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)