Guardian Live Debate: Diversity in the Arts – 15 April 2015

On Wednesday 15th April I attended a panel discussion at Kings Place in central London about ‘Diversity in the Arts’, organised as part of the Guardian Live series of debates. The event was chaired by Guardian journalist Mark Lawson and featured contributions from five invited panellists: Chris Bryant (Labour Party spokesperson for culture, media and the arts),  David Lan (artistic director of the Young Vic) writer Dreda Say Mitchell (a trustee of the National Youth Arts Trust), Femi Oguns MBE (founder and CEO of Identity Drama School), and Ben Stephenson (controller of BBC Drama).

Contributors (from left to right): Ben Stephenson, Mark Lawson, Dreda Say Mitchell, David Lan, Chris Bryant, Femi Oguns.
Panel contributors (from left to right): Ben Stephenson, Mark Lawson, Dreda Say Mitchell, David Lan, Chris Bryant, Femi Oguns.

Key questions tabled for discussion considered the extent of diversity in the UK’s arts sector, as well as throughout the creative industries more broadly – across all artistic forms and genres, and at every level of responsibility and visibility (from front-of-house, audience-facing contributions, and back-office technical support, through to board-level and directorial decision-making, etc.). Central to the debate was the question of whether talent was able to shine through irrespective of factors such as skin colour, gender, sexuality, social class, and/or disability, and also whether successful entry routes and progression in different areas of the arts were still heavily dependent on coming from the ‘right background’, the level of financial support available, mobility within elite networks, and other socio-economic exclusions.

There was general consensus among all the panellists that the UK culture sector lacked diversity across the breadth of its different artistic genres and areas of employment. What differed were their views on the extent of the problem, what needed to be done to disrupt the status quo, the level of urgency influencing the need for change, and the speed at which tangible improvements could be achieved.

Femi Oguns (left), the founder and CEO of the Identity Drama School in Hackney with three of his students. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
Femi Oguns (left), the founder and CEO of the Identity Drama School in Hackney with three of his students. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The opening statement by Femi Oguns focused on the current state of arts education, highlighting major concerns about under-representation of black and minoritized creative practitioners in the UK’s film, TV and theatre workforce – citing statistics from the British Film Institute that revealed less than 5% BME representation in the UK film industry when Britons of African, Asian and Caribbean descent (including visible minorities with dual/multiple heritage) comprise c. 14% of the population in England and Wales.*

Dreda Say Mitchell suggested that the wrong questions were being posed, and encouraged a refocused debate to make it more about issues of access and genuinely valuing people as equals. She was rightly critical of mainstream institutions such as the BBC for their lack of ambition in implementing “revolutionary reforms” and relying too heavily on arbitrary box-checking activities that compartmentalized individuals as diversity “types” – on which “project status” could be conferred, and small pots of “diversity funding” could be temporarily allocated – rather than valuing diversity as a means of achieving greater excellence as well as equality.

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