Last week, the chairman of the Arts Council England, Peter Bazalgette, the creative mastermind behind Big Brother (and descendant of the ‘sewer king’ Sir Joseph), unveiled ACE’s new strategy to increase diversity in the arts. ‘We are not doing well enough,’ he said at the launch of the ‘Creative Case for Diversity’ at Sadler Wells. The arts are not ‘reacting fast enough to the changes in society’: ‘we can and must do better’. From 2015, arts organisations will be ‘monitored’ as to whether they ‘better reflect’ minorities and local communities, and this will affect whether they continue to receive funding in 2018. In other words, diversify or die. What will define this ‘better’ reflection of diversity? In his speech, Bazalgette remained vague. ACE says it is ‘considering launching a consultation’.
Bazalgette said the move was a form of ‘encouragement’, not a threat: ‘I call it a carrot because it is a way of making it work better – I don’t call it a stick.’
The Arts Council is right to admit there is a serious problem in the lack of diversity (of race, gender, class, sexuality) in the arts, and few opportunities for minorities. Despite such productions as David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s musical about Imelda Marcos, Here Lies Love, at the National Theatre, the revival of East Is East in the West End and the all-female Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse, BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) individuals continue to be under and misrepresented. Statistics show a dearth of non-white actors, writers, directors and producers working in theatre and TV. But it isn’t clear that threatening to cut Arts Council funding is the best way to correct this.
The rightwing backlash, however, was instantaneous, with the Mail’s Sebastian Shakespeare whingeing: ‘Does this mean the Royal Opera is going to have to hire more black singers?’
Then came Janet Suzman's bizarre remark that ‘theatre is a white invention.’ She said she saw only one ‘black face’ in the audience of her latest play and complained that ‘black people... don’t bloody come’. There may be some truth in that, but the reasons for it have nothing to do with the absurd notion that ‘white people’ have theatre ‘in their DNA’.
‘We can't give people creative talent,’ Bazalgette said, ‘but we can and must give those with talent creative opportunities.’ As a playwright and producer (and mixed race) I know the financial difficulty of putting on a performance, let alone a full production. I have crowdfunded, borrowed and begged, though I haven’t stolen (yet). The arts need diversity, but they also need money.