Do the politics and self-interest of arts institutions stand in the way of the wider transformations they are trying to achieve? Does it lead them to prioritise themselves rather than the needs of the communities they serve or should be serving?
Earlier this year I conducted a series of interviews with arts leaders for What Would Joan Littlewood Say?, a document published by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation as part of its inquiry into the civic responsibility of the arts. The overwhelming message from many of the interviewees was the need to “get out of the way”. But many admitted that this is far easier said than done.
As individuals it is difficult for those who have spent careers trying to get into leadership positions to discover that just when they get there they’re asked to step aside to allow those who have not had their advantages and privilege to take the reins. But the industry will never change unless that happens, because otherwise privilege always reasserts itself.
But the industry has to change, and not just at artistic director level but throughout senior management and on boards. It also needs to change how it engages with those on its doorstep. Because if we want real diversity and we really want theatres to look and sound like their local communities that must mean working towards handing over real power – and in many cases the building too – to the community itself. Otherwise it is not real change.
One of the people I interviewed for What Would Joan Littlewood Say? was Madani Younis, formerly artistic director of London’s Bush Theatre, and now creative director of the Southbank Centre, who reminded me that arts organisations “are not the protagonists” in the stories of their communities, but often act as if they are. “We cannot assume we are needed – instead we have to prove that we are trustworthy.”
‘Only when our cultural leaders get out of the way can we understand what others might want to do with the space’
So how can arts organisations prove their trustworthiness? Certainly not by trying to impose their idea of culture on others. Doreen Foster, director of Warwick Arts Centre, said: “Often in the arts, we go into a community and do a project and expect them to turn round and say: ‘Yes, I’m grateful’, but why should they be? People have always found other ways to entertain themselves and deal with issues they face as a community and then we go in thinking we have the answer. We haven’t.”
Younis pointed out that in the aftermath of the Grenfell fire, the Bush was only able to play a role because it was already deeply embedded and trusted by the community. That doesn’t happen overnight, but is a long, slow process that requires a great deal of stepping aside and connecting with those on the ground. Those who are already working in communities are much more likely to know the changes that the community wants, the concerns it would like to address and its urgent needs.
Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson of Good Chance Theatre, which worked with refugees in Calais and Paris, and whose play The Jungle was at the Young Vic and in the West End, have also learned to cede control to others.
“We come from a tradition that tends to elevate the individual artist,” they told me, talking about the dome structure that sprung up in the Calais camp. “But one of the things that became apparent to us was that the Dome wasn’t just built by the people who used it, it was owned by them. They programmed it and decided what would happen there. It was for them to decide – not us to impose.”
The same could be said to apply to all theatres that do not belong to that building’s current custodians, or indeed the artists who work there, but to the public who paid for them and the community in which they are situated.
Foster puts it well when she says: “We have a civic responsibility to recognise that our constituency is broader than we have acknowledged. Whose building is it? Are arts institutions creating these spaces for themselves or other people?
“The crucial question is how do you find different ways to be in the space that allows more room for other people, the people who didn’t previously see it as their space? Only when our cultural leaders get out of the way can we understand what others might want to do with the space. Otherwise you just keep trying to fit people into your own agenda. We might know what a great programme looks like for us, but is it a great programme for other people?”
It’s a good question and one that arts institutions need to ask themselves if they want to face new audiences and genuinely serve everyone in their community.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner