The Growing White Elephant (Part 3)

(Continued from part 2)

But why aren’t more of these people playing a strategic role in Birmingham Arts’ and Cultural Institutions? This is the white elephant!

WellID-100152039 I posed this question on my Facebook and Instagram pages and immediately I got a response from Daniella Genas Ogunbanjo (mentioned in part 2)

“…because they are not interested in us and I’m fed up with this ‘BME’ thing. They lump us together like there aren’t major cultural differences…The problem is so multifaceted it is impossible I feel to even tackle”.

We went on to talk privately and we spoke about the number of people we know who have and are facing similar issues with ‘the system’. I have also been speaking to a number of individuals who wish to remain nameless but also felt it essential I know how they are struggling to find ways of furthering their careers in the arts. One person spoke about not knowing herself, where ‘everyone’ had gone.

I spoke to a theatre producer who now mainly works outside of the city. This person told me: “I know so many Black and Asian creative professionals who are qualified and over qualified in many cases – who have applied for various senior management creative sector jobs in Birmingham and have not even been given an interview or have had interviews to be told that you that there was a better candidate for the job. Until you see who that person was who got the job, a mate of the interviewer.

So based on that many BAME professionals included myself have just focused on working outside of Birmingham. Easier and you get noticed quicker.

The Birmingham creative industries/establishments are not interested in people like us taking their jobs – they want us to attend their meaningless forums and their events like powerless participants.”

In my opinion this is a crisis for Birmingham. For whatever the reason is, arts leaders in the city are driving BME artists away! This current state of play works for no one in the long term. Artists and producers are inconveniencing themselves by working further afield and arts organisations are losing a group of highly qualified and skilled people! I’m pulling my hair extensions out, just thinking about it!

In truth, I cannot say I know the answers to this intricately difficult and delicate issue, but what I know for sure is that there is a lot of pent up frustration in the black community (in particular). Many are tired of ‘being the role model’, perpetually ‘raising the issue’ and facing barriers. I feel, no one person or group of people are to blame, it is a collective issue to which we all must find the answers. We all have to keep the lines of communication open. Arts venues have to be willing to do more to find and engage diverse communities. Members of these communities need to feel ID-100302490free to have conversations with arts organisations as well as talk amongst themselves.

I spoke with Gary Topps, he is clear that he wants Culture Central to be Young, digital and diverse’ from the outset. His ears and mind are open. For those who are serious about making change, the final suggestion I have is to start having those difficult conversations and be willing to listen to the answers no matter how painful they might be. I for one, will not be stopping at just writing this blog.

On a final note, it would be great to walk into a similar event and not be alerted to the fact I am black because of the lack of other diverse groups represented in the room.

The Growing White Elephant (Part 2)

(Continued from part 1)

So, you may or may not have heard about an exciting new organisation that is now forming in Birmingham callecanstockphoto4690657d Culture Central. Its aim is to:

“…to raise the profile of the city’s world class culture and to build upon the considerable successes already achieved through cultural bodies working collaboratively.”

Gary Topp is the new CEO. As one of the keynote Speakers, he expressed that his focus is on making Birmingham ‘Young, digital and diverse.’ Do you know what? I believe him. He seems sincere, not about the fluff and in touch with reality. I am hopeful of change.

This notion of social innovation for the city was backed up by Darren Henley, the CEO of The Arts Council England (ACE). He communicated his concerns about the lack of diversity (all protected forms including, disability, age, race, sex, religion, etc… as well as those from low social economic backgrounds) in arts and cultural organisations. He spoke of the Talent Plan which looks at arts activities ACE wants young people to be involved in 25 years from now. Their vision is of a nation of culturally literate citizens. The Arts Council can dream (and I do that willingly with them) but they are restricted by the fact that funding comes in 5 year cycles. 

I digress, so back to that elephant. Rob Elkington (CEO of Arts Connect) then led a Q & A session with Darren Henley and we were asked to speak to the person next to us about the questions that have arisen from Darren’s talk. I happened to be sitting next to Dorothy Wilson MBE who is the CEO and Artistic Director of mac Birmingham. (She will shortly be retiring after 26 years at mac). After brief introductions I told her my concern lay with the lack of diversity (and for me my major concern is that of ethnicity, not that I do not care about the other forms of diversity but as a black person, this is what is at the fore of my mind) amongst leadership within arts organisations in Birmingham. She agreed that this is an important question and just as we were being brought back to Rob’s attention, and asked what questions we have, Dorothy said to me, ‘You must ask your question’. So up went my hand and I spoke.

I expressed my concern and honestly commented on the fact that there were very few people in the room that looked like me and I am worried. My direct question was: ‘How can we change the diversity of arts management within the city?’ If I am being truthful, I got a politician’s answer. Which in essence was not the clear concise reply I wanted; could I really have expected more? I was told to keep doing what I am doing with regards to being a role model for others and to keep raising the issue. In addition, Mr Henley said ACE now has the power to take away funding from organisations that do not embrace diversity. On the one hand it is a good start but on the other, I wonder what experience diverse staff members will have at the hands of disgruntled arts leaders who are practically forced to employ us?

On the subject of ‘asking’, the fact that I brought this point up meant that I got many people talking to me throughout the day about this. Brilliant! I got the sense from these individuals that they too were genuinely concerned about the problem. However, what I was also asked several times were questions such as ‘Is your team of workers diverse?’ to which the answer is ‘yes’. Also, ‘If I was to ask you right now for 6 names of more people like you, could you name them? Like err.. yes:

Barbara Walker (visual artist), Pauline Bailey (visual artist), Oluwatoyin Odunsi (Creative Producer), Tru Powell (Aston Performing Arts Academy), Sharon Jones (Theatre Producer), Daniella Genas Ogunbanjo (former CEO of Aspire4U), Andrew Jackson (CEO of Some Cities/photographer), Vanley Burkecanstockphoto8625641 (photographer), Tonya Bolton (CEO of ICU Transformational Arts), Sean Cope (choreographer), Ronke Fadare (choreographer), Elishah St. Juste (actress and drama facilitator), Dawn Spence (drama facilitator), Lola Adodo (dancer and choreographer), Moqapi Selassie (poet), Jendayi Selassie (dancer and choreographer), Cherrelle Skeete (TV & Stage Actress), Sandra Golding (dancer and choreographer), KMD St. Juste (music producer), Peter Reed (musician), Toffee Sealey (CEO Tru Street Dance & Hotspot Arts), Wassifa Showcase (International Music and TV producers), Byron Jackson (Opera singer), Abigail Kelly (opera singer), Martin Glynn (writer, poet and academic).

Sorry, maybe that was a little more than the 6 you thought I might struggle to recall. I do also apologise to those I know who will be cussing me because I left their names off the list (I have to stop somewhere), forgive me.

Now, these people are far from emerging artists, they are seasoned professionals and for one reason or another, most are not being fairly represented in our city (some are doing great in places such as mac Birmingham, Birmingham REP and The Old REP Theatre, The BBC and so on). But why aren’t more of these people playing a strategic role in Birmingham Arts’ and Cultural Institutions? This is the white (pardon not the pun) elephant!

(Concludes in Part 3)

The Growing White Elephant (Part 1)

We have a huge problem in our city and it is getting bigger. Are Birmingham’s arts organisations fit for purpose? The short answer is ‘no’. Well not entirely, not when it comes to delivering high quality arts for and with all. I know that may hurt some of you reading this, so I must warn you if you are scared of being asked difficult questions and hearing some really honest opinions, then you might not to want to continue reading this and go find a sandpit.

This originally started out as a quick blog to reflect on my wonderful (on the whole) experience at the Arts and Learning Strategic Planning Day in Birmingham (I’ll explain more later). However, the more I thought about and researched the major problemscanstockphoto14942428 that were highlighted during the day, the more I wrote. Therefore, this has now become a 3-part blog (or an essay in its entirety). I make no apologies as the issue I raise, has far reaching consequences and is currently affecting our city in a huge way.

To put the origin of this post into context, I should explain that I am the Director of a small drama education company called Strawberry Words based in Aston Birmingham. I have 20 years’ experience of working in drama education which include: several years running my company Harvey Arts and working for the former Sister Tree Theatre Company, four years at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Education Department, several years freelancing for Birmingham City Council’s Education Department, a year TV Presenting on The Wassifa Caribbean Show (Big Centre TV), Radio presenting for 6 years (Newstyle Radio). I am also an African Caribbean woman. I say all of this to demonstrate that I am firmly rooted in the history of Birmingham’s arts provision and I also have excellent links within the African-Caribbean community.

Strawberry Words

That would be me: Rebbecca Hemmings

After having had a three year break from the arts education scene (to have my daughter and other amazing stuff) I started Strawberry Words in 2013. Since then, I have been busying myself, establishing, defining and refining the organisation. Now two and a half years into that process, I am only now reaching out and learning more about where Strawberry Words’ sits in the wider arts ecology of Birmingham.

As part of this journey, I attended the Arts and Learning Strategic Planning Day at Birmingham City University on 29th April 16. It was a day organised by Arts Connect on behalf of Culture Central and Birmingham City University. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The promotional information spoke of “exploring the idea of working together to improve the quality of provision, extending reach and addressing cold spots within the city”. I thought ‘great, that sounds like a brilliant opportunity to get to know who is currently doing what and how we as an organisation can extend our own reach.’

There must have been about 90 people in this gorgeous conference room from which we had a scenic view of the stunning and ever-changing landscape of Birmingham City Centre. Before now, I had not noticed just how colourful, vibrant and unique all the structures and buildings are; beautiful! This was juxtaposed with a somewhat less varied scene within the room. Let’s be frank: I counted maybe six people who were from a black or minority ethnic background, everyone else was, go on hazard a guess… Give up? They were white.

I will let that thought marinate but you know I am not going to leave it there. Read more in part two.