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  • Guest Blog: Diversifying cultural audiences by @davidjcraven

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    June 12th, 2014mardixonCulture

    Background:  After the launch of the Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport  Sajid Javid, recent report, a few of us had a … healthy discussion on Twitter.  Whilst I love Twitter, sometimes the 140 characters really limit a good debate, hence this Guest Blog.  What are your thoughts? 

    Diversifying cultural audiences

    The nature of adversarial politics has changed dramatically over the past twenty years. Where once parties argued into the night over positions that were ideologically opposed, we now seem to operate in a consensus where the argument is just who is better able to fix the problem. It’s like we all secretly agreed a narrative overnight, and now there is just accepted wisdom on the environment, on the economy, on health, on welfare, and even on culture.

    Over the past few days we have had the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Sajid Javid, followed by his shadow Harriet Harman, telling us that culture is for everyone, but that too many institutions are elitist, and that they must start trying to draw in people who are not just the white, metropolitan middle classes. I agree with the first bit, but I’m not convinced on the rest.

    Elitism or Egalitarianism?

    BritshMuseumWhile there are still exceptions, our cultural institutions from the British Museum and the Royal Opera House, to your local museum or gallery do more than ever before to make cultural experience affordable or, in many cases, free. Yet there is a notion that by maintaining any kind of intellectual or cultural rigour in this, they are indulging in ivory tower elitism, excluding the poor, excluding minorities. Yet I would argue this is the very opposite of elitism, this is a wonderful form of egalitarianism that harks back to Victorian pioneers of museums, galleries and libraries. The idea is that anyone, whatever their background, has access to culture, to knowledge, and to those accompanying experiences.

    Elitism is pretending we must ‘dumb down’ these experiences to make them relative to the target audience. I don’t believe you need to be educated at Eton to appreciate the works of Mozart, or Shakespeare, or Breughel. Nor do you need a degree in the classics before looking on the remains of past civilisations. Whenever I’ve sat in a meeting arguing for academic rigour in a free public exhibition only to be accused of elitism, I remember that I grew up a working class kid on a council estate. I remember my parents encouraging my interests in archaeology and palaeontology. I remember that museums were my best resource for that burgeoning love. If they had talked down to me, I’d have known it, and I’d have rejected the elitism underpinning such an approach. But they didn’t, and I loved them for it. They treated me the same as everyone else who came through the doors. Public cultural institutions cannot, by their very definition as public, open to all, be elitist[1].

    “The prerogative of a metropolitan elite”

    So we come to the argument that, on Twitter, led to my writing this piece. Why are museums, despite everything I’ve just said, still predominantly the preserve of the white middle classes?

    As a white, now middle class, heterosexual man I always feel that sense of guilt venturing into this territory. Do I have the right to comment? But that is a dangerous thought pattern to ever fall into, and it fosters precisely the sort of segregationist mindset we are trying to avoid. So comment I must.

    I spent ten years working in Greater Manchester, as diverse an area of Britain as you will find. In that time we worked repeatedly with schools, with community groups, to try improve engagement from ‘hard to reach’ ethnic minorities. I worked on projects designed to diversify the workforce. Yet despite this, and despite the fact similar brilliant work has been done up and down the country, we are still having the same conversations. Our best efforts have improved things, but not enough to stop politicians talking about it. Are we still not doing enough? While we can always do more, and always strive to do better, I believe cultural organisations are really striving to do their bit.

    Culture is for everyone

    I actually think there was much to admire in the new Culture Secretary’s speech, and on one thing in particular I am in full agreement. There is a fundamental problem that for many people, traditional cultural pursuits are ‘not for them’. By this I don’t mean they are incapable of enjoying art, museums, or classical music, of course they are. But at home, at school, in the media, those are avenues that are bracketed as being for other people. This surely fosters an attitude to such culture that makes it seem alien, no matter what is done to try assuage that.

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    Credit: Mar Dixon (Students on trip to Wolverhampton Art Gallery)

    I don’t know Mr Javid or Mrs Harman, and I have no reason to think their motivations are not genuine. But despite what may be the best of intentions, their speeches may actually have the opposite effect. Because someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time in museums and galleries simply hears politicians talking about how elitist, exclusive, white and middle-class they still are. Instead, they should be talking about all the great work these institutions are already doing. About how open and diverse cultural organisations can be. About why such places make them passionate (and if they are not passionate about culture, they should find a new brief). They should be working with colleagues in education to push for far greater opportunities in schools to get out of the classroom and into cultural centres. Providing funding to help more cultural organisations go into schools and open up a world of art and music.

    A career in culture and heritage can be immensely rewarding, but rarely is this reward financial. So to diversify the workforce we must first build a groundswell of passion for culture amongst the next generation. You need passion to drive you through the harder points of your prospective career. I’ve met and worked with people from all sorts of backgrounds who have that, so it’s not a pointless and fruitless task.

    Yes, cultural organisations must continue to play their part. But politicians need to change their rhetoric too, into one driven not by economics but by love.

