TB Agents – Arts and Health South West 2018 by Rachel de Garang

In December 2018, Theatre Bristol supported three dance artists to attend Arts & Health South West annual conference at the Trinity Centre. TB Agent, Rachel de Garang, reports on her experience there over the second of the two days.

Firstly wanted to thank Theatre Bristol for the bursary that enabled me to attend the second day of the Arts and Health Conference (AHSW) which focused on Diversity and Inclusion. The main presentations will be downloadable from the AHSW website soon (see link at end of article).

Claire Hodgson, Founder and Joint Artistic Director of Diverse City, gave an inspirational key note speech and showed a beautiful short film about the work of Diverse City and Extraordinary Bodies, which works with disabled and able bodied circus artists. She used the term ‘unconscious bias’, where job specifications and job descriptions favoured people who ‘fit’ and are or have already worked in the sector. She said that structures needed to change and that we cannot continue to ‘slot’ people in in this manner. She added that the challenge is how people relate to difference and that most of us are unaware of our own bias and discomfort around difference. She used a quote; “The Masters tools will never dismantle the Masters house”… (Audre Lorde) – take from that what you will!

This was followed by a really interesting presentation of the ‘Alternative Visions’ evaluation report – this was a project that toured an exhibition of work made by artists facing barriers to the art world. These included artists with mental health, autism and other social and emotional issues. It was toured in various cities in the UK, including Bristol, Falmouth, Cheltenham and Poole. If you are interested in finding out more about the project and the report please contact Alex Coulter, Director of Arts and Health South West.

Panel discussion: Sado Jirde of Black South West Network (BSWN), hosted a lively panel discussion made up of artists and organisations involved in the ‘Alternative Visions’ Project- including Ruth Kapadia from Arts Council England, James West & Max Frances two artists whose work formed part of the exhibition, Debbie Geraghty from Plymouth Music Zone, Claire Hodgson from Diverse City as well as the curator of the exhibition and one other artist.

The main question explored was what diversity & Inclusion in the arts means, challenges and possible solutions, based on the panellists experience from an organisational and sector perspective, as well as questions and contributions from the audience which fuelled further discussion.

Some of the issues discussed were around how to enable more people to see art – for example by locating art in new venues as well as outdoors; the needs of artists facing barriers and the support/access needs that would enable them to show their work without further adding to their mental or emotional stress – for example being able to have a small/private viewing for family and friends and programmed quieter opening times, that would allow artists/people who have difficulties being around a lot of people the opportunity to see their own work exhibited without having to deal with masses of people all at once. Other key points made by members of the panel were; that we needed to have these difficult conversations; that the diversity agenda had lost it’s sense of humour; it should be less about what people lacked and more focus should be on the organisational structures that exclude certain groups of people; it was not just statistics but the emotional fallout of lack of inclusion; everyone needs to be at the table in order to ensure the right changes are made.

Ruth Kapadia from the Arts Council informed the conference that in every Arts Council funding application there is a section to request additional personal access needs which is available for artists to ask for the costs of access needs they may have. These can range from basic support needs to tackling barriers in doing their work and can include coaching or counselling.

Focus Group: I then attended a one hour focus group with 8 other people and a facilitator from the conference and explored four key questions based around  ‘Creative cross-sectoral collaboration:  What factors affect the ability of arts and public health agencies to develop a regional strategic agenda for arts health and wellbeing. A research project with AHSW and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical medicine. The discussion was recorded and a report will follow. If you would like to find out more about this research project, contact Julia Puebla, Fortier London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine or Alex Coulter, Arts & Health South West.

I contributed to the question: ‘What opportunities or risks arise in working with organisations across different sectors – for example – arts, health, social care, government, voluntary organisations etc.

My points were:  

  • Risk: organisations tend to work with organisations and individuals that they know, which means that the ‘picture’ will always remain the same and in terms of diversity and inclusion many others will miss out e.g. BME organisations, individuals and freelancers doing the work but not necessarily connected to any organisation therefore not included.  
  • Risk: Freelancers and others cannot always afford the time or money to attend events, conferences or networks in order to meet and link with organisations to enable their work to be seen OR find out about opportunities for commissions.
  • Risk: Members of BME communities do not tend to participate or connect to support networks – e.g. mental health services, therefore their needs and views are missed out.
  • Opportunity: If under-represented groups and individuals are at the table and involved at a high level in organisations where important decisions are being made, it would ensure that their views/needs are included and would make for better service that met the needs of the whole community.
  • Risk: The use of language and technical terms needs to be taken into consideration to ensure that everyone understands and are not excluded because they do not understand. Also that job descriptions and job specifications favour people already in the sector and exclude others. This point was made in the morning presentation and made again by another member of the focus group. She herself had a Masters’ degree, but the language used in a recent job advertisement ‘went over her head’, so if she couldn’t understand it, what chance did anyone without a masters have?   Because she consistently failed to get a job in the sector she started ‘doing her own thing’ and creating work for herself. This was a familiar picture across the arts sector.
  • Opportunities: to learn about the benefits to health and wellbeing for those that engage in a wider range of culturally diverse arts forms.  E.G. The Royal College of music conducted a study a few years ago on the benefits of Djembe drumming for mental health, the results which were presented at the ASESOP Arts & Health Conference in London in February 2016 which I attended. They ran a 10 week course for people with mental health issues and their families & monitored and evaluated all participants, before, during and after. They all showed massive improvement in family relationships and positive changes in their mental health which lasted beyond the 10 weeks.  African Peoples’ dance forms are also known to have physical and mental health benefits for participants.

