THE BLOG

Want to Increase Diversity in the Arts? Get Local

15/12/2014 05:52 GMT | Updated 11/02/2015 10:59 GMT

With the actress Janet Suzman creating a small furore describing theatre as a "white invention" and Lenny Henry hitting number 8 on the influential MediaGuardian 100 list in recognition of his campaign to boost the number of black, Asian and minority workers in the television industry, it has already been a topical week for diversity in the arts.

And that's before Arts Council England announced a "fundamental shift" in its approach to the issue in a speech that Sir Peter Bazalgette described as 'one of the most important' he would ever make as the organisation's chair.

Delivered at Sadler's Wells Theatre, this thoughtful and considered address took a long-term view: recognising the changing demographic of our country, particularly at a local level (while the population of Tower Hamlets, for instance, is 34% Muslim - over 80% of Knowsley, in Merseyside, consider themselves to be Christian), the perpetual challenges of defining 'Englishness' and the impact of deprivation in post-industrial and rural communities.

It's complex, in other words! Especially from the perspective of a national body committed to a goal of 'great art and culture for everyone' and when, according to Government data, the creative and cultural workforce is less diverse now than it was in 2008-09.

The upshot, according to the Arts Council, is the need for some sort of "reckoning", in the shape of the 'Creative Case For Diversity' - a new commitment to which all their National Portfolio Organisations have signed up. Future funding decisions will be influenced by their success in reaching out to and involving all demographics within their community. At a time of economic uncertainty and with future cuts on the horizon, it's a persuasive reason for arts organisations to up their game.

As founder of an organisation (and NPO) committed to developing arts-based projects for 16-24-year-olds, mostly in areas of social deprivation, I support any move to tackle inequality. And I certainly hold faith with the idea, as set out in Sir Peter's speech, that the arts should be a true mirror for all in our society. Britain might be the fourth richest nation in the world, and a global leader in terms of culture, but at Small Green Shoots we still find that most young people participating in our projects have never visited an art gallery. They don't possess a library card. They don't go to the theatre. 74% are Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals, and the majority are not in education, employment or training.

We can argue the reasons for this situation until the proverbial cows come home. But what is indisputable is the transformative impact that art and culture has on these young people's lives.

Small Green Shoots is relatively small operation, but each year we introduce hundreds of young people to new experiences in the arts - partnering with established artists (everyone from Rodney P and Trevor Watkis to Hollie McNish, Malika Booker and George The Poet), arts institutions, libraries and community organisations. Working together, we build our participants' confidence and skills and enable them to gain valuable Arts Award qualifications. Since 2013, we have also piloted an apprenticeship scheme, helping young people gain the experience (paid experience, I should add) necessary to enter the highly competitive creative industries sector.

Whatever their background or circumstances, we have proved time and again that young participants can tackle 'difficult' subjects (our recent projects have covered everything from Chaucer to feminism to commemorations for the First World War) and that they can produce innovative, thoughtful and ambitious work. Diversity is not a barrier to entry, it mostly just results in an alternative output - viewing the world or a task from a different end of the looking glass.

However, for me, the most pertinent part of Monday's announcement was the focus on communities - to "encourage more quality applications from the widest field" and to "let communities tell us what their diversity is, rather than impose ideas on them."

If the Arts Council's objectives are going to be met, then devolving responsibility and funding will, I believe, be key.

In the case of Small Green Shoots, we have achieved many successes over the past five years, but we are only as strong as our network. If we want to run a project in Oxford, we will partner with an charity like Leys CDI who have years of knowledge and experience working with young people from the Blackbird Leys estate. Similarly, in Camden we will work with newer organisations like Youth Sauce or WISDM. In Hackney, with Focus For Life. And then we link these separate bodies together, so they can share resources, experiences and skills.

The local expertise these organisations provide is more than invaluable, it is absolutely essential. They are the ones who can actually reach the 'hard to reach' audiences, who the kids in their postcodes know and trust, and who are in the unique position of attracting specific individuals and demographics in danger of falling off the cultural radar.

They might require help, resources and encouragement - but empowering and entrusting community groups can pay real dividends and leave a lasting legacy. Certainly, while only a small percentage of those stepping through Small Green Shoots' doors have experience of the arts, more than 80% retain a level of engagement after they leave and take part in future projects. These individuals are our future arts appreciators. And they are the people that our cultural institutions will need if they are to remain relevant in a diversity-aware future.