‘We are finding it easier to talk about difference than diversity… hope that’s ok?’ A response from one of the tables of talkers at the ‘Food For Thought‘ event I hosted yesterday in Yorkshire. Its a series of meal based discussions among arts organisations and museums in Yorkshire organised by an Ideas Group of 5 National Portfolio Organisations in the region and funded by ACE Yorkshire designed to get people really talking about how to put equality and diversity at the centre of their artistic practice.
And I mean really talking, not just quick off the cuff remarks such as ‘aren’t there specialist organisations to do that?’, ‘we don’t have the capacity’, ‘only if there is new money available’, ‘we don’t know anyone diverse’ type of responses (and to be clear, we didn’t have any of those as responses in this region, but they are typical of some of the responses I have had nationally to the concept over the years).
When do we usually allow ourselves the chance to really get under the skin of a debate or discussion? To go beyond the immediacy of our usual fixed position and instead, as one attendee put it, allow ourselves, through dialogue, ‘to move and to be moved’.
We were talking about the Creative Case, a perspective on diversity currently championed by the Arts Council of England. What if, instead of seeing diversity as the thing on the edge that we really should include, we see it at the centre, and look instead at its positive contribution to the arts infrastructure and body of practice we already have. What if we see difference, not as a negative, but as an essential element within art, recognising and pushing further the innovation, collaboration and sheer creativity it illustrates?
These are not new arguments, back in 2008, Sir Brian McMaster wrote the following in his seminal Supporting excellence in the arts: from measurement to judgement, for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport:
Within these concepts of excellence, innovation and risk-taking, and running through everything that follows below, must be a commitment to diversity. The diverse nature of 21st century Britain is the perfect catalyst for ever greater innovation in culture and I would like to see diversity put at the heart of everything cultural. We live in one of the most diverse societies the world has ever seen, yet this is not reflected in the culture we produce, or in who is producing it. Out of this society, the greatest culture could grow… it is my belief that culture can only be excellent when it is relevant, and thus nothing can be excellent without reflecting the society which produces and experiences it.
Difference or diversity? Diversity or difference?
In some ways diversity can be seen to be ‘other’. I reported to one group I worked with last week that three times now I have arrived to deliver a diversity session, and been met with the words ‘oh, you’re not black’.
Diversity isn’t other, it doesn’t belong to one specific group of people. Even though the Equalities legislation covers nine protected characteristics, it doesn’t mean if you are outside those nine, you don’t ‘count’. The legislation doesn’t cover class, doesn’t mention poverty, fails to look at geographical difference be that rural and urban or even the differences between different parts of the same city or town. It doesn’t look at isolation, at educational attainment, and 1001 other factors that can mean people have a valuable new perspective to bring in. For me placing equality and diversity at the centre means being awake and aware of the benefits that all aspects of difference can bring.
Would rather talk about difference than diversity? Fine by me, and in fact that’s what I am doing on my sister site DoDifferentDaily, looking at the benefits (and problems) created by doing something different (or in a different way) everyday through 2013.
For me, difference or diversity – call it what you will – is an essential element in good art. Creative Case takes that one step further and allows that difference to lead the work – whether its Jez Colborne creating music from his fascination with sirens (which is linked to his experience of Williams syndrome) or York Theatre Royal not just opening up its venue to the local community but its programming too, enabling a wide-ranging eclectic group of individuals to genuinely have control over what is seen on the stage.
The best quote of the day for me was that ‘to move forwards, we have to leave our egos behind’. It’s about letting go of being expert, and recognising that many other people are experts by experience. I reckon its something that many of us in the arts sector find hard, but when we do the results can be astounding.