Alumni, staff and patrons of north London performing arts school Wac Arts have accused it of failing to act on concerns around racism and prejudice, in a damning letter declaring a "state of crisis" at the organisation.
They are arguing that there is a risk to the future of the school – whose alumni include signatories Sheila Atim and Ché Walker as well as Daniel Kaluuya, Michaela Coel and Danny Dyer – and are demanding to meet with the entire board, a request they say has so far been denied.
Wac Arts, in Belsize Park, offers classes for young people in music, dance and drama, with a focus on widening access to the arts and reaching diverse communities, and is home to the Wac Arts College for 14 to 19-year-olds.
Writing as the Wac Arts Concerns Group, the 82 signatories highlight "growing concerns" around institutional racism and class-based prejudice, as well as "broader problems in the governance, management and leadership".
Organisers of the letter told The Stage that publicising their concerns was "an exceptionally difficult step to take" but that they felt they had no option but to take the issues to a public arena after feeling ignored by the board.
However, Wac Arts is arguing that it does "not recognise any truth" in the accusations, and said it has "made every effort to engage with the complainants".
Other signatories to the letter include actor and director Rikki Beadle-Blair, performers Jamael Westman and Anoushka Lucas, playwright Roy Williams and former Shakespeare’s Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole.
Patrons Martina Laird and Ann Mitchell have also put their names to the letter.
They claim that over the past three years, Wac Arts’ board has repeatedly failed to address claims of "micro-aggressions, cultural insensitivity and patronising attitudes" around race, as well as a "growing sense of issues of class arrogance, obfuscation, obstruction and a feeling that profit is placed above people".
They say black and working-class associates and staff members have sought meetings with the board on many occasions to discuss the issues, but have either been dismissed, or offered a meeting with certain, but not all, trustees.
"We want answers as to why these requests have not been fulfilled," the letter says.
It argues that wide-ranging concerns around the running of Wac Arts have most recently been exemplified by an "influx of complaints" about its handling of staff during the pandemic.
The letter alleges that certain staff members were refused access to the government’s furlough scheme "without explanation", which "sparked uproar and outrage".
As a result, a serious incident report has been submitted to the Charity Commission, which confirmed to The Stage that it is "aware of concerns relating to the governance of Wac Arts" and is assessing information to determine its next steps.
The letter also asks for more information surrounding the recent "abrupt" departure of Wac Arts’ chair Liz Cleaver and several trustees "in the midst of us raising our concerns around Black Lives Matter and during a pandemic".
It also highlights a lack of diversity on the board, an "unusually high turnover of staff", concerns over financial management and a reduction in Wac Arts’ programmes for disadvantaged young people.
The group is requesting a meeting with all board members to address the issues outlined in the letter, and says any trustee appointments that are made until this time would be considered "highly problematic".
"Both the arts and education have been hit incredibly hard by Covid-19. Organisations like Wac Arts will be needed by our communities more than ever. To alienate your staff and undermine community confidence, particularly at a time when attitudes to race are being hotly debated, is a serious folly. A full, frank and unvarnished discussion is now urgently necessary," it says.
In response, a spokeswoman for Wac Arts said: "The board takes any accusations made against it extremely seriously, especially where they are without foundation. We adhere to high standards of governance and are mindful of our responsibilities to the diverse community in which we operate.
"While we do not recognise any truth in these allegations, which until July 5, 2020 were all made anonymously, we have made every effort to engage with the complainants over a two-year period, including carrying out an independent cultural review. We have already self-reported the matter to the Charity Commission, as a matter of good order.”
To the Wac Arts Board,
We are a group of staff members, alumni, patrons and supporters of Wac Arts and have come together as the Wac Arts Concerns Group. We have called upon you multiple times to hold an extraordinary meeting to discuss the state of crisis within the organisation. These requests have been either dismissed or met with an unsatisfactory response - most notably, the refusal to grant us full access to the entire board. As trustees of a charity you have a fiduciary duty to the organisation and must operate as caretakers of Wac Arts’ purposes, values and reputation. We are concerned that the very future of Wac Arts is being put at risk.
