoid any sense of patronising or resorting to tokenism. And the result was that, for years, we didn't make any progress.
"Our breakthrough came in 2015 as a result of a combination of strong leadership, developing partnerships, asking questions and investing in expert support."
Our breakthrough came in 2015 as a result of a combination of strong leadership, developing partnerships, asking questions and investing in expert support. Voluntary Arts recruited volunteer BAME Advisory Panel members located geographically close to each of the organisation’s offices and staff teams so that they could coach Voluntary Arts staff in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland to create country-specific action plans for BAME engagement. Panel members also worked directly with Voluntary Arts staff to interview 40 expert ‘witnesses’ from particular BAME communities. This work culminated in a series of recommendations for the organisation, a report ('Open Conversations') and the addition of four members of our BAME Advisory Panel to the Board of Voluntary Arts in November 2016.
A key factor in the success of this programme of work was the open, inquisitive nature of our conversations with people organising creative cultural activity in BAME communities. Rather than arriving with a checklist of questions to 'consult' people, our BAME Advisory Panel members and Voluntary Arts staff were genuinely interested - wanting to learn more about the cultural activity happening in the relevant communities, appreciating and valuing what they discovered.
We were keen to move away from the traditional 'deficit model' that tends to focus on bringing under-represented groups to participate in 'our' arts activity. Rather, we wanted to learn from, and raise the profile of, the local arts activity in communities across the country that is often unseen and unappreciated by the wider arts sector.
"Voluntary Arts has moved, in a short space of time, from a position of embarrassment about its lack of ethnic diversity to a confidence that it is pioneering a new approach to developing strong, effective connections to a range of BAME communities."
Voluntary Arts has moved, in a short space of time, from a position of embarrassment about its lack of ethnic diversity to a confidence that it is pioneering a new approach to developing strong, effective connections to a range of BAME communities. The organisation is clear that it is still only at the start of a journey but that first step, which allowed Voluntary Arts to break its cycle of inactivity, has been fascinating, inspiring and great fun.
If your organisation is struggling with diversity in the way we were, I hope our 'Open Conversations' report might provide a useful model to get you started.