Get our free email newsletter with just one click

Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor: Do the arts promote diversity – or are they a bastion of privilege?

Notting Hill Carnival: according to DCMS’ Taking Part survey, carnival is the only type of arts activity in which more people from the least deprived areas participate. Photo: Bikeworldtravel/shutterstock
by -

In a recent blog celebrating the reprieve of the A level in history of art, culture minister Matt Hancock celebrated the arts “as potentially one of the greatest forces for openness and social mobility we have”. His sentiments were echoed when Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery, welcomed the retention of art history A level as a means of creating a more diverse cultural workforce.

It is obviously good to see governments supporting the arts. This is especially important when local authorities are modelling ever deeper cuts to their arts provision, and there is significant fear associated with the future of arts education in schools.

However, there are problems in the rhetoric surrounding the celebrations of art history A level. The fundamental problem with connecting the arts to social mobility and workforce diversity is that this connection is seriously undermined by almost all the available social scientific evidence.

In fact, recent social science research on the arts suggests the arts contribute more to maintaining social divisions in the UK than to breaking them down.

Leaving aside the academic question of how best to define terms such as ‘social mobility’ or ‘diversity’, let’s focus on the potentially divisive role of the arts in the UK: first, how arts audiences are socially patterned; secondly, who works in the arts; and finally, the social attitudes and the social networks of people who work in the arts.

The consistent message on what sociologists call “cultural consumption” is that arts audiences are disproportionately made up of the more privileged segments of society.

We can see this from Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Taking Part survey of adults in England, which asks about engagement with the arts every year. If you look at the most popular nine activities in its ‘attendance’ section, you start to get a sense of social patterning. These activities cover theatre, music, cinema, visual art, craft, and carnival.

With the exception of carnival, people from the least deprived areas of the country do more of each activity than people from the most deprived areas: 25% of people in the least deprived areas have been to an art exhibit, compared with 10% in the most deprived areas, 30% compared with 13% for plays/drama, 35% compared with 24% for live music, and so on.

The story is even more striking if you look at a measure of social class, rather than where people live: 28% of households where someone has a managerial or professional job visited an art exhibit, compared with just 8% of households where someone has a semi-routine or routine job. The numbers are similar for plays and drama (33% and 12%), and less popular activities, such as opera (7% and 1%) are even more strikingly skewed towards more affluent audiences. These differences are consistent whichever measure of affluence or social position is used. There are, therefore, clear social divisions in
cultural consumption.

Now, let’s turn to the workforce. In a paper published earlier this year in Cultural Trends, academic research demonstrated cultural and creative occupations had significant social exclusions. The paper used evidence from the Office for National Statistics’ 2014 Labour Force Survey to demonstrate that those from elite social origins represent more than a quarter (26%) of the cultural and creative workforce, despite being only about 14% of the population as a whole. Conversely, those from social origins usually seen as working class make up around 18% of the creative workforce, despite being almost 35% of the population. The exclusion of people from working-class backgrounds and the over-representation of the ‘posh’ is particularly acute in specific arts jobs. According to the LFS, only 11.9% of those in publishing, 13.8% of those in music, performing and visual arts, and 9.1% in film, TV, video, radio and photography have working-class origins.

In high-profile cultural sectors, such as music and museums, people report earnings significantly below the national average. This research also demonstrated clear pay gaps between men and women, including a statistically significant gender pay gap in film, TV and radio of nearly £15,000 a year.

More recent analysis of 2015 LFS data shows the picture has not improved since 2014, with black, Asian and minority ethnic people constituting less than 5% of those working in film and television, music, performing and visual arts, as well as the museums sector. Women are only just over a quarter of the film, TV, video, radio and photography sector of the workforce.

It seems that for all the rhetoric of social mobility and diversity, the arts have a great deal to do to open jobs to those outside the middle-class, white, male norm.

Some of these exclusions can be explained with emerging evidence from a recent piece of survey and interview work. Now we are writing up the Panic! project on social mobility in the arts, we would like to highlight two emerging findings.

The first is that our respondents showed a set of meritocratic attitudes to getting in and getting on in arts jobs. The workers who responded to our survey believe the sector is more or less fair, with hard work and ambition being the most important things for getting ahead, and the least important things being religion, gender, ethnicity and class.

A positive reading of this data is that people think the sector in which they work is fair and meritocratic. This is troubling, given the research has revealed the structural and overwhelming inequalities within cultural work.

Second, our respondents were asked if they knew individuals working in particular occupations, such as artist, journalist, factory worker or librarian. Our respondents indicated they knew many ‘cultural’ occupations, but very few ‘working-class’ jobs. They mainly knew people working in similar jobs to their own. This raises questions about the exclusivity of the arts, which seem to be as socially closed as other elite occupations, such as law. If people working in the cultural sector don’t tend to know people from backgrounds other than their own, what does this mean for the work they make?

We are very keen to support the importance of the arts in British society. However, we hope to have demonstrated that social science shows the limits of making claims for the arts’ social impact. For the moment, the arts must be much more cautious when making claims about social mobility, even if individual cases or experiences speak in this language.

This caution should be the basis for a challenge. We must change attitudes, change the workforce and change society. If ministers and high-profile cultural leaders think the arts can contribute to social mobility and workforce diversity, then they must use their power and position to make this a reality, rather than just rhetoric.

Dave O’Brien is chancellor’s fellow in cultural and creative industries, history of art department, University of Edinburgh; Mark Taylor is a lecturer in quantitative research methods, Sheffield Methods Institute, University of Sheffield.

We need your help…

When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.

The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.

We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.

Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.