Welcoming diverse audiences and staff

Nick Ahad’s post today in the Yorkshire Post – not my normal reading matter but his article on making everyone feel welcome in theatres (http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/debate/columnists/nick-ahad-it-is-the-responsibility-of-theatres-to-make-everyone-feel-welcome-1-6513877) was a good one – brings yet again into sharp relief the whole issue of diversity in the arts.  Marry Nick’s article with one by David Osa Amadasun, working at Goldsmith’s on his MSc and commenting on the same issue from a slightly different perspective, (http://mediadiversified.org/2013/10/21/black-people-dont-go-to-galleries-the-reproduction-of-taste-and-cultural-value/) and you can only feel shame that, in the second decade of the 21st century, this discussion still has topicality.

Back in the 80s, when I was running major venues, I was given a sharp lesson in this.  I had advertised for an FOH Manager and, in order not to be drowned in applications which regularly happened then, I put in the sift “Must have a degree”.  Soon after the ad appeared, I received a phone call from a complete stranger who went straight to the point.  “Why are you doing racist advertising?” – Well, I was a well brought up liberal girl with all my values in the right place and it seemed utterly shocking to be accused of such a thing.  I demanded an explanation.  She said “You want a House Manager.  You don’t need a degree to be a good House Manager”.  When I splutteringly conceded the point, she went on:” By asking for a degree, you are automatically excluding anyone who, for any reason, has rejected the standard educational path.  These are people with just as much flair, energy, commitment and talent as any you will find.  And most of them will be from BME communities.  You are not even allowing them to get to interview.”   It struck me like a slap across the face –  it’s fine to have all these liberal values but unless you actually think about what lies behind some of the barriers that exist, you can end up being as obstructive as those you criticise.  I asked her to come in and see me and we had a long conversation.   Exactly as David points out in his article, she made me realise that I had virtually no BME people working for  me.  If someone from BME community walked past the Box Office or the foyer during a show, there was no evidence at all to indicate that s/he would be welcome.  It had never occurred to me how we create and sustain barriers without the least intention to do so.

Since then, one thing I’ve done without exception wherever I work is to ensure that no job ad demands a degree as a precondition for interview.  Of course, the world has changed since the 80s and it feels a bit prattish now that almost everyone does seem to have a degree, but I keep to it as a principle to remind me that creating barriers is such a subtle process.  Barriers can occur utterly without intention, with unconsidered and immeasurable impact.  Our unthinking actions are what is meant by institutionalised racism.

Achieving real diversity is not something that happens by accident.  It’s really important that arts people think more deeply than simply putting ads in The Voice newspaper –  in effect, we are dealing with a cultural heritage of prejudice and neglect that goes back for generations – changing that requires real work, hard thinking, sustained commitment.  Although I believe diversity is a necessary ingredient of resilience and success for arts organisations in the future, I don’t make that argument.  This is too serious for pragmatism.  Diversity is a moral imperative.

Anamaria Wills