Sam Walters, the UK’s longest serving artistic director, has criticised politicians’ “constant disparagement of white, middle-class” theatregoers, arguing venues would be “much the emptier” without them.
The outgoing artistic director of the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond was responding to recent speeches by culture secretary Sajid Javid and shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman, both of whom called for increased access to the arts. Javid said many people paying to support culture through the National Lottery tickets felt the sector was for “other, richer people”, while Harman claimed that audiences were too “white, metropolitan and middle-class”.
Walters, who steps down from the Orange Tree on June 29 after 42 years, said he was “fed-up to the back teeth” that white middle-class audiences were undermined by MPs. He described picking out a section of society for “criticism and pillorying” as an unpleasant political trait.
“I can only speak for myself and the theatre I run, but I imagine, unlike Mr Javid and Ms Harman, theatres are of course delighted that these white, middle-class people buy theatre tickets or their theatres would be much the emptier,” he said.
Walters hit out at Javid’s claims that going to the Donmar Warehouse or Bristol Old Vic was “simply not on the agenda” when he was a child.
“Visiting a theatre might not have been on his agenda, but to suggest that the theatre offered during his childhood was not available to him and his working-class schoolmates is abject nonsense,” he said.
Walters pointed to initiatives aimed at getting younger people interested in theatre from a range of backgrounds, including a primary schools Shakespeare project run by Orange Tree for the last 25 years, and said that for Harman and Javid to imply that theatres were “complacently sitting on their backsides and ignoring large swathes of the population is ill-researched rubbish”.
The artistic director went on to claim that subsidy should be used to support things that are a “minority interest” and added: “We want a society where things that are not commercially viable can still be provided for those who want them. That is what subsidy is for. There is nothing wrong with something being elite. What you have to ensure is that everyone has an opportunity (which they may choose to spurn) of joining the elite.”
Walters also criticised Harman’s proposals to make it a requirement for arts organisations to show how they will widen access before receiving public subsidy.
He criticised the way arts organisations were being expected to behave in a manner prescribed by ministers and unelected quangos. “Toe the line or no funding for you,” he said.