All this was before lunch…which was a delicious spread of sandwiches, pizza, rolls, dips, crisps and mince pies.

After lunch there were four workshops, a couple were repeated and others ran just the once; a fundraising workshop facilitated by Catherine West and Alex Coulter from AHSW; A presentation and Creative Portrait making workshop led by ‘Artists First’ a Bristol based group of disabled artists; A practical workshop making Chinese Temples out of cardboard with James West and a session on Understanding & Tackling Inequality in Health and Arts facilitated by Sado Jirde and Katie Finnegan-Clarke.  This session run twice and I attended both times as I had been invited to make a presentation. They shared national census figures and compared them to workforce data which highlighted the stark/shocking levels of ‘underrepresentation’ across the board of BME, disabled people, LGBT & Q people and women in the arts sector generally and at senior levels – covering National Portfolio organisations, the Arts Council and Arts Organisations. The only area of over representation was LGBT & Q people working for the Arts Council.  However they said that the collection of this type of data was new and could be influenced by unknown factors. They did not elaborate on what these factors might be. Would be interesting to find out more.

I then had the opportunity of sharing my own experience as a Black African Dancer of the arts sector.

During my presentation I talked about:

  • My personal experience of being a Black African dancer in the arts sector – I found myself on the fringes, so thought if I did a degree in Western contemporary dance it would give me the opportunity to learn and understand the mainstream dance sector, which would hopefully enable me to integrate and be part of it rather than be on the fringes
  • However my experience at University not only reinforced the fact that I did not ‘belong’, but my needs were not met either.  I wanted to produce work in my own style but one of my tutors told me ‘we can’t mark work we don’t know” The final and most painful ‘straw’ that broke me, was that 11 days before the exam of one group module, the other 5 students went to the Head of school and tutors, arriving before me one morning and asked to do their own practical piece as they did not feel they would pass if they stuck to the practical piece which we had been working on together. I was the lead on that project and we were going to do a piece on Carnival – using globes, window frames, projections, music and engaging with the audience as would happen at Carnival. Without involving me in the discussion or asking me how I felt, the tutors allowed the other students to effectively ‘drop me’. By allowing this to happen they were reinforcing any prejudice the students might already have and showed that the system was also prejudiced. I felt further isolated and excluded. It was a very difficult 4 years of my life.
  • African Peoples’ Dance (APD) styles are not just for open days and holidays. It is more than that, but I took these opportunities as at least I got to show my work.
  • Often when I see APD performed it is (in my personal view) ‘old school – and a colonial view’ of what APD looks like. OR it is so ‘westernised’ that it has lost its true essence. This is often due to the demands of funders and venues to make APD ‘more accessible to a western audience’.  It therefore shows a limited picture of what APD is and not the real thing.
  • There is lack of knowledge of APD even in academia, and often overlooked is the contribution that APD and black dance has made to modern dance. APD does not feature in the curriculum of mainstream dance courses.
  • After completing my course, I initiated a project that I felt would address the lack of knowledge of APD and black dance has made to modern dance. I was successful in getting funding and support to bring the amazing ADAD exhibition of ‘The History of Black Dance in Britain 1930’s to 1990’s to Bristol for the first time.  Over a 3 month period the exhibition attracted just over 2,000 people. However, calls and emails to my old university, other colleges and schools failed to get even one group to attend the free exhibition.  One of my tutors said ‘It’s hard enough for them to attend external events, less so if it is not on the curriculum!’
  • A few years ago I was invited to teach African dance in a secondary school for a 10 week block.  The students were reluctant to participant, when I asked them what they wanted to do, they said ‘hip hop’. So I showed them a few African dance moves, and their reaction was that it looked like ‘hip hop’!  It is a shame that people that teach hip hop and other styles influenced by APD styles do not acknowledge and give the history and background of the influences.
  • There is an assumption at APD styles do not have technique or are codified as there is in ballet.  Someone once commented that Sabar – a Senegalese dance form looked like ‘a spider falling out of a tree!’ Sabar is in fact a traditional classical form, but also has a modern contemporary presentation style, with very sophisticated and complex movements, with specific patterns of movement for men and women that respond to particular timing and rhythms. The fact that it has until now not been written down is because of the oral traditions of African people, but has successfully been passed down through the generations by families given the responsibility to maintain and teach traditional forms of music and dance.  These forms are learnt from an early age, danced and performed in community settings, at celebrations, public occasions and at home and generally not on the stage or only for spectators – APD is an inclusive art form in which everyone takes part.



