Wac Arts talks diversity (or lack of) in the arts…

Where is the Diversity in Performing Arts and Media?

The world is a complicated place, and there’s a lot of division between people. The performing arts tend to unify people in a way nothing else does. – David Rubenstein, American Businessman

Diversity has always been a topic of concern in the world of performing arts and media. The need to see cultural diversity in the performing arts, to have an arts ecology that reflects the heterogeneity of our society has remained unfulfilled for too long now. So what should we do to instil a healthy equilibrium, and to address the growing call to propel change to society and diversity in the performing arts and media industry?

A research study conducted by Drama UK in December 2014 showed that the live sector was more diverse than television in terms of performer ethnicity. On TV and radio, 96% of actors were white while in musical theatre the figure was 70% and at the National Theatre it was 85%.

Setting out a strategic approach, where our ambitions for diversity and equality are knitted into those of excellence, reach, engagement and innovation should imperatively be our first step towards achieving great art for everyone! The approach would encompass methods that include diversity as an intrinsic and dynamic part of performing arts. Taking the long view – what do we want to achieve? Whom should we support? How do we support? What are our expectations? We need to support the institutions and the artists, as well as educate the audience and artists about the role of presenting culture, identity and diversity through artistic expression.

When we talk about diversity, we mean inclusion of artists from different special educational needs, disabilities, races, ethnicities, faiths, ages, genders, sexual orientations, economic backgrounds, or any other social group that might be prevented from successfully experience the medium of performing arts. It is the responsibility of institutions to encourage inclusion and to support a powerful, collaborative transformative arts practice.

Sir Brian McMaster’s 2008 report, Supporting excellence in the arts: from measurement to judgement, to the Department of Culture states:

“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.”

The relevance of diversity in the arts has been largely acknowledged and fostered by the Arts Council 2015-2018 National Portfolio Organisations practices, receiving a dedicated section of the portfolio entitled The Creative Case for Diversity. Here, diversity is recognized as “an integral part of the artistic process”, and treasured as “an important element in the dynamic that drives art forward, that innovates it and brings it closer to a profound dialogue with contemporary society”. Organisations benefitting from the Arts Council funding are also expected to promote organisational equality by showing a “commitment to diversity in their work”, including diversity in their work on stage, within their staffing and within audience development; but who is going to train the next generation of professionals to supply this demand?

Wac Arts has been serving the demand for diversity in performing arts for more than three decades. It is a charity organisation based in the diverse borough of Camden, north London, working continually with the aim of nurturing and encouraging a life-long interest in the arts and media among young people from all backgrounds. Wac Art teaches art forms from all around the world and celebrates the artistic and cultural diversity of its communities. For instance, Wac Arts is currently the only performing arts course to have a 3rd year level professional training giving equal status to Non Western arts forms, cultivating a vision of inclusiveness of all arts disciplines regardless of their geographical provenience. The equalitarian approach to arts of its courses embraces all cultures, and ensures that its students become experienced, well-rounded performers in an increasingly diversified global scenario.

78 percent of Wac Arts students are from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME), 19% of attendees have a disability, and a considerable number of students could afford to go elsewhere but CHOOSE Wac Arts not only because they have pathways into the arts, or unparalleled training in different art forms – but also because at Wac Arts they learn how diversity is driving arts forward and bringing it closer to a profound dialogue with contemporary society. Among its students, Wac Arts has provided training to Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Sophie Okenedo, the only two black female British artists to have received an Academy Awards Nomination among other black British nominees and winners, and to the Mobo Award winners Ms Dynamite and Zoe Rahman.

Diversity has many facets, disability being one of them. Wac Arts believes that however diverse an individual may be, the arts do not merely represent a therapeutic or recreational outlet, but a sector where any talented persons, regardless of their physical or cognitive impairment, can build a professional career. Wac Arts does not see disability as an obstacle, but rather as an opportunity to explore new learning channels of creativity and communication; through its variegated offer of multidisciplinary and multisensory programmes for different groups (Wonder Wac Arts and Wac Arts Interactive (see separate outline of current programmes), Wac Arts is committed to all students being enabled to explore their full potential. Students with disabilities are encouraged to perform and excel in a variety of disciplines – including media, video and dance, alongside other students on its evenings and weekend programmes.

To encourage diversity on a much larger level, Wac Arts encourages participation and attendance in arts among all groups in the population to foster skill acquisition. Wac Arts believes diversity needs to be something that’s not on the side, but central to the thinking.