We are not going away. We will not be silenced.
Risks facing the sector during the coronavirus pandemic
Most recently, senior management’s decision to deny certain staff members access to the Government’s furlough (CJRS) scheme, without reasonable explanation, during the Covid-19 pandemic sparked uproar and outrage within the wider Wac Arts community. This resulted in a large influx of complaints sent directly to senior management and the board. One of the fundamental responsibilities of organisations during this time is to preserve the security, livelihood and well-being of staff. We have observed the ways in which other similar organisations have endeavoured to protect all their staff - extending support beyond just those who fit the government’s furlough eligibility - and we are troubled as to why a similar attitude and approach has not been applied at Wac Arts.
We believe the above situation is, in turn, symptomatic of much broader problems in the governance, management and leadership of Wac Arts - problems that have steadily grown over the past three years.
Allegations of Institutional Racism
Black associates in particular have sought a meeting with all board members to address their growing concerns around the issue of institutional racism. We use this term as defined by the Macpherson Report Feb 1999:
“Institutional racism... discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, racist stereotyping which disadvantages minority ethnic people.”
At Wac Arts, there have been claims raised of micro-aggressions, cultural insensitivity and patronising attitudes over the last three years. We, therefore, request a detailed explanation as to how and why the full board’s decision to refuse to meet and discuss the issue on our requested terms was made. In addition, our working-class associates and staff members have also sought a meeting with all board members to discuss their growing sense of issues of class arrogance, obfuscation, obstruction and a feeling that profit is placed above people. We want answers as to why these requests have not been fulfilled.
Failure to act
We, the Wac Arts Concerns Group, were informed on July 10 that a serious incident report had been submitted by the board to the Charity Commission following the recent influx of complaints surrounding the furlough decision. However, we want to know when the board was first made aware of these complaints, as the decision to file a report only appears to have been made once prompted by the Wac Arts Concerns Group.
We also want to know whether the queries listed in this letter have been logged within the recent, or any, Serious Incident Report following the board’s receipt of a similar letter from the Wac Arts Concerns Group on Sunday July 5.
We want more details about the circumstances around the abrupt stepping down of the chair and some trustees of the board in the midst of us raising our concerns around Black Lives Matter and during a pandemic.
There are several concerns about financial management, lack of transparency and proportionality of pay. We want answers around the unusually high turnover of staff.
Wac Arts is only operating at one third of our former range of programmes for young people, reducing our provision to its core constituency of disadvantaged young people, as identified in its Charitable Objects.
Regarding Wac Arts’ requirement to fulfil the expectations of likely funding bodies, we are concerned that the organisation is becoming increasingly unable to do so.
The current board fails to meet criteria for staff representation, student representation and parent representation; good practice within this sector we would expect.
The aforementioned lack of diversity and representation on the board appears to be a key factor in the perpetuation of the divide between senior leadership and the staff and community that Wac Arts exists to serve.
In light of the proposed appointment of a new chair of the board, we requested a meeting with all board members to address the above issues as a matter of urgency - particularly as the trustee nomination process seems to lack transparency. Therefore, until a meeting is conducted and our concerns are addressed, any further board appointments are rendered highly problematic. Moreover, the full board’s reluctance to meet the Wac Arts Concerns Group with all Wac trustees present is disconcerting and a discouraging reflection of the Wac Arts board’s attitude towards the severity of our concerns.
Both the arts and education have been hit incredibly hard by Covid-19. Organisations like Wac Arts will be needed by our communities more than ever. To alienate your staff and undermine community confidence, particularly at a time when attitudes to race are being hotly debated, is a serious folly. A full, frank and unvarnished discussion is now urgently necessary.
We are not going away. We will not be silenced.
Sheila Atim MBE
Rikki Beadle-Blair MBE
Wozzy Brewster OBE
Anniek De Wilde
Julian Joseph OBE
Anthony Taharka Ekundayo Lennon
Roy Williams OBE