I may well be biting the hand that feeds me but, having been given this platform I couldn’t help but have a witter about the often uncomfortable subject of the under-representation of the working/lower middle classes in the arts. Having enjoyed a golden generation of Baby Boomers who came from working class backgrounds, worked hard, and managed to enjoy a life-long career in creative pursuits, we now live in times of unpaid internships and low wages for all but the CEOs, a situation that favours those with financial backup.
Diversity is one hell of a buzz word at the moment, we must all execute ‘positive discrimination’ as though discrimination could ever be positive. If someone’s good for the job, employ them, no matter what colour their skin is, how able-bodied they are or who they choose to have sex with, it’s really so very unimportant and no one wants to be the token minority. It also makes sweeping and often quite patronising judgements, let’s not assume that all white men have the same privilege as one another and that all disabled people are incapable of finding their way without mentors.
We must all tick the box that tells potential funders or employers these (rather personal!) details and yet there’s a very important box missing (although, personally I’d do away with all tick boxes and have blind applications). Sound and Music recently gathered various statistics on what kind of demographic receives its funding. The results were hardly a massive shock; predominantly young, able-bodied white men. Once the numbers were in, the very well-meaning Pathways programme was set up. You can apply for funding and a mentorship but only if you’re non-white, female or disabled. Very nice. But it ignored the fact that around 65% of SaM successful applicants have a PhD, which is hardly a reflection of the population at large. I went to a comprehensive school where PhDs were barely spoken of and if they were it would only have been in the context of the few kids that wanted to work in medicine; they’re time consuming and expensive to complete so are simply out of reach for the majority of people. I don’t want to pick on SaM alone as I would imagine it is fairly indicative of arts funding bodies, but this figure showed in massive neon letters that the majority of people given funding are coming from a position of certain privilege and this is very much something that needs to be addressed.
There are massive assumptions being made when ticking boxes, there is no room for the individual and the barriers that they have to overcome to take part in meetings, performances and rehearsals. Travel costs are often covered but usually only retrospectively, this can be an expensive outlay for those unable to afford. Time off work eats into precious holiday allowance or goes unpaid, not to mention troublesome for those who work freelance or shift hours. Other commitments such as looking after family members make it difficult for those without some sort of support to commit to specific dates. All this can put off potential candidates from even applying for a commission. For instance, I find my need to hold down a day job much more restricting when thinking about applying for commissions than being a woman. All of these issues affect the majority of people in one way or another and yet there is no box to tick, no extra space to say ‘I can do 90% of this, but…’
Reaching out to and supporting those from more ordinary backgrounds, which actually comprise the vast majority of the population, will help the quest for diversity far more effectively and fairly than any amount of ‘positive discrimination’. This way, people of all colours, genders and sexual orientations will be included by default and we will end up with a hugely diverse and much more interesting mix of participants. Address the need for flexibility in commissions so that day jobs and family commitments can be catered for, get into schools and let the kids get their mucky hands on beautiful instruments so they know what it’s like to feel and play these things, and the joy it can bring. Show people that creativity is worth something and can be, if not your sole source of income, at least something that you can enjoy and take part in, and (this is a big one) get out there and tell them that these opportunities are available! There is a pervasive Field of Dreams attitude in the arts of ‘If we have it, they will come’, but people need to be told that these things exist and that they’re as welcome as anyone else to take part. With so many cuts to arts education it is more important than ever that the small amount of available funding is prioritised for work in community projects and schools (all schools, not solely schools at either end of the privilege spectrum) and getting in on the ground floor to tell kids that they can get involved if they want to, do away with the attitude of ‘it’s not for me’.
There is so much more to be said on the subject and I hope that people get in touch over the next month, it would be brilliant to open some sort of dialogue. And just so you know, I have a day job to pay the bills, any paid creative work comes under ‘a nice little extra’, and while I accept that this is the reality for the majority of us, wouldn’t it be nice to see a bit more balance?