Oliver Dowden must listen to the 65 arts leaders who have asked for support in protecting their creative practices – and so must the wider arts sector
Yesterday (Thursday, May 28, 2020), 65 arts leaders signed a letter to Oliver Dowden MP, asking for the culture secretary’s support in protecting their creative practices: as we’re all painfully aware, the challenges facing cultural venues post-lockdown are enormous.
Usually this kind of open letter prompts some degree of derision from government backbenches and eye-rolling from the public. When artists complain, up go the hackles, with complaints that they don’t know what it’s like to be grafting down the metaphorical pit.
But this letter is one that’s hard for the sector – and the public – to ignore. It is definitely not like the others.
The 65 signatories represent a snapshot of the creative sector’s most successful and prolific cultural producers who come from backgrounds under-represented across the wider cultural and creative industries.
It’s by no means the entire picture, but if you needed a quick and ready reminder of the presence, the achievements and the power of diversity in creative endeavour, this must be the place.
Together they span ethnicity, gender, art form and region – and the seeds of the sector’s regrowth will stem from them. Every one of these leaders know from lived experience the impact that can come from being overlooked, disregarded, made invisible, which means they know how to create work that speaks to tomorrow’s audiences.
Their empathy creates compelling art: their collective values, knowledge and understanding chimes perfectly with those essential workers whom the world can suddenly see; those immigrants who are saving lives, those millions of people hiding in plain sight – who are also the audiences the sector is now keen to engage with.
But it’s not just their lived experience and ability that means they’re future-ready.
From battling to win funding to being last in the queue to have venues to stage work in, these leaders are ahead of the game in dealing with challenges now facing the wider sector
There’s a coronavirus joke that broke on the black Twittersphere at the start of the pandemic, and it went: “Worried about how to pay your bills, or whether you’ll have work? Worried about the police following you around? Relax – you’ve only been black for a week.”
From battling to win funding (black, Asian and minority ethnic applicants to Arts Council England project funding are three times more likely to be rejected at the first hurdle than white applicants), being last in the queue to have permanent venues to stage work in, and having to use their wits, skills and grassroots networks to build audiences – these leaders are ahead of the game in dealing with the practical challenges facing the wider sector.
Through necessity they’re agile, flexible, adaptable and collaborative. Need to think about staging works in a socially distanced world? Working out how to connect more deeply with audiences? Crunching the numbers because you know you’re going to face funding cuts? They’ve collectively been there, done that, made the T-shirt and built the fashion empire off the back of it.
Our sector’s sluggishness of engagement with lived experience means those who’ve thrived through lean times are resilient. As the pandemic broke, it took a few weeks before DCMS officials properly engaged with BAME arts leaders. And then it seems the lesson was forgotten – the recently appointed Cultural Renewal Taskforce has already attracted criticism for its lack of diversity.
If the culture secretary is looking at what government can do to make sure future cultural production delivers value for money and works for the many not just the few, it would be worth his while having these signatories on speed dial.