Across the arts, the issue of quotas has risen again in recent months, criticised by author Lionel Shriver and – closer to theatre – Central’s principal Gavin Henderson.
I am not the first to point out how flawed these arguments are, but it’s made me wonder: when quotas are criticised on the basis it might compromise the quality of the art, the question has to be raised: what constitutes ‘good’ art? On what terms? And who gets to decide?
The implication of Shriver and Henderson’s positions is that ‘quality’ in the arts is objective. But this clearly isn’t the case. The experimental performance arts piece that makes my heart sing may well be torture to you; while I’ve found numerous productions feted by the critics boring as hell. This doesn’t make one performance more valid than the other – in fact, it’s exactly what makes the arts such fun.
Our tastes are defined by a huge number of factors, including our background and social experience. Notions of what constitutes ‘good’ art are, in many instances, culturally prescribed. Of course, there are countless examples of art that has transcended boundaries and audience backgrounds.
But it can be harder to appreciate artistic expression in formats that aren’t already an established part of someone’s frame of reference – whether that’s grime music or opera.
For too long, the lens through which artistic quality is judged has been that of academics, critics and arts professionals who come from the same, small pool.
In the theatre world, the problem has been compounded by an approach to programming that has privileged the idea of an individual artistic director – usually a white, middle-class man – with a unique creative vision for what constitutes brilliant art.
But I believe the job of the artistic director – and the programmers and curators who work with them – is much more interesting than that.
Their responsibility is to look at the broader political and social landscape in which their organisation operates, and present work that resonates in this context. Considered this way, personal taste is the least relevant aspect of their job – instead the skill is in recognising what will connect with audiences.
This isn’t just politically and socially important, it makes good business sense. Why wouldn’t you want to present work that speaks to the lives of the broadest possible audience? The arts aren’t a zero-sum game: by uplifting brilliant artists of all backgrounds, theatre’s reach and impact will grow accordingly.
All this would be much simpler if the decision makers were as diverse as the community they represent. But in the broken system within which we operate, quotas seem to me to be a crude but necessary corrective. They force those in power to step outside their comfort zone, seeking out great work by artists from all heritages, and interrogating what has stopped them getting a platform in the first place.