Sudha’s thoughts on the ‘creative case for diversity’

This week Arts Council England (ACE) unveiled the long awaited articulation of their plans for making ‘a creative case for diversity.’ There was a day long symposium as part of the Decibel Performing Arts Showcase at the Royal College of Music in Manchester. The conference was clearly over subscribed and we were in a room jam-packed with delegates. There was a great sense of urgency and anticipation from people looking for a ‘different’ conversation, one that would hopefully rid us of any ‘diversity fatigue’ for good. The programme for the day included a key note from Tony Panayiotou, (Director of Diversity Arts Council England) and follow up from Hassan Mahamdallie, (Senior Strategy officer Arts Council England) both of which certainly packed a punch and their passion was palpable.

They unveiled the key messages and offered an open invitation to engage in the dialogue, and take real and meaningful action to mirror the diversity in society through our organisations and art forms. Clearly the desire is there to bring the discourse of diverse artists out of the periphery and give it the prominence it deserves as artists. By re-situating artists firmly in an ‘artist led’ approach, it is argued, we can finally have a conversation about art with diversity at its heart, and a driver for innovation. This creative case is underpinned by the moral, legal and business case but argues a ‘clearer, simpler and more potent’ position that will take diverse artists out of the ‘deficit’ model, where imperatives around funding and ‘box ticking’ were considered the main drivers. This new position will be underpinned by policy and ACE will reveal its plans by April 2012, with National Portfolio Organisations (Tamasha is one of these) expected to respond with their plans by April 2013. ACE will play a leadership role in letting the sector arrive at its own conclusions. Resources will be targeted to develop a more diverse leadership and ecology, support a wider range of artistic collaboration beyond traditional touring circuit and ‘agents of change’ and ‘beacon’ organisations and networks will be sought. ACE will lead by example and expect its staff to change and be fully engaged and informed.

It would seem churlish not to welcome this new stance with open arms. After all, Tamasha’s twenty one year canon of work has hitherto taken place in the so called ‘deficit’ model of funding and we have long argued for our role as artists to take prominence over our role as ‘audience developers’.  I was therefore keen to hear from the responses and the platform about what the creative case meant personally to the speakers.

Diverse views emerged showing the complexity and delicacy of the subject: Deborah Shaw (Associate Director, Royal Shakespeare Company) felt liberated and not let ‘off the hook’ as in the previous ‘instrumental’ approach of box ticking. In her view, it allows for all sorts of imaginative possibilities that give people a sense of entitlement and allowed people in her position to be ‘enablers, not gate keepers’ while Fiona Gasper, (Executive Director, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester) acknowledged that diversity, excellence and opportunity is still a patchy conversation in the mainstream. She talked about the challenges of inflexible business models and imperatives around filling a main stage of 700 seats, which can be obstacle to really embracing diverse work. The studio allows for more freedom and there is a genuine desire to impact the work on the main stage. Things like the Bruntwood Prize have allowed for more relevant plays to emerge. She talked about the ‘tingle factor’ with great art where there is often the fusing of diverse practices.

Meanwhile, Alistair Spalding (Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Sadler’s Wells) was very persuasive with Sadler’s Wells having embraced a multi national, multiculturalism that has, in his words, ‘democratised’ the art form which in turn has democratised the audience that comes. The work is about the world right now. This was echoed in Skinder Hundal’s speech (Chief Executive, New Art Exchange) around a ‘smash and grab culture, a 21st century chaos’ that needs art to reflect, inform and explore dangerous and provocative thought that steps far away for a monoculture. His organisation ‘lives, breathes and bleeds the creative case everyday’; Madani Younis was short and sharp with his ‘Thank f**k for the creative case’. He wants to be ‘porous, plural and open’ and ‘lose control to artists that work and audiences that come’. He argued that the creative case marks a shift in the context in which artists set up a conversation. He was greeted with huge warm applause, not least as he is about to take up his position as Artistic Director of Bush Theatre – no pressure Madani!

All very heady stuff but can this shift occur seamlessly while inequality may still be a big factor? Hassan outlined that eight out of ten jobs still went to people within ‘closed’ networks. This is clearly still a huge challenge and it is unclear how the ‘creative case’ will address this. Someone in the audience summed up a precariousness felt by many young artists who are ‘sitting floating on a raft of loss’ and can’t see themselves creating any work, let alone their best work.

So what does all this mean for Tamasha and me personally? As I walked back to the station in my new MBTs, I wondered if the buoyancy I felt was from the creative possibilities ahead or from my innovative ‘diverse’ footwear that borrowed the technology from the Masai tribes.

I imagine all sorts of eclectic projects and collaborations will emerge in this new climate; some inevitably for the sake of a cultural hybridity that ticks a new ‘creative diversity’ box. One the viewpoints that really chimed with me was from Maria Oshodi, (CEO and Artistic Director, Extant Theatre Company). She said that artists need to be able to work in an ‘exclusive’ way, so that they can bring a clear practice to this cross pollination. Alan Davey talked of seeing Akram Khan’s piecezero degrees, the day after 7/7 and how it spoke to him about the ‘frailty of humanity’ and helped him to process what had happened. By all accounts Akram’s new piece, desh will also transcend, but at its heart is his personal journey as a second generation British Bengali going back to Bangladesh. It is these uniquely subjective voices that must drive a compelling creative case. Tamasha’s new play, Snookered, by Ishy Din, promises to introduce another such voice. Ishy is a taxi driver, turned playwright and Snookered, is a timely play about friendship and betrayal, looking at the lives of four young Muslim men juggling cultural constraints with a fragile masculinity. Simon Stephens has talked of Ishy’s work as “a play born out of real honesty and wit, written with energy and force and a deep insight into a world of unique humanity and humour” and we have Oldham Coliseum and the Bush Theatre as partners. I look forward to myself and Tamasha continuing to be powerful ‘agents of change’ in this new era. We welcome more creative conversation and collaboration.

Sudha, Co-Artistic Director

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