Are the arts at risk of becoming elitist and bland?

Lizzie Emeh (c) Heart and Soul
Lizzie Emeh (c) Heart and Soul

“Just because you are the majority doesn’t make you normal; just more common”.

According to a recent Arts Council report, black and minority ethnic people make up 17% of English arts workforce and disabled people account for just 4%. In terms of people enjoying the arts and museums, low income, BME and disabled audiences “continue to be underrepresented.”

These rather disappointing figures were a hot topic for the ‘Power Through Diversity’ conference I attended last month. Aimed at arts leaders, this conference is one of many initiatives the Arts Council are making to promote better practice around diversity.

The main message throughout the day was a need for the arts to reflect the diversity of the population to make sure it doesn’t become elitist and stale.

The day was live-streamed through the Arts Council’s website and featured several internationally acclaimed speakers. I will reflect on three artistic ‘provocations’ which were particularly thought-provoking.

Let’s talk about class…

Artist and theatre-maker Jackie Hagan delivered the first provocation. Hagan’s focus was around the intersections between disability and socio-economics.

As a proud ‘working class lass’ Hagan talked about making sure stories of working class life are written, directed and performed by working class writers and actors.

Hagen tells the audience that she always wanted to be an artist at school, but it wasn’t a profession that “kids from my background” went into.

Her experience certainly reflects that of many highly talented working-class actors – for example, Julie Walters, Victoria Wood and Christopher Eccleston.

Walters has openly criticized the world of acting for becoming increasingly ‘bland’ because so many new stars are all from the same elite background.

Twitter image of the class sketch from Two Ronnies
The Two Ronnies class sketch


Hagen fears cuts to grass roots theatre companies make young people from working-class backgrounds lose out.  She emphasized the need to make the arts part of life, advertising more creatively and ensuring all children, no matter what their background, get involved in the arts.

Let’s talk about race…

Historian, broadcaster and filmmaker David Olusoga‘s provocation centred around readdressing the white-centric nature of history as a subject.

He also spoke about how television, the most powerful cultural force since the book, has failed to reflect the country’s diversity.

Olusoga observes that way that history is taught in schools and universities often only tells half a story. For example, when we talk about the history of the industrial revolution, the missing people in that revolution are the 1.8 million enslaved people who made cotton, our biggest export.

He says that black people’s stories are not discussed much within the history curriculum, or within popular culture.    History is a very unappealing subject for black young people, and therefore there are fewer black historians to champion black people’s stories. 

This is very much the case for disabled people, whose histories would very much have remained hidden without pioneering disabled artists – such as filmmaker David Hevey.

Let’s talk about trans…

Artist and Director of TransCreative, Kate O’Donnell’s provocation was a critique of the ‘trans aesthetic’.

The trans aesthetic, she says, puts pressure on trans people to look and sound a certain way – more cisgendered, more ‘normal’.  O’Donnell passionately advocates for the full trans-spectrum to be completely embraced, included, valued and celebrated within the arts.

Although this talk wasn’t specifically referring to disability, I could relate to the enforcing of normalcy O’Donnell describes.

Passing as a cisgendered person often means you get less abuse and also you are more likely to get invited to the table. This is also often the case with disabled people who pass as non-disabled because their impairment is hidden.

Again, her critique of the ‘sad’, ‘mentally unstable’, ‘sex worker’, ‘drug addict’ narratives of transgendered people are similar to the stereotypes of disabled people within popular culture.

Power Through Diversity audience
Power Through Diversity audience


Let’s talk about it all…

All in all it was certainly a thought provoking day with so many overlapping themes.

My only minor criticism was that I would have liked to have heard more discussion about projects that address multiple diversities – for example, the Drake Music tour of Billy Saga.

We often don’t just fit into one box, and a good way to reflect this are through initiates like the Billy Saga tour.  Saga is a disabled Brazilian musician who fuses hip-hop, rock, reggae, dub and samba to comment on both disability politics and also religion and race.