The arts industry has been slapped in the face yet again. Would you open a restaurant that couldn’t serve food? Would you open a swimming pool with no swimming? Would you open a football ground with no football matches? Of course you wouldn’t. So what use is an arts venue if it can’t hold any live performances? Turns out, quite a lot, actually.
Now call me naive, or overly optimistic perhaps, but I don’t think we’re looking at the destruction of the Welsh arts scene. We’re looking at an industry in free-fall, yes, and there’s no timetable on when it’ll recover. But I believe it will recover, because you can’t bet against artists. They will always find a way to create and, sooner or later, they’ll also find a way to get an audience to that art. Just look at the ‘Zoom revolution’ or Sofa Share Wales. What needs to change is the conversation. We shouldn’t be asking if the arts scene will return; we should be asking what kind of arts scene we want to return to.
Of course, there’s the arts scene we currently have, the one being argued for on Twitter and disorganised Zoom meetings. Just to remind you of what that arts scene looks like, here are a few stats:
- 67 Portfolio organisations receive regular arts funding from the Arts Council – only 20 of them aren’t led by a white man (29.9%)
- In 2018/19, 483 funding applications included an equalities monitoring form – only 90 of these applications came from members of a protected characteristic (18.6%)
- Portfolio organisations produced 23,149 events in 2018/19 – only 1493 were targeted at the disabled community (6.4%); 557 were targeted at the BME community (2.4%); and 834 were targeted at the LGBT community (3.6%)
- In 2018/19, 661 people sat on Boards of Management in Portfolio organisations – only 49 of them were from the disabled and/or BME community (7.4%)
- All of the arts criticism magazines and reviewing sites in Wales are run by white men
It makes for grim reading, but is it shocking? Of course not. The arts scene we closed down three months ago was brimming with discrimination, tokenism and elitism. Rather than fix things, we papered over the cracks. We used the same handful of artists of colour and lauded it as a victory for racial equality, while the rest left Wales to find work elsewhere. We put access performances in our schedules and lauded it as a victory for the disabled community, but couldn’t find space to employ them in our companies. We let trans creatives have an event to platform themselves, but gave them no visibility anywhere else.
And as go the artists, so do the audiences. A simple sight-check will confirm the distinct lack of diverse audiences – it’s hardly news. Community-led projects were supposed to link arts organisations to their local base, but those people aren’t choosing to come back. We stopped engaging with them, so they stopped engaging with us. And that doesn’t even take into account the communities we’ve completely ignored.
If this is the arts scene you’re fighting for then, as the member of a minority community, I want no part in your fight. I don’t want to join in a struggle that, if won, will mean minority communities like mine will be held down again. Wales will go back to serving the usual masters – white, able-bodied people, mostly men, putting on the same kind of work with the same kinds of people to the same kinds of audiences. The inevitability of it is exasperating.
Now call me naive, or overly optimistic perhaps, but I think there’s a better way to press the reset button. Just because our arts venues can’t put on live performances, doesn’t mean they can’t continue contributing to society in an enriching and meaningful way. Six to twelve months is more than enough time for there to be seismic shifts in the way our arts scene is run. It can be a time to reflect on where we are as an industry, and where we want to go. You know those local communities we keep ignoring? What if we spent twelve months doing outreach with them, listening to what they want? Can you imagine how that would change our audiences?
Or what about all those emerging artists from minority communities, the ones we keep struggling to engage with? What if we invited them in and gave them the time and the resource to explore and play, without the pressure of an end product? Can you imagine the talent we would unearth? Or you know all that money we would have used to create a show? What if that money was spent on making our buildings and our processes more inclusive? What if we made a space that, for example, neurodiverse and trans people would feel comfortable visiting? Can you imagine the trust we’d generate from those communities?
These ideas certainly aren’t watertight – they’re plucked off the top of my head – but they’re ideas. There are far smarter people in our sector with far smarter ideas and the ability to act on them. We should be using this time to tap into their knowledge and experience, letting them lead us through this difficult time into a future that will be better because it will be fairer. They should be the ones leading these mass Zoom meetings about the future of Wales, not the same white men. How can there be change when the authoritative voice doesn’t change?
But therein lies the rub: we have to want to change. Change doesn’t come by inviting them to the table – the table is the problem. We have to smash that table into pieces so it’s unrecognisable, and ask these smarter people to piece it back together. A new table, built by new leaders with new ideas. We all have an important choice to make. We can continue fighting for the status quo, that has served the same elite group for years and years and years, or we can fight – together – for radical, transformative change.
Arts for the benefit of all. What a novel idea.
I’d like to thank Shane Nickels and Jennifer Lunn for taking the time to consult with me on this article. The statistics used in the article, and verbiage used in those statistics, are taken directly from Arts Council Wales reports, and don’t necessarily reflect my own feelings on those terms.