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18 September 2010

The Culture Secretary is wrong to knock ethnic minorities

Jeremy Hunt's comments show he does not understand the reality of art in modern Britain.

By Kristine Landon-Smith

“Public money will no longer be given to arts organisations simply because they hire a high proportion of women or ethnic minorities, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has warned,” reports the Daily Mail.

And here were we at the Asian theatre company Tamasha, labouring under the misapprehension for these last 21 years that the Arts Council fund us because we stage plays the British public want to see! The implication in the minister’s speech that artists such as ourselves only receive money because of our gender and race is cynical in the extreme.

The claim of a “box-ticking” approach to funding artists from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds promotes the notion that artists from minority groups are nothing but jumped-up quota-fillers. We would expect it from the Mail but when we start hearing it from the Culture secretary, it’s alarming.

Hunt told the delegates at the Media Arts Festival that, “The days of securing taxpayer funds purely by box ticking – getting cash simply because a diversity target has been hit – are now over.”

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Under Labour, the arts were charged with challenging social exclusion, celebrating diversity and reasserting Britishness. At Tamasha, we’ve encountered our fair share of box-ticking theatres, wanting to collaborate with us purely to get Asian bums on their seats, but it comes with the territory. We’re wise to it and don’t collaborate with those theatres.

Yet the suggestion that artists of colour have been enjoying an Arts Council-funded joy ride demeans us and shows how little Hunt understands the reality on the ground.

Now that the critical pendulum is swinging away from the Arts for social ends back to the “purer” criteria of intrinsic artistic excellence, we are seeing a retrogressive new conservatism at work. After all, who decides the criteria for judging artistic excellence?

Cultural diversity is not important in and of itself, but because it allows us to contrast different values and beliefs and take positions on them. The arts offer a special forum in which to engage in political dialogue and debate that can help create a collective language of citizenship. We see that most clearly in our work in schools.

Ironically, in the very same speech Hunt urged arts organisations not to dump education outreach when the cuts come in. His headline-grabbing comments about funding women and minorities shows a lack of political and artistic vision. The box ticking was never of our choosing and nor was the labelling. Ministers come and go but we will continue to make plays with or without their interference.

Kristine Landon-Smith is co-director with Sudha Bhuchar of Tamasha Theatre Company