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Matthew Xia: Theatres won’t be diverse until the internal dynamics of the buildings are shaken up

Nicholas Serota. Photo: Hugh Glendinning Arts Council England, chaired by Nicholas Serota, needs to stick to its guns on diversity in leadership appointments. Photo: Hugh Glendinning
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Arts Council England has introduced the Creative Case for Diversity. An initiative aimed at creating great art and culture for everyone, while embedding and promoting diversity in the work and organisations that it funds.

Earlier this month, a review was published under the heading Creative Case: leading diverse futures. It was launched at an event looking back over the past two years – there was particular focus on the workforce, audiences, and work created.

As someone who has spent the last 10 years working – almost exclusively – within organisations, I’m beginning to understand why the pace of change is so slow.

Let’s get the quick wins out of the way. In a funded organisation it is (or should be) a fairly simple process to begin to introduce changes on stage.

At the Royal Exchange, where I spent the last three-and-a-half years as associate artistic director, this is the area where most progress happened. It happens through commissioning, programming and casting decisions that are backed up by a watertight vision about who the art is by, and for.

The decisions affecting the creation of the work are often taken by a small and consistent team, led by an individual. And the withdrawal of funding ACE speaks about (as a sanction) doesn’t seem to be applied with the same force to some of the higher funded, shinier organisations.

This on-stage advancement doesn’t translate into a change of internal workforce or leadership. While aiming to recruit more diversely at all levels, as the report states: “aspirations are not always translating into meaningful actions or significant appointments”.

ACE requests all funded organisations to submit Equality and Diversity Action Plans. These should be strategic, measurable, achievable, resilient and time-bound.

They are often overcomplicated documents unable to be delivered by the majority of staff with the varied responsibilities held by too few. As with the majority of paper-based policies and plans they often end up laying at the bottom of drawers – unread or acted upon by most.

What is needed to change the internal dynamic of these buildings and organisations is a culture shift, generated from within each organisation.

This means the people in the organisations need to be different. And this is where aspiration meets British employment law.

Without the various schemes enabling the occasional change of one or two members of staff we seem to be in a one-in-one-out situation.

ACE states “equality action plans are not yet delivering the key structural changes and appointments that will address the under-representation of certain groups in the sector’s workforce, leadership and audiences”.

ACE needs to stick to its guns when overseeing the appointment of leadership candidates, the boards at The Young Vic, The Bush, Stratford East and a couple of others have made significant appointments at the highest position.

But unless something is done to address the overwhelming lack of diversity in areas like fundraising, technical and backstage, marketing, and production then we will continue to feel like these spaces, and the work made in them, isn’t really for diverse communities.

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