A few weeks ago I attended the Bristol half of the No Boundaries conference 2015, hosted by Watershed. It was a thought-provoking event that pulled off the impressive feat of linking literally thousands of people invested in the Arts world both physically and virtually. I came away feeling a part of a large thriving community, a feeling that the ingenious live link with HOME Manchester really bolstered.
However, one question came up again and again in discussions – why is our community so lacking in diversity? In her provocation, Jo Verrent from Unlimited, confirmed what I had caught glimpses of in other talks by highlighting the findings of the Warwick Commission:
“The wealthiest, better educated and least ethnically diverse 8% of the population forms the most culturally active segment of all: between 2012 and 2015 they accounted (in the most conservative estimate possible) for at least 28% of live attendance to theatre, thus benefiting directly from an estimated £85 per head of Arts Council England funding to theatre.” Read the full report here.
Clearly, we are doing something wrong. In practice, there are very clear boundaries to people accessing the Arts as Sanpreet’s excellent blog pointed out; whilst we’ve got better and better at talking about diversity, we need more practical solutions.
All this discussion about the wealthiest minority got me thinking about my role as a fundraiser – a large motivator for me to be a fundraising Fellow was that when I was growing up in a rural community without a great deal of wealth I was able to participate in theatre for free. We shouldn’t forget that the Warwick Commission isn’t dealing with all of art – it is specifically talking about publically funded art. For me it seems obvious that, in part, art should be funded so people without personal funds can access it.
So what can I do as a fundraiser to address these boundaries?
Well, first and foremost, I can raise cash for great (ideally free) projects that engage people who experience barriers in accessing the Arts. When looking through the guidelines of trusts and foundations we frequently come across criteria asking us to prove that we reach the most disadvantaged and disengaged members of society – the fundraising imperative is already there.
The second problem is the larger one; how can we transform these participation projects into more than just a tokenistic exercise and instead create life-long engagement with the arts? In the fascinating session at No Boundaries ‘How Does the Money Flow’, Moira Sinclair of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation made it clear that the Foundation is “prioritising our grants to those [projects] that place user’s voices more centrally”. As fundraisers we should be looking to gather evidence about the impact that our organisation can make. My organisation, Tobacco Factory Theatres, has a reputation for regenerating its surrounding area and being an accessible space, and whilst this effect is obvious on the ground it is hard to prove without solid data. Gathering case studies and the voices of your community is a great way to give evidence for your potential lasting impact. This was brilliantly demonstrated by Kully Thiarai’s talk on CAST, Doncaster’s success which had a genuine emotional impact on the conference audience.
Once we’ve reached out to disadvantaged and disengaged communities we need to ask, ‘what boundaries do you face when accessing the arts?’ As the widely tweeted John Dyer said in his provocation “Diversity is inviting someone to a party, inclusion is asking them to dance”. It’s only through asking these questions, gathering the answers and then acting on them that we can truly improve the diversity of arts audiences in the future. As Moira Sinclair warned against, we shouldn’t just be saying ‘This is what we do’, but instead asking ‘What can we do?’
No Boundaries was a brilliant event, but whilst the speakers were diverse the majority of the audience (much like all publically funded arts audiences) wasn’t. In reality it was an expensive event at £60 minimum and as such it was targeted towards the 8% we’ve been talking about (there were bursaries available for emerging artists, but only if you were lucky enough to win a ballot).
If the voice of a more diverse type of user is going to be heard, we need to take a step back. It may seem a little frightening, but we can’t make a case for our organisation’s relevance to a diverse audience without asking this audience first – ‘are we relevant?’ and if not, ‘how can we be relevant for you?’
What do you think? We’d love to hear.
Heather Holcroft–Pinn is an Arts Fundraising Fellow at Tobacco Factory Theatres.