Are the arts reserved for the privileged? / by Peju Oshin

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This post is based on personal experiences, industry insight, passion and the understanding that change doesn’t happen with silence.

The creative arts.

Something I LIVE for. Since graduating and especially with my work in the Culture & Heritage sector over the past year I honestly couldn’t imagine being involved in any other industry. Based on my past working experiences I know I would go into meltdown if I didn’t have a regular creative outlet/stimulation on a daily basis.

Taking the latter into consideration I have understandably started to think more and more about the concept of accessibility. It’s a double edged sword because I hate the term ‘accessibility’ because more than often I think it is a buzz word used by a lot of people sector wide to try and make themselves appear empathetic to the plight of BAME groups, the working class or disabled. However, every sector/profession has its jargon and sometimes you have to roll with it in order to make yourself understood by your peers.

“Creativity is the equivalent of a rich dark chocolate pudding with a melting centre served with a honeycomb ice cream – it would be foolish not to indulge in its gloriousness.”

In February of last year I attended a special edition of the BBC’s question time which focused around the arts (episode filmed on 24/02/15 , aired on 01/03/15 on BBC 4).

During or rather just before filming began we were asked to talk amongst ourselves and talk to someone we didn’t know. It was to say the least reminiscent of attending Pentecostal churches where the Pastor would ask you turn around and tell your neighbour “you are blessed”. Less I digress. I turned around and spoke to a woman who asked me what I did to which I replied “I’m an interior designer” – now for anyone who knows me personally or follows my work they will know that my creativity stems much further than that as I ultimately like to think of myself as a kind of “Design Gypsy” moving across disciplines to give my work further depth. I am the biggest believer of collaboration and cross disciplinary work. Creativity is the equivalent of a rich dark chocolate pudding with a melting centre served with a honeycomb ice cream – it would be foolish not to indulge in its gloriousness.

However, upon revealing what I’d chosen to do for a day job I was met with a pause.

A pause, yes people a pause.

Anyone would have thought I’d told her I run a sweatshop. Her response prompted me to think “Is working within Interior Design not artsy/creative enough?”

As we got into the thick of the debate the hot topic of the night was:

“Are the arts reserved for the privileged?”

A question I’d like you as readers to take in and think about.

My response to the latter is something that can only be shaped by my personal experiences. I am always very mindful of not trying to be the spokesperson for a group of people as individual experiences vary depending on circumstances. And circumstances play a key factor in this debate.

As mentioned in a previous post Not Black enough? I’ve lived and grown up in council estates/housing associations my entire life. I’m a Londoner – a Southwark girl through and through and with that in mind I attach a huge importance to communities and the wellbeing of people. My experience of living in this environment gives me a little bit more of a balanced view on this topic. Over the years I have amassed cultural capital that has made me a well-rounded person and put me in a position where I now straddle the fence with one leg in and the other out. Essentially I haven’t quite made it just yet, but I’ve had enough to edge me onto the fence.

“you uproot your entire life and move halfway across the world where you are a minority and are aware your children may be treated differently because they don’t resemble the indigenous population”

Coming from a Nigerian background, looking specifically at my parents they’ve always wanted their children to take advantage of all available opportunities to broaden our horizons. But having said that, something that is common to not just those of Nigerian or African heritage but rather so children of immigrants is that often the arts are not taken seriously by our parents. This is not down to ignorance at all, but more so out of love for their children. Think about it in this context – you uproot your entire life and move halfway across the world where you are a minority and are aware your children may be treated differently because they don’t resemble the indigenous population. You are aware that people may make things difficult for them no matter how bright they are. You have experienced struggles in this new country and have possibly had to take a job of lower status than the one you had in your country of origin. Your children stand as your legacy and you are going to make damn well sure that they are working in ‘respected’ jobs just like their ‘British’ counterparts. Alas the children of working class immigrants who aspire to middle class values have in the past and still do favour white collar jobs. In conversations fuelled with jest a lot of my friends from BAME backgrounds and myself often talk about our parents hopes for us to enter into Law, Medicine, Finance and other things of a similar vein. For our parents it’s often a source of pride that their children have made ‘made it’ in a foreign land so unfortunately the arts are often side lined as a pastime and are rarely encouraged as a full time pursuit.

