Guardian Live Debate: Diversity in the Arts – 15 April 2015

On Wednesday 15th April I attended a panel discussion at Kings Place in central London about ‘Diversity in the Arts’, organised as part of the Guardian Live series of debates. The event was chaired by Guardian journalist Mark Lawson and featured contributions from five invited panellists: Chris Bryant (Labour Party spokesperson for culture, media and the arts),  David Lan (artistic director of the Young Vic) writer Dreda Say Mitchell (a trustee of the National Youth Arts Trust), Femi Oguns MBE (founder and CEO of Identity Drama School), and Ben Stephenson (controller of BBC Drama).

Contributors (from left to right): Ben Stephenson, Mark Lawson, Dreda Say Mitchell, David Lan, Chris Bryant, Femi Oguns.
Panel contributors (from left to right): Ben Stephenson, Mark Lawson, Dreda Say Mitchell, David Lan, Chris Bryant, Femi Oguns.

Key questions tabled for discussion considered the extent of diversity in the UK’s arts sector, as well as throughout the creative industries more broadly – across all artistic forms and genres, and at every level of responsibility and visibility (from front-of-house, audience-facing contributions, and back-office technical support, through to board-level and directorial decision-making, etc.). Central to the debate was the question of whether talent was able to shine through irrespective of factors such as skin colour, gender, sexuality, social class, and/or disability, and also whether successful entry routes and progression in different areas of the arts were still heavily dependent on coming from the ‘right background’, the level of financial support available, mobility within elite networks, and other socio-economic exclusions.

There was general consensus among all the panellists that the UK culture sector lacked diversity across the breadth of its different artistic genres and areas of employment. What differed were their views on the extent of the problem, what needed to be done to disrupt the status quo, the level of urgency influencing the need for change, and the speed at which tangible improvements could be achieved.

Femi Oguns (left), the founder and CEO of the Identity Drama School in Hackney with three of his students. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
Femi Oguns (left), the founder and CEO of the Identity Drama School in Hackney with three of his students. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The opening statement by Femi Oguns focused on the current state of arts education, highlighting major concerns about under-representation of black and minoritized creative practitioners in the UK’s film, TV and theatre workforce – citing statistics from the British Film Institute that revealed less than 5% BME representation in the UK film industry when Britons of African, Asian and Caribbean descent (including visible minorities with dual/multiple heritage) comprise c. 14% of the population in England and Wales.*

Dreda Say Mitchell suggested that the wrong questions were being posed, and encouraged a refocused debate to make it more about issues of access and genuinely valuing people as equals. She was rightly critical of mainstream institutions such as the BBC for their lack of ambition in implementing “revolutionary reforms” and relying too heavily on arbitrary box-checking activities that compartmentalized individuals as diversity “types” – on which “project status” could be conferred, and small pots of “diversity funding” could be temporarily allocated – rather than valuing diversity as a means of achieving greater excellence as well as equality.

Chris Bryant also sought to broaden the debate to address the fundamental values of creativity for individuals and society as a whole – especially in relation to celebrating the diversity of our shared humanity, expressing oneself, and voicing ideas in dialogue with others.  He also sought to add political and economic perspectives about the commercial potential of the creative industries – which collectively employ 1 in 12 of the UK’s workforce. His interventions also addressed the need to re-establish and elevate the status of arts education within the school curriculum to support entry routes into the creative industries for a more diverse pool of young people – particularly from low-income, working class backgrounds.

David Lan articulated the need to look at diversity behind the lens and off-stage to address the lack of representation of BME and disabled people in directorial, design-related and managerial roles. Whilst he was pleased to celebrate some of the huge strides made in the theatre sector as regards (so called) “colour-blind casting”, he was also quick to point out that meaningful diversity could only be fully achieved by looking at structural socio-economic and political issues relating to poverty, inequality, endemic racism and other forms of discrimination that are part and parcel of a capitalist hegemony.

The only panellist whose comments appeared out of step with the general flow of the discussion was Ben Stephenson (from the BBC) – who felt he should serve as an apologist for the entire Corporation and defend some of its indefensible inadequacies, rather than explore ‘big picture’ agendas relating to diversity. For that reason he took a somewhat problematic stance, arguing that quotas (of all kinds) were inherently detrimental to the pursuit of excellence in the arts, and refused to acknowledge the BBC’s failure to nurture and retain artistic talent in the UK – which has inevitably led to an increased level of ‘black flight’ to the USA and elsewhere by some of our most creative and innovative writers, film-makers and actors (e.g. Zadie Smith, Steve McQueen, David Oyelowo, Sophie Okonedo, etc.).

Guardian Live panel discussion on Diversity in the Arts - Kings Place, London (15/04/2015).
Guardian Live panel discussion on Diversity in the Arts – Kings Place, London (15/04/2015).

Audience contributions during the Q&A

Some of the most pertinent points made my members of the audience included the following:

  • A recommendation to place more attention on addressing the lack of opportunities for disabled artists – particularly in the performing arts – and to give greater financial support to established and emerging theatre companies that prioritize inclusion and access in all aspects of their practice (e.g. Graeae –
  • A plea for the UK’s TV  and  film sectors to emulate and broaden the best practice emerging via the theatre arts, whereby “colour-blind casting” is increasingly becoming the norm  for early period dramas, Shakespeare plays and a wide range of historical works that would otherwise conventionally only feature white actors in key roles.
  • The need to reflect on and improve the language used to debate difference in the arts, which too often describes individuals as “non-white” or “disabled” in ways that exclude, de-normalise and tokenise people – and thus exacerbate existing levels of  marginalisation and inequality.
  • A request to host more action-oriented debates and discussions about diversity that separate the arts to ensure that the specifics and particularities of certain art forms and genres are addressed. Too much attention was given to theatre and the performing arts in this debate to the detriment of sectors such as the visual arts, museums and galleries, and the literary arts where issues of under-representation by diverse communities are even more acute.

On balance, the most useful interventions during the panel discussion and the Q&A were put forward by Dreda Say Mitchell – whose points were highly nuanced about issues of intersectionality and inclusion, and rightly focused on widening access to (and improving pathways through) the arts for all – as opposed to the conventional (and quite divisive) compartmentalized approaches to addressing diversity which operate within a problematic framework that forces different under-represented groups to compete with one another for increasingly scarce and sparse resources distributed via an institutionally designated ‘diversity project pot’.


* The 2011 Census records the black and minority ethnic (BME) population in England and Wales as 14.1% (Source: Office for National Statistics and The Runnymede Trust). A full breakdown of the demographic data is available on the ONS website.

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