There were several opportunities during the conference to talk to fellow attendees. Towards the end of the conference we broke into 3 groups to discuss things that we learnt and found useful; some things to put on future agendas; what specifically in arts and health we can individually do and how can we diversify the workforce in arts and health.

The group I was in was passionate and lively – we had a really good discussion in the 25 minutes we were given and I was given the task to writing the notes and feeding back at the end.  Some of the topics and comments were:

  • Shocked at the lack of knowledge and lack of diversity in Universities and organisations
  • What makes it hard to talk about race equality – as individuals?
  • Should white people speak on behalf of BME people and non-disabled speak on behalf of disabled people?
  • Is it always down to the person with the ‘protected characteristic’ who has to speak up when things are not right?  It can become tiring and put pressure to always be the one or become known as the one that would speak out.
  • It is all of our responsibility and we should all share that responsibility
  • Under-represented groups need allies to stand by them.
  • We liked the idea of allies –  but there was a difference between a passive and proactive ally
  • The role of allies could be simply clearing the path – like Gandalf The Grey in Lord of the Rings – when he needed to ‘heal’ the King, a path was cleared for him and a battle ensued in the crowd, but it enabled him to reach the King and administer his magic wand to cure!
  • We went on to discuss what the term ’ally’ meant and whether different terms like ‘social justice or ‘cultural democracy’ were more appropriate.
  • We recognised that there were inherent power structures – but people wanted to affect change.
  • People should be judged equally – e.g. not put into categories e.g. disabled
  • There are structural inabilities to offering support – we discussed this particularly in relation to carers who have no capacity for ask for support.
  • Role models were needed
  • If you are black you can’t get away from it.  Other ‘disadvantages’ are more hidden and less obvious.
  • How can ensure that everyone is allowed to show their identity and have the freedom and time to speak about their race or sexuality?
  • However speaking out or showing self can make a difference but one needs to also look after oneself.
  • Not everyone is as articulate and in a position to tell their story – so we need allies to enable them to be heard.
  • The justification and need to identify self in order to ‘tick box’ is not something all artists want to do.  Why can’t I just be an artist?
  • Where there is competition for pots of money – it is perceived by some that if you fit into one of the ‘under represented groups’ you will get it.  
  • One artist who described herself as ‘a person of colour’ said that on one occasion when applying for a particular pot of money, she was told ‘of course you will get it!’  When she got it she found herself excluded from the group. She felt that she was given the grant on her own merit because what she was offering was good, not just because she was ‘of colour’. So the exclusion continued – but for different reasons. It affects and can impact on our mental health.
  • The elephant in the room was that to be more diverse we need to do more than tick boxes.
  • ‘White people also suffer’.  This issue came up in this group but also an earlier break out group and was discussed in one of the other afternoon breakout groups.  
  • When organisations are too busy ‘ticking boxes’ they ignore the needs of current staff and the impact of bringing new people into the organisation. Current staff may resent the time and effort been given to the new person in training etc. Several comments were made about lack of knowledge about the right terms to use. This was a barrier as people were scared to say the wrong thing. For example: Do you use BME, BOEM, people of colour etc? In some cases ‘new person’ then ends up leaving because, although they are in the organisation – they feel excluded by the other staff and don’t feel welcome, as most of the time people ignore them.
  • It was generally perceived that the Organisation tended not to ‘care’ because they had already ticked their boxes.  Maybe a retention marker should be introduced!
  • People from mixed race families experience both sides of the issue – being the only white person in a black family, you can also face prejudice – from both sides
  • One white woman expressed that at the place she volunteers, she was told that she needed to ‘step down’ to allow some of the refugees to take her place.  She felt hurt, dismissed and really sad about this and felt the Manager could have handled this better. She was there to help and wasn’t as far as she knew standing in the way of anyone else taking up the role.
  • The concluding comments included – this is the best time to make changes – there is value! END

Arts and Health South West annual conference ran on 13th-14th December 2018. You can find the conference notes here as well as more information about the organisation.

Published January 2019.