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There Can Be No 'Shared Society' Without Investment In Arts And Culture

21/03/2017 16:27
Dylan Martinez / Reuters

There can be no "shared society" without investment in arts and culture

Theresa May's calls for a 'shared society' have been lauded as a step in the right direction in an increasingly fragmented Britain, especially after a Brexit vote that split the nation.

Her speech earlier this year included positive references to social equality and greater inclusion for those on the margins of society.

But the speech left several questions unanswered. What, for instance, would make a shared society work in today's economic climate? And how would it resonate with Britain's diverse social fabric?

Shared cultural and artistic experience lies at the heart of this issue. As former Director of the Arts Council of England, Peter Bazalgette, put it, arts and culture is central to helping create "empathetic citizens". By conveying deeply human stories, the arts allow us to see perspectives other than our own.

This is also why it's vital that our cultural productions strive to reflect the diversity that exists within our country - an inherent reminder that members of different communities are bound by more than that which divides them.

What is so perplexing however is that the same government calling for a stronger shared society is also responsible for sweeping budget cuts that have dealt such a blow to Britain's cultural sector.

Research by the Arts Council found there was a £56.6 million reduction in local government spending for the arts between 2009 and 2014. For local authorities outside of London, funding fell by up to 50% in the years leading up to 2014/15. While the impact of these cuts has been devastating in general, it has had particular consequences for black and ethnic minority communities.

Data from the 2015 UK Labour Force Survey showed that people from BAME backgrounds make up under 5% of those working in film and television, music, performing and visual arts, and the museums sector. Even Tory Government Minister, Sajid Javid, has gone on record about the importance of the arts in preventing people from BAME communities from becoming "culturally disenfranchised". And in his 2014 'Culture for All' speech he pointed out that these communities were only receiving a third of their proportional share of Arts Council grants as of 2014. Most recently, British actor Riz Ahmed reiterated the need for stronger mass media representation of minority groups in order to bridge social divides and prevent marginalisation.

As we at Khayaal Theatre Company complete twenty years of working to fuse British theatre and Muslim literature with the aim of dispelling fears, inspiring hope and seeding dreams, I have found that despite enormous potential and creativity in our communities, access to support from public and private funders and development agencies is severely limited. As a result, our artists fail to receive the encouragement and recognition they need to flourish.

In a post-Brexit and Trump era where hate crimes have been on the rise alongside hostility towards migrant and Muslim communities, we must intensify efforts to celebrate cultural diversity now more than ever. As competing economic priorities continue to undermine funding for the arts, it is increasingly falling on civil society to try and fill the gap.

Initiatives like Amal (meaning 'hope' in Arabic) are contributing to this effort. Amal - a project developed by the Said Foundation to support and celebrate Muslim cultures and arts - hopes to enrich Britain's cultural landscape at a time when it is most urgently needed.

If the creative potential of Britain's Muslims is nurtured, the results of their creativity will help us move a step closer to a truly shared society. The combined efforts of government and civil society to help us reach that goal are absolutely necessary.

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