Leading disabled artists have welcomed a new Arts Council policy which aims to force mainstream organisations to take real action to promote diversity, patient but have warned that disabled-led organisations still have a vital role to play.
Sir Peter Bazalgette, advice the chair of Arts Council England (ACE), announced a “fundamental shift” in its approach to diversity this week in a speech to an event at Sadler’s Wells in London, and admitted that ACE had previously failed to promote change across the industry.
He told ACE’s Diversity and the Creative Case event that the responsibility for promoting diversity had too often rested on user-led disability or black and minority ethnic (BME) arts organisations, and he pointed to worrying figures which showed that there had been a “substantial fall” in applications from disabled people for its Grants for the Arts programme.
Sir Peter suggested that changes to the Independent Living Fund and the Access to Work (AtW) scheme – which were “of concern to many disabled and deaf artists” – had helped put these groups “on the back foot”.
But he announced that all arts organisations funded by ACE would now have to make a Creative Case for Diversity, a commitment to “make their work appeal across their communities”.
ACE is working on new ways to measure the diversity of audiences, and next year it will publish workforce diversity data for the “national portfolio” of organisations it funds.
The progress they make on improving the diversity of their programmes, audiences, artists and workforces will affect those organisations’ funding after 2018.
Sir Peter also announced £6 million in new funding to support diversity work, and another £1.8 million for the Unlimited disability arts programme.
Maria Oshodi, the artistic director of Extant, the theatre company founded and led by visually-impaired artists, told the audience that even within what would appear to be a “very narrow perspective on making art”, the possibilities were “very rich” because disability was generally non-discriminatory, “affecting all communities, classes and ages…offering endless combinations of plural reflections on both life and making art”.
One audience member told Sir Peter that only three per cent of the arts workforce was disabled, 58 per cent of funded arts organisations employed no disabled people, three-fifths of funded mainstream arts organisations had carried out no disability equality training, while 85 per cent had no up-to-date access audit.
Sir Peter said these statistics were “telling” and he accepted that there was a “big challenge” ahead.
Ruth Gould, artistic director of DaDaFest, said there was “a huge issue in how our society is changing fast over the next few years”, with the election approaching and possible further cuts to funding ahead.
She said that putting access “at the heart of everything we do” takes resources, while the problems with AtW were “really starting to cut us out and we are becoming more invisible than we have been in a long time”.
Oshodi agreed and said the “whole landscape is shifting in a very insidious way around the needs of disabled artists and that… needs to be addressed and taken on by the Arts Council.”
Gould told Disability News Service afterwards that the ACE announcement had been overdue, because “up to now it has mainly been all talk and no action”, and she welcomed the message that “all of us need to be driving change by making every decision we make in the arts to be one about diversity”.
But she said there was a fear that the new approach could end up marginalising those user-led organisations that have led the way on diversity.
Gould said there was still a “key role” for user-led arts organisations to “support emerging talent, collaborating to create exciting and new experiences from different cultures”.
She said: “DaDaFest is viewed as a mainstream arts organisation within the sub-region of Liverpool as all our work is delivered in partnership.
“We affect change and are also changed in the process to be more diverse, risk-taking and ultimately varied.
“This also allows us to nurture talent, deliver equality training and give support to those seeking to be more in tune with society’s changing demographic.”
But she said she was concerned that only one of the five representatives on the event’s panel – Oshodi – was from the disability community and that most of the discussion had centred on race, rather than other minorities, as did media coverage of the event.
Dr Ju Gosling, artistic director of the disability arts, culture and human rights organisation Together! 2012, said that ACE pressure on publicly-funded arts organisations to meet their responsibilities under the Equality Act was long overdue.
She said: “The current figure of 97 per cent of Arts Council-funded arts workers being non-disabled is a disgrace when 20 per cent of the workforce has an impairment.
“It is no more the responsibility of disabled people to change this situation than it is for BME people to end racism, and for disability arts organisations to be blamed in the past for the slow progress has been completely unreasonable.”
But she added: “However, disability equality can never be achieved unless it is disabled-led, and this needs to be part of the planning.
“Efforts to involve mainstream organisations in leading disability work in the recent past have proved that they lack the skill-set and understanding of the issues and the social model to be effective.”
Gosling said that offering mainstream organisations “special funding” in the past to employ disabled people has “simply reinforced the idea that we are not part of the wider arts world with an equal right to be represented”.
She said that disabled people need “ongoing support” for their own artistic culture, while the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities “grants us the right to be able to enjoy and participate in our own culture as well as that of the ‘mainstream’”.
She said: “Disability culture cannot be transplanted into a world where only a tiny minority of the staff are disabled; where access ranges from poor to impossible for individual impairment groups; and where the cost is beyond most of us.
“Disability culture has to take place in spaces which are fully accessible and where disabled people are fully in control.”
She added: “We greatly appreciate the support of the Arts Council in our work to date, and hope to see this increase as part of the new strategy.”
11 December 2014