In Summer 2019, a report was released that showed that the creative sector in London often excluded young creatives from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. According to this study, published by Roundhouse and Partnership For Young London, poor careers advice, unpaid internships and degree requirements for entry-level roles were all contributing to this unwelcoming and prohibitive environment.

Policy and Campaigns Lead for Partnership For Young London, Matthew Walsham explains:

“Last year we found that BAME young people were aware of the challenges they would face trying to get into the cultural sector: precarious employment, a cost of living crisis, a lack of support in schools and work, and racial and gender bias. Given that… the OECD [have] announced that the UK is likely to suffer the worst damage from the Covid-19 crisis in the developed world, this picture will only continue to get worse for the foreseeable future. As Shakespeare’s Globe theatre calls for funds to avoid insolvency, there is a question about how BAME young artists will be treated during an unprecedented post-corona depression, given their treatment during normal times.”

With so many barriers in place, young people from BAME backgrounds have had to develop what Walsham describes as a “resilience and fortitude in their own careers. They are highly resourceful and will continue to build their own networks, and not wait for the ‘green light’ from institutions, who can often be trailing behind”.

While the resourcefulness of those from minority backgrounds can certainly go some way towards reducing the inequalities present in the system, another question is whether finding a solution is really the responsibility of BAME artists, or whether the system and those involved in it at higher levels should take the lead and remove the barriers it has itself created. After all, this is far from being the only arena in which BAME individuals continue to be put at a disadvantage. One need only look to the recent Black Lives Matter protests to see that the world’s racism problem is far from over.

Last year’s study did make some suggestions as to how the arts sector could improve to make it accessible to all groups. Those in positions of power within the sector were encouraged to scrap unpaid internships and rethink hiring practices. Regional governments were advised to create new career guidance strategies, while the central government was encouraged to create more grants and add more creative subjects to the EBacc.

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Part of the illustrated series, ‘A Guide to White Privilege”, created by Courtney Ahn.

One year in, it is apparent that not enough has changed. Unpaid internships are still common in the creative sector: although the UK government requires that interns who are classed as “workers” must be paid minimum wage, there are still a number of exceptions to the rule that make unpaid roles possible.

Further barriers exist for BAME artists who want to advance their artistic practice through formal training in educational institutions. Brixton-based British-Nigerian artist Sola Olulode writes of her experiences:

“I found my experience of art school quite poor as one of only a couple a Black students on my course at university. I also was taught solely by white tutors – the majority of whom were men – and the curriculum was very male and Eurocentric. I don’t think tutors were able to engage with my work to the best of their ability due to their lack of knowledge around Black Artists.

“I felt quite isolated by the lack of diversity, experienced micro aggressions [such as] being mistaken for other black students that looked nothing like me and generally felt uncomfortable being the only black person in the room most of the time… Currently there are 2/265 black faculty members in arts and humanities and 0/105 in art. There are 6/265 POCs (inc black) across arts and humanities, which is appalling.”

Arts Council England run their own diversity survey each year, with the most recent statistics released in February. This year’s survey found that just 11% of paid staff in National Portfolio Organisations are from BAME backgrounds, even though 16% of the working-age population are not white. Nicholas Serota, Chair of Arts Council England, has stated that “This year’s annual diversity report paints a disappointing picture. Ensuring that the organisations we fund, and that the Arts Council itself, are representative of society is of paramount importance and a key tenant of our new strategy for 2020-30, Let’s Create.”

The new Arts Council strategy means that, in the future, organisations that fail to meet agreed diversity targets will see their access to funding affected as a result.

One organisation already working to improve its diversity is The Design Museum. Director and CEO, Tim Marlow, explains:

“I am committed to real change and to embedding it in the way we work at the Design Museum. I want to ensure that there is a clear framework for building a Design Museum that reflects the communities that we are part of and also have the privilege to serve. This will include focusing on everything from our staffing to our programming and our collections. It is also important to recognise that the fields of design and architecture are very under-representative of our society, and the museum realises it has a significant role to play in helping to foster change in this wider landscape.

“We want to develop this framework coherently and sensitively, whilst also urgently. It will enable us to be more pro-active in the fight against prejudice and bigotry in all its forms – blatant and insidious. We look forward to sharing our ideas and building this together.”

Bringing accessibility and diversity to the creative arts sector is still very much a work in progress, with only a select few London arts organisations and institutions acting on the findings and recommendations of the surveys carried out by Arts Council England, Roundhouse and Partnership For Young London.

With these organisations leading the way, one can only hope to see a more definite improvement this time next year. But if statistics and reports still aren’t enough to inspire change in creative industries, perhaps recent artistic works responding to the Black Lives Matter movement will be. Many artists have been creating work that engages with racial inequality in all aspects of life, and many arts organisations and publications have issued statements in response to global protests pledging to support greater openness and equality moving forward.

Of course, only time will tell if things are actually going to change, or if these new initiatives will fade away as soon as the Blacks Lives Matter movement ceases to feature widely in the news.

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An image created by Banksy, in June 2020, in response to the pulling down of the infamous statue of Edward Colston, in Bristol. The artist suggested the statue could be reinstated in a way that depicted its own removal. Alongside increased scrutiny on symbols of oppression, there is growing awareness that barriers to opportunity must also be removed.

Article by Toby Buckley.

Images used courtesy of the artists, Courtney Ahn and Banksy.