Arts Council England: How leadership from a funder can facilitate greater diversity and accessibility

By David on September 15, 2017

Arts Council England’s Head of Diversity, Abid Hussain explains some of the organisation’s recent initiatives to improve the diversity and accessibility of the UK’s arts sector. This includes: flagship disability commissioning programme, Unlimited; diversity strategic funding through its Elevate and Change Makers programmes; a big drive to capture diversity data and hold publicly funded organisations to account with it; and, adding budget categories for access for both artists and audiences into its funding application process. 

An Outsider looking in

The British Paraorchestra and Extraordinary Bodies
David Young Diverse City The British Paraorchestra and Extraordinary Bodies perform Terry Riley’s In C at Colston Hall, Bristol. Image © Paul Blakemore 2016 Supported through Unlimited

Back in the autumn of 2001 I was working in the unglamorous regulatory department at Transco (now the National Grid), the company responsible for managing the gas pipeline network for the UK.

It was during my time there that I was introduced to Zoe Partington who at the time was running the West Midlands Disability Arts Forum. To this day I’m incredibly indebted to the late James Farquhar for making a personal introduction to Zoe who completely changed my career trajectory. A few months later I left Transco and accepted a very different job as an assistant officer working at Arts Council England.

Volunteering with West Midlands Disability Arts Forum was my introduction to the world of arts and culture but more crucially it opened my eyes to the bias, barriers and discrimination so many talented disabled artists face. Through Zoe I was introduced to the social model of disability, highlighting the preventable barriers that too often exist without challenge in society. What I have learnt to love about the social model approach is every perceived barrier or block has a solution. Sometimes those solutions require resources, other times will-power and culture change but more often than not they just need a bit of common sense!

I’m glad I discovered the forum and met Zoe before I even knew what or who the Arts Council was. They inspired my curiosity, made me fall in love with the arts and gave me the confidence to apply for a job in an industry I was completely new to. I liked being an outsider, it gave me permission to ask left-field questions and it helped shape the purpose that drives me as a policy maker; simply to make the arts and cultural sector in England inclusive and representative of wider society across our programming, audiences and workforce.

Making the Creative Case for Diversity

Equality and Diversity discourse is nothing new in England. In 1976 the much-loved and missed Naseem Khan published her ground-breaking report ‘The Arts Britain Ignores’. At the heart of her work was a simple observation; the arts and cultural life of England would be significantly enriched by increasing platforms and opportunity for underrepresented artists. Naseem focused on themes of ethnic identity but her call for change could equally resonate with disabled artists who have faced far too many barriers to opportunity.

This principle was reflected in the Arts Council’s Creative Case for Diversity which we launched in 2011 as a catalyst to reframe an increasingly stagnant and unproductive approach to policy and practice which too often centred almost exclusively on the legal imperative for Equality and Diversity. We had lost sight of the art.

Artificial Things Stopgap Dance Company
Artificial Things by Stopgap Dance Company. Photo © Christopher Parkes / Stopgap Dance Company

The Creative Case for Diversity articulated a new paradigm for diversity which retains the fundamental diversity principles of equality, access and opportunity but also recognises and celebrates the importance of diversity as a source of artistic excellence and advantage. It argues that far from diluting quality, diversity increases innovation and excellence creating compelling new work and narratives that amplifies the voice and presence of communities that for too long have been missing, ignored or under represented across arts and culture.

It directly challenges Directors, Curators and Programmers at publically funded arts and cultural organisations to take ownership of and accountability for how the diversity of wider society is reflected in the work they programme, curate or present. Having a conversation about diversity that is interconnected and inseparable to the process of commissioning and creating work ensures resources are allocated from the outset and diversity is intrinsic to the process of realising artistic ambition, rather than a long forgotten after thought doomed to reside on the pages of well-meaning equality action plans that gather dust in filing cabinets around the country.

2012 and the birth of Unlimited

The Cultural Olympiad and the London games in 2012 were a game changer for disabled artists. You may not have thought it or even dared to imagine it in the years preceding the games. A number of disability-led arts organisations in the late 2000s had lost their funding, forums were closing around the country and the voice and presence of disabled artists seemed to be increasingly on the periphery of the sector.

We weren’t in need of a step change, we needed a revolution and a radical new approach. That revolution started to take shape in 2007 when colleagues at Arts Council England including Joyce Wilson (Area Director, London) entered into conversations with the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG). The timing couldn’t be more fortuitous as Joyce recalls:

We had ring-fenced funding for a different approach to investing in disabled artists – artist led, focusing on investing in and supporting disabled artists directly and encouraging experimentation. When LOCOG approached us offering to back a programme of commissions and showcasing, we were delighted, here was an opportunity to pool resources and hang work on a hook that had heft and profile’.

