Blog – The Future Is [insert rad ideas here]

Some thoughts from Tanuja Amarasuriya about why we all really need to feed into the public consultation on Arts Council England’s new 10 years strategy:

Arts Council England (ACE) have just opened up a public consultation to inform their next 10 year strategy. PLEASE GET INVOLVED because whatever your relationship (or not) to ACE, they need to hear what genuinely matters to people. It’s vital that as many different perspectives are feeding into it in with as many complicated, easily forgotten and uncomfortable truths as possible.

I’m making a plea for complication, because as the speed of communication gets faster, and the desperation to hit the message home gets stronger, the temptation is to simplify more. But people aren’t simple. Our experiences aren’t simple. So if we want art to connect more richly with more people, we need to acknowledge more complexity.

Complexity does not mean difficulty.
But it can make things harder to measure.

Another thing ACE did last week is publish their Equality, Diversity and Creative Case Report 2016-17 (catchy title), which they launched with a Diversity conference for y’know, arts orgs. Natalie Ibu, Artistic Director of tiata fahodzi, wrote an excellent twitter thread questioning the purpose, value and effect of these kinds of events. She notes that it’s thrilling to hear “that when ACE have influence, change happens” in the sector. So all this [catchy title] report business matters. She goes on to say:

“Listen. Conversation is important so I’d hate the fear of saying it wrong to silence the conversation BUT. I said it on the day and I’ll continue to say it. All POCs at the #creativecase event said POC [people of colour]. ACE said BAME [black, asian and minority ethnic].

40 people said no to BAME at our D&D event in Dec 16. @RAWeiseArtist said no to BAME here:

Words matter, use the language of the community to describe the community. CCD [Creative Case for Diversity] is about enriching our understanding of the world, acronyms are about simplifying.

I’d love to see us gather data on the nuance of representation. So your theatre featured 30% POCs, great well done you babes. What roles did they play? Slave? Oh. War victim? Oh. Cleaner? Oh. How much stage time did they have?

Identity is nuanced, so too should the data.”

One thing that comes up in the Equality, Diversity and Creative Case report is that identity definitions keep shifting, so it’s hard to make benchmarks and compare datasets – but that’s ok because “future datasets will be comparable”. I feel pretty sad that the propulsion is to get to comparable datasets, rather than an honest nuanced reflection of our community. I say this as someone who has spent 20 years ticking the ‘Asian or Asian British – Other’ box. I don’t know why they’ve decided that being of Indian or Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage is worth specifying above mine. The obvious assumption to make is that being of Sri Lankan (let’s not even specify Sinhalese, Tamil, Vedda) ethnicity is less important to note than being Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi.

Natalie Ibu’s point about who gets to define what ACE measures is crucial. It might be inconvenient that terminology changes and fractures; but art is concerned with people, experience, mystery and other such mutable things. And genuine inclusion has to happen on people’s own terms.

With the best will in the world, it’s hard to notice the power of your own lens. I don’t identify as disabled and truthfully I can’t remember the option boxes around disability. I’m certainly not the best person to suggest terms on which Deaf and disabled people might want to identify. This consultation is an opportunity for ANYONE to get in there and influence the influencers. Remember that whole Jedi thing with the 2001 census?

In a blog introducing the consultation, Darren Henley, head honcho of ACE, posits a series of questions that come to mind when he’s thinking to the future:

“How is the world changing and how should our priorities reflect this?  How can we prepare for continuing uncertainty in public funding? What impact will leaving the EU have? What skills and resources do we need to best support the sector? What can we do to strengthen the social impact of our work? How can we become more open, accessible and diverse? How can we respond to the challenges and opportunities of new technology? Do we need more emphasis on participation? What will we do to ensure that we develop the next generation of audiences and practitioners?”

These are all very admirable but the language feels boringly policy-speak to me and there’s no mention of art or joy or discovery or transformation or any number of other things that come to mind immediately when I think towards the future of the arts in England. I mean, Darren Henley has to spend a lot of time talking to politicians (both in government and in arts organisations…) so it’s not his fault his questions come out like this. But most people don’t talk like that in real life. They don’t use words like that outside of work environments. Maybe one way the arts industry can connect better with people is to speak more personally, and less like workbots?

I haven’t started filling out the consultation yet, but I’ve registered and been verified as Not A Robot. I’ve put a date in my diary to respond to the questions. I hope you do too. Tell ACE what matters to you (even if it’s personal), what’s brilliant, what’s rubbish, what needs to change (even if it’s difficult), what would be amazing (even if it’s difficult) and anything else that helps place you in the picture on your own terms.