Arts Council of England Experiments with Mandatory Affirmative Action for Funded Institutions
Tuesday, May 31, 2005
International Herald Tribune
Along with sports, culture has long offered ethnic minorities a path into the white-dominated societies of the West. Indeed, whether in theater, movies or popular music, leading artists of, say, African, Asian, Hispanic or Arab extraction have often become social trailblazers, demonstrating to their peers and to national audiences alike that integration is possible.
But this is also a process that can take years, even decades. Now the Arts Council England, the government-financed body that subsidizes the performing arts in England, has decided to speed things up by introducing affirmative action to culture. Specifically, it wants the 1,100 cultural organizations that receive its help to employ minorities, to present black, Asian and other ethnic art, and to reach out to minorities unaccustomed to attending cultural events. Further, it has given the initiative teeth by linking its continuing financial support to adoption and execution of what it calls racial equality action plans.
"We will closely monitor the development of your action plan and your progress in meeting your race equality objectives," the council noted in a 110-page instruction manual, "and future funding may include considerations on your ability to meet race equality targets." In other words, go multiethnic or risk bankruptcy.
More than a few cultural administrators have been taken by surprise. Until now, while the council's beneficiaries have included ethnic minorities engaged in artistic activities, most of its annual budget of £412 million, or $753 million, has gone to mainstream theater, dance, opera and classical music (major museums are supported directly by the government). Never before has the council tried to dictate quite so specifically how this money should be spent.
So does this action represent political correctness gone wild, as some critics have protested, or it is merely a coherent way of using taxpayers' money to benefit society as a whole? Certainly, no other European country has tried to link culture and race so openly. But the council's new policy also reflects the distinctive way that Britain has handled the immigrants who have settled here since World War II, first blacks from the Caribbean, then Asians from the Indian Subcontinent and most recently Eastern Europeans, Arabs and Africans from countries with no historical ties to Britain.
While France, Europe's other major former colonial power, has always tried to absorb immigrants through assimilation, Britain has adopted what is known as a communitarian approach, one that admits different cultural practices and languages and, like the United States, recognizes hyphenated nationals, such as Asian-Britons and Afro-Britons. And this wide embrace has extended to artistic expression of all kinds.
One result is that, as in the United States, minorities are relatively present in culture and show business here, notably on television and on stage, whether as actors, comedians or singers. The BBC, for instance, is anything but an all-white network today: It even has radio stations specifically targeting Asians. The Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theater also routinely give black actors key roles, even as English kings.
Yet, as evidenced by this month's general election, not all is well with race relations in Britain. As the central plank of its campaign platform, the opposition Conservative Party pledged to limit the number of immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers entering Britain. And while the Tories were again defeated, their drum-beating ó amplified by the widely read and oft-xenophobic Daily Mail ó led Tony Blair's Labour Party to promise tighter controls on immigration.
In fact, concern about erosion of the national identity has led to growing nationalism here, some of it political, more of it expressed culturally through the popularity of polls to choose the "greatest" Briton or Britain's favorite book or painting. Yet 1 in 10 of Britain's inhabitants comes from an ethnic minority background. And, just as Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities are settled here, London has become Europe's most cosmopolitan city.
This poses an issue common to much of Western Europe: how to harmonize distaste for the social impact of, say, large-scale Muslim immigration with the reality that societies are changing irreversibly. The evidence suggests that, while antidiscrimination legislation can fight overt racism, culture can serve as a positive vehicle for ethnic integration. And for this reason, many European governments do in practice subsidize minority artists.
The difference is that, while France, Denmark, Spain, Italy and others help them first as artists and only secondly as minorities, the Arts Council England has chosen to address the racial question head on. And it has good reason for doing so: Given the souring of European attitudes toward third-world immigrants, time is of the essence and, it believes, culture can do more.
"We are inviting our regularly funded organizations to work with us to promote race equality in the arts and to show how Britain's multicultural and cosmopolitan society is much enriched by many cultures and traditions," Sir Christopher Frayling, the council's chairman, said in announcing the initiative. And the first step, he added, was for these organizations, including the Arts Council England, to be themselves multiethnic.
More broadly, the council expects its grantees to create partnerships with minority artists and organizations; to advertise their programs in minority media; to attract minority audiences; to promote events for target groups, like Black History Month; and to support minority-owned businesses "wherever possible." And there is a lot more in the council's manual, which at times reads like an edict.
"Don't" ignore prayer times or dietary and alcoholic restrictions of board members from ethnic minorities. "Do" routinely integrate cast members of shows. "Don't" assume it will be difficult to attract minority audiences in areas without large minority communities. "Do" train new staff in race equality. "Don't" impose your tastes on minority artists. And so on.
True, the council is not working in a vacuum. In theater, the Birmingham Rep frequently presents plays by Asian artists, while London's West End is currently offering an all-black musical, The Big Life, and a play by a black English writer, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Elmina's Kitchen. The British Film Institute is currently honoring black filmmaking in a program called "Black World." The Victoria and Albert Museum devoted a show to black fashion last year.
That said, the Arts Council England (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own arts councils) is nonetheless taking a daring step toward social engineering. It risks charges of cultural Stalinism if it cancels grants to groups that ignore its new policy. Yet it also has in its hands an instrument that can help people of all backgrounds accept the different colors, voices, customs and rhythms of a Britain in transition.
The question now is: Will it work?
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