‘LOCOG also gave us an opportunity to work collaboratively with other home nation Arts Councils, and with the British Council also joining in, the net result was an increase in the commissioning funds available from £150,000 to £2.2m and we had the birth of Unlimited’.

Taking Unlimited forward

A decade later, Unlimited continues to flourish through the festival at the Southbank and the arts commissioning programme delivered jointly by Shape Arts and Arts Admin. Our direct investment in Unlimited continues to grow and pay artistic dividends with a further £1.8m invested in the commissioning programme in 2016. Earlier this year Unlimited announced the latest recipients of 24 new commissions selected from a pool of 269 applications of which 60 were shortlisted.

Unlimited has validated the decision to take an artist-centred approach to invest as directly in the ideas and talent of disabled artists. One of the more notable successes of Unlimited has been its international impact, both in terms of the festival attracting international delegates supported by our partnership with the British Council, but also in terms of securing international bookings for disabled artists from England whose work has travelled to Europe, South America, Asia, North America and Australasia.

This work has been further strengthened by the Arts Council investing an additional £759,949 to Unlimited via our Ambitions for Excellence fund to support a new three-year international programme with further support from the British Council.

One frustration born out of this success is that for many disabled artists in England their work has received greater support and artistic recognition in international markets than back home in England. This is a challenge that we need to address head on through our work with publically funded organisations in England. The talent is there, all it needs is the opportunity. How can we have a situation where artists from England are recognised better internationally than at home?

The Creative Case for Diversity has to serve as a catalyst for arts and cultural organisations in England to take seriously their responsibility to diversify their programmes. For our part we need to ensure there are robust measures in place for accountability and where necessary take action if that change is not forthcoming.

The success of Unlimited can be attributed to a number of different factors, from its commitment to collaborative working to the brilliant artistic leadership and passion of its Senior Producer Jo Verrent. Its success also owes much to the talent, vision and imagination of disabled artists from the UK and abroad who have inspired us and moved us to moments of joy, laughter, despair and tears through their work.

Not limited to Unlimited

The cast of Tommy
Ramps on the Moon’s recent production, Tommy

Unlimited has helped change the way we do things at the Arts Council too and increased our scale of investment significantly paving the way for other major investments, most notably, a £2.3m award (our biggest strategic touring award to date) to the Ramps on the Moon consortia to support new touring work and over £700,000 through our Ambitions for Excellence programme to support integrated circus company Extraordinary Bodies. This additional investment hasn’t just come from our Diversity-focused programmes, highlighting progress in embedding diversity as a priority across all our funding programmes.

There have been drawbacks too, more needs to be done to encourage applicants that submitted proposals to Unlimited to consider submitting grants for the arts applications to the Arts Council. We’ve still got work to do to encourage more disabled artists to apply for funding directly to the Arts Council.

I don’t want opportunities for disabled artists to only be available when we run or support initiatives like Unlimited. A more significant cultural shift needs to take place where programming diversity becomes part of the very DNA of our arts and cultural organisations and is part of the norm rather than being the exception.

Budget categories for access

We continue to make changes to remove barriers to access for disabled artists applying to our grants for the arts programme who can receive financial support for someone to assist them with writing and submitting their applications. We’ve also introduced an access budget line as part of project costs recognising the importance of on-going access and addressing barriers when projects receive funding.

These were vital changes to the way we administer and process grant applications and embeds our commitment to equality, diversity and the social model of disability at the heart of our open access funding programmes. By removing barriers to access you create a more equitable application process.

It has also allowed us to address diversity as a priority across our funding programmes and not just address it through bespoke initiatives. It has been important to be open about the support that is available. Too often when applying for funding, applicants may not be aware of what they can ask for or budget for. What has been incredibly empowering is the conversations we’ve opened up with other funding agencies to share our learning and experience. For any funder who wants to increase investment to support the ambition of disabled artists there are ways to achieve this through refining their existing programmes and processes.

Diversity Strategic Funds

Unlimited was the first flagship strategic programme we developed to engage specifically with disabled artists. In 2016, we also launched our Elevate and Change Makers programmes which collectively invested over £7.5m to support diverse artists and organisations.

Our Elevate programme was designed to strengthen the resilience of diverse organisations not in receipt of regular national portfolio funding. Through an investment of £5.3m we have supported 40 organisations across the country to develop their resilience and build new partnerships and collaborations with other arts and cultural organisations. Elevate has had a significant impact on helping to diversify our National Portfolio with 30 Elevate organisations poised to join the new portfolio in 2018 including Disability Arts OnlineVenture Arts and Together 2012!

