Tick-box diversity

Two articles in the recent Arts Professional make clear that debate over diversity policy in the arts seems to be increasing in momentum, presumably due to recent funding cuts in the ACE budget and resulting uncertainty for all artists and organisations about their future. Fears that projects championing multiculturalism and diversity will suffer from restructuring in the Arts Council and become sidelined by other concerns have been fed by the fact that ACE seems to have distanced diversity from artistic excellence in their draft strategy for the future (Jatinder Verma, Arts Professional 21 June 2010.) Does this mean diversity will no longer be a policy priority, but an agenda confined to separate developmental work with no place within the wider culture of excellence ACE seeks to promote?

This kind of approach can be seen in microcosm in creative and arts organisations all over the country which take special measures to encourage BAME participants (in the name of audience development or outreach work) or artists to take part in carefully programmed events and activities with a particularly ‘ethnic’ emphasis. The limitations raised by this kind of approach are twofold: firstly, they are often constrained in terms of time and money, and have no resources with which to establish any kind of legacy for the projects, and secondly that they encourage work by BAME artists to be seen through a kind of ethnicizing lens:

“…multiculturalism has become a constraining, bureaucratic set of practices that undermine and restrict the freedom of Black and Asian artists to make whatever work they like, especially if it doesn’t relate to the strictures of race.’
(Paul Goodwin, Arts Professional 21 June 2010)

The assumption that work by BAME artists will have something to say about, for example, the experience of being black can’t hold up – not only because ‘black’ is not a unified category of people who can be spoken about/for/to as a whole, but because it projects expectations, prejudices and experiences of ‘black art’ onto work that might not take blackness as it’s subject, that might be informed equally by other issues and that might in fact be hindered by this kind of categorisation.

These kinds of debate seem to make available two paradoxical approaches. On one hand it seems that unless diversity is made central to artistic policy, BAME artists and audiences will find themselves relegated to a secondary tier of special programming. Yet the kind of policy we’re seeing at the moment is all too often imposed from above, and more a matter of numbers than making genuine attempts to create sustainable, meaningful change in the arts. This suggests that diversity policy is actually more problematic than it is beneficial.

Perhaps the best approach is, as Paul Goodwin states, a radical rethinking of multiculturalism policy. To abandon it all together would be to assume that racism and prejudice are no longer an issue, which is clearly untrue. But there is a definite need for a more creative, intuitive and bottom-up approach that integrates diversity into artistic policy and is based on the long-term needs of artists and audiences and not on ticking the boxes.