    [1] Obviously pricing can exclude the majority of the population, but a quick google search found me affordable tickets at most major cultural institutions
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3 responses to “Guest Blog: Diversifying cultural audiences by @davidjcraven” RSS icon

  • Paul Fraser Webb

    Great article, David. I’ll start off with a couple of specifics before going into a more oblique response.

    Firstly, what do we mean by diversity? I think that the politicians too often use the word without really thinking it through. For example, I would be interested to know how well LBGT are represented in staff and audiences. I suspect (but don’t know) that cultural organisations do well. Is that diversity? Yes, it is. So what diversity are cultural institutions seen to be falling short in? Maybe the politicians are talking about more visual (skin colour) diversity?

    Secondly, I think you are very right in your points about elitism and ‘dumbing down’. I do not so much believe in the idea of equality as I do in the idea of equality of opportunity. Everybody should have the opportunity to engage with the challenging ideas that academically rigorous interpretation can give. It is the routes that the audiences take to engaging with that interpretation that we need to look at.

    Which brings me on to my main, slightly oblique point. We all exist within narratives that we participate in creating around us. When going about our daily business there are interactions that we enter into without really being aware of it because we are well practiced in that narrative and we know that the other person/people participating in the narrative are also aware of it. For example, yesterday I bought some gear oil to top up the differential on a 2000 Jaguar XJ8 (X308). It involved entering the shop, finding the correct shelf, selecting a product based on the technical specifications, having a conversation with the staff about the benefits of different viscosities & sharing a small joke about ‘sealed for life’ units, paying and then leaving. I felt at ease doing this as it is something I have been doing for about 30 years. I knew the routine, the language and the narrative that exists, as did the people I engaged with. It is almost a play in which we all know our parts. I know several people that would not cope with what was to me an everyday activity, not due to exclusivity of the shop but due to not knowing the narrative and the script. Conversely, I have been to a Subway on a few occasions and always completely fail to understand what is going on. I am not practiced in the routine that involved in getting the sandwich that I want. The staff, who are used to dealing with people who understand their part in the play, treat me like an actor that has forgotten their lines. Last time I tried to get a sandwich I felt so stressed I left empty handed. I could offer endless examples: the trope of a middle class man calling a plumber ‘mate’ to try and relate; knowing what glass to use for madeira at a formal dinner; participating in a Hebridean funeral. I think most 1970s sitcoms were based around the concept of mismatched narratives.

    The point I am coming around to is that whilst we are undoubtedly making huge efforts to engage with diverse audiences, maybe we are making the entirely wrong efforts. Maybe rather than looking at content and outreach we should be looking at narratives. Maybe sending the middle class white cis hetro male (MCWCHM) into the working class diverse school is actually enhancing rather than confronting the narrative? Do we look like missionaries saying “I come from a MCWCHM world and this is what my MCWCHM world looks like”? Which brings me to one of the points I made on twitter – the need for positive discrimination (for a time at least) both at leadership and grass-roots level. Not only to create role models and understanding but also to create new parallel narratives that more audiences can engage with.

    This says it far better than I can: http://mediadiversified.org/2013/10/21/black-people-dont-go-to-galleries-the-reproduction-of-taste-and-cultural-value/

    So maybe both us and the politicians are both right and wrong . Maybe we are making enormous efforts but they are misdirected. Maybe the politicians have a general understanding of what they want to see but have not really through the details or know what they are asking us to do.

  • Paul Fraser Webb

    BTW – I just re-read this and noticed I had missed one key point. I agree with your statement that the politicians are strengthening rather than confronting the very narrative they are criticising by talking about museums as elitist.

  • Hi David,

    Great read! It is always so refreshing to read something and get a conversation going! I’d like to preface my response with the warning that I’m responding specifically to your article, given that I’m not aware of the politicians you refer to or the policies they’ve aligned with or the speeches they’ve made. So here goes:

    In discussing elitism vs. egalitarianism you mention institutions moving towards being affordable or even free, which begs the question, is that the only way to make things accessible? While I agree art shouldn’t be dumbed down, and that people should be able to get in to see great collections, at the end of the day it’s about what art(ist) hangs on the wall? What experience/culture is represented? Of course you don’t need a degree to appreciate art, but what art are we talking about? When we think classic art, we think about Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Monet, etc., but what about artists of color? LGBT artists? What percentage of artists in the museum collection are people of color? What is the diversity (and by that I mean how varied is the collection beyond the white heterosexual man) of the collection?

    To me accessibility is about how you welcome people into your institution and what hangs on the walls. If the collection doesn’t ever speak to a different audience, other than the white heterosexual man’s experience, how does that welcome people who don’t identify with that experience? While technically, institutions may be available for anyone to enter, if they don’t show things that speak to different experiences it may as well be a closed door.

    At the end of the day if an institution does engagement that’s great, but if you keep doing the same thing with poor results, you may need a new approach. As Paul suggests, you have to rethink how you engage. Are you talking about art that relates to issues in the community that people an actually relate to?


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