Our Change Makers programme is supporting 20 Black and Minority Ethnic and Disabled leaders to take part in a leadership development programme working in collaboration with National Portfolio Organisations.  Over half the cohort is comprised of disabled leaders including Jess Thom, Andrew Miller and James Rose.

It is my aspiration that our Change Maker cohort will be at the vanguard of a new wave of artistic and executive leaders that is representative of the diversity of contemporary England in the years ahead. There are no excuses for the low number of disabled people working in the arts and cultural sector, collectively as a sector we need to do more, much more.

Hitting reset and prioritising data

Bamboozle Theatre Company
Meadow Land by Bamboozle (2014). Photo © Bamboozle Theatre Company / Martin Neeves Supported through Elevate.

Taking on the leadership role for our Equality and Diversity agenda in the summer of 2014 it was time to hit the reset button. Much of that first year in the role was spent in the company of artists and arts organisations across the country, it helped me to see things from their perspective which is crucial as a policy maker.

Those conversations helped shape my focus and set priorities for the change I wanted to see. The inspiration for our Elevate and Change Maker programmes emerged directly from open, inspiring and sometimes difficult conversations.

In December 2014 the starting gun was shot on the reset when our Chair at the time Sir Peter Bazelgette delivering a landmark speech that served notice to the sector that Diversity had to be the responsibility of all funded organisations, not just the few.

A year later in 2015 we published our first ‘Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case’ report which for the first time openly published data on our investment and the arts and cultural workforce across Age, Disability, Ethnicity and Gender classifiers.

Some of what we’ve published has made for uncomfortable reading, particularly in relation to disability. The workforce is not reflective of England, the leadership of the sector even less so.

Publishing the data has been critical, it gives us benchmarks and highlights where we need to improve. It holds us to account as well as the organisations that receive public funding. We still face challenges around getting better quality data, for disability we still have too many ‘prefer not to say’ and ‘unknown’ responses.

We’re working with the sector to change things to improve rates of response. Looking forward, we plan to introduce new questions to focus on the barriers disabled people face rather than impairment categories. Beyond disability we’re looking at how we can capture and report on socio economic background and social mobility.

Without data we couldn’t have developed programmes like Elevate and Change Makers. Data gives us the evidence to respond to things that need our resources and our attention. No one likes tick-boxes, but now more than ever capturing meaningful data is critical. As organisations looking to capture data, it’s our job to ensure people understand the reasons we ask for it and why it’s so important for them to share it.

The dawn of a new national portfolio

Our national portfolio (arts and cultural organisations who receive four year funding) for 2018-22 genuinely excites me. Looking back to the summer of 2014 the equality analysis which accompanied the announcement of our 2015-18 national portfolio made for heavy and difficult reading.

The number of disability-led organisations in the portfolio was on the decline. We were concerned at the lack of representation in particular of disabled and Black and Minority Ethnic staff across arts organisations and museums, and there were genuine concerns around the future pipeline of diverse organisations that could help refresh and revitalise future investment rounds.

Our new portfolio for 18-22 feels fresh and vibrant, we’ve seen a significant influx of new Disability-led organisations including Disability Arts Online, Bamboozle, Diverse City and Together 2012! We’ve also awarded significant increases in investment to existing organisations including Attitude is EverythingExtantHeart n SoulDASHStageTextVocalEyesMind the Gap and Deafinitely Theatre.

Just as importantly, we’ve committed to ensuring Diversity and Equality is a shared responsibility across the national portfolio. All funded organisations will be required to evidence their contribution to the Creative Case for Diversity and receive an annual performance rating that will hold them to account. For our larger organisations (Bands 2 and 3) there is a clear expectation that we want them to be rated ‘Strong’ by October 2021.

The rating process allows us to look at how organisations are responding to the Creative Case in practice against what they articulated in their NPO applications. It is vital that aspirations are matched by action. The ratings take into consideration the programme of work presented, talent development initiatives, addressing barriers to artistic involvement and the level of buy-in from board members to hold organisations to account. Ratings are determined on an annual basis by Arts Council relationship managers. To support organisations understand and respond to the Creative Case we have published the ratings prompts and evidence framework relationship managers use to determine a rating.

We’ve set out clear expectations on the changes we would like to see to diversify the workforce, boards and audiences as part of our funding agreements with organisations. I want the aspiration we saw in applications to manifest itself into tangible action during 2018-22, demonstrated through disabled people playing a prominent role in arts and cultural programming, the workforce and boards across all arts organisations, libraries and museums that are part of our national portfolio.

If we can achieve that, then the potential for real change is truly unlimited.

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