Talawa cash to create four new ethnic arts centres

Public cash pulled from Talawa’s aborted project to build the UK’s first black-led theatre in Westminster will now be used to set up at least four “centres of excellence” for ethnic performance groups across the UK.

Arts Council England has ring-fenced the £4 million it removed from the company’s collapsed bid for a base in Westminster, plus an extra £1 million, to instigate plans for a minimum of four high-quality sites, with Birmingham, Bristol, Leicester, London and Manchester all put forward as potential locations.

Not all of the centres are expected to serve as performance spaces. Some are likely to focus on supplying facilities for rehearsal or development, with space to showcase rather than present work in full.

Following its decision to remove support for the Talawa project, ACE commissioned an independent consultation with black and minority ethnic (BME) artists, entitled Whose Theatre…? and led by arts consultant Lola Young, to investigate how funding could best benefit artists and organisations over the next decade.

The results of the report, exclusively revealed to The Stage, conclude that the money originally intended for Talawa should be used to support a “linked network of buildings, each of which is a ‘gold standard’”, rather than funding a single flagship theatre, as had been intended before. It also stressed that a “coherent, strategic and substantial investment” would be needed to achieve this.

The report, while praising much of the work ACE has done to encourage diversity in the arts, complained there appeared to be a “glass ceiling” for BME employees within the arts council itself and that its classification of ethnic groups needed to be reconsidered. It also stressed that any future developments for the sector, including the proposed building projects, must be led by BME practitioners, with ACE as a partner, rather than the other way around.

ACE, responding to what it termed “challenging” recommendations, indicated that it has earmarked an initial investment of around £5 million and would look to supply “appropriate revenue funding” for the venues. It agreed that the sector would be given the opportunity to “take ownership” of the projects. The arts council will now embark on further research into the state of the BME sector and proposals for the building projects, which will report back in August.

Felix Cross, director of Nitro, said he was optimistic about the proposals and welcomed the network of buildings where BME work could be developed as an “exciting prospect” that could serve as a “magnet” to develop relationships in the sector.

Philip Hedley, associate producer on The Big Life – the West End’s first ever black British musical – added: “The virtues of this well-informed and inspiring report are the results of ACE having appointed a well-respected team of black and Asian practitioners to compile it. It is now vital that ACE follows through on the central recommendations. It is now vital that ACE follows through on the central recommendations, in particular that practitioners from the sector are given ownership of its future development.”

Talawa said that it would respond to the reports recommendations after it had had further time to digest its findings.

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