As a young child I remember going to acting classes at the Young Vic and attending the CYM (Centre for Young Musicians) where I learnt to read music and play a classical woodwind instrument eventually leading to a performance at the Barbican. Funnily enough the same stage I performed on as a child was the same stage I walked across during my graduation ceremony in 2014. It’s strange how these things come around full circle.

“I can see that I am not alone in my questioning of how the arts as a whole operate”

As I look back now I feel somewhat lucky as during my formative years there was an influx of creative influences in my life which came from school, the help of the council as well as my parents. I believe these experiences helped me to achieve better grades than a lot of my classmates and the proof came in the form of end of term certificates and exam results although on parent’s evenings I remember seeing frequently in my reports “Peju is very bright but quite chatty in class” which of course drove my mum crazy.

However as someone making my way through the creative arts and now specifically in the Heritage & Culture sector which I have grown to love wildly and have spent the past year building a foundation in, as I talk to others who are doing the same I can see that I am not alone in my questioning of how the arts as a whole operate.

One of the key issues a lot of creatives have is the Internship culture. A lot of new graduates enter into internships for the love of their craft. But more than often this love of their craft and the eagerness to learn is often exploited by employers who more than often expect a lot of newbies to work for a pittance but still produce work which they will present to their clients under their brands. WE are grateful for the opportunities to gain an insight into industry but there must be an element of realism in the fact that we live in London. The capital ranked at number 72 in the world’s most liveable cities according to mercer. So take into consideration coming from a low income family, being saddled with universities fees and practically killing yourself working a full time internships which maybe caps your travel and lunch expenses and still having to work outside of that it’s no wonder that so many opt to go for careers in law and finance etc.

“more needs to be done in order to stay true to the manifestos and mission statements of many organisations and institutions who talk about their commitment to engaging all”

Over the past few weeks I have been able to talk to a lot of ECP’s (Early Career Professionals) like myself on the state of the sector as well as being involved in a conversation about the civic role of arts organisations. Between myself and my peers and it is clear that there needs to be a lot more done to keep the arts alive and open for those whose families who are not well informed about the opportunities and benefits relating to the sector.

So when the argument of whether the arts are only being enjoyed by a few I have some thoughts on the matter:

  1. Because ethnic minorities or those from working class backgrounds don’t take an overriding interest in visiting galleries and museums (something I’d like to eventually change) can the music that they listen to and record or the soaps and television dramas they watch be excluded from what is defined as the arts?

  2. Why are ethnic minorities and those from working class backgrounds less likely to visit culture and arts spaces especially in major cities where it is claimed that we have a melting pot of cultures?

  3. Culture and the arts are an integral part of any society as it expresses the feel and feelings of a people through sound, imagery and other tangible entities. It is a form of storytelling, a method of communication that beautifully travels across cultures informing people of alternate ways of life in light of language barriers.

 

So back to the title topic – Are arts reserved for the privileged? Well in a nutshell YES.  There are a number of issues surrounding this from the type of jobs that are available to people from diverse backgrounds who don’t necessarily have the ‘right’ qualifications all the way through to community outreach schemes/audience engagement and perhaps my favourite the permanent collections of museums and galleries.

With regards to traineeships and development programmes which aim to tackle the lack of diversity in the sector we have quite a good start. But more needs to be done in order to stay true to the manifestos and mission statements of many organisations and institutions who talk about their commitment to engaging all.

We have a number of museums and galleries across the capital in particular who occasionally invite young people/community groups from diverse backgrounds into their spaces to programme events and activities but where is the continuity? Once that young person or community member has finished a project how likely are they to sustain contact with the organisation and continue visiting?

I have worked in the learning department of a museum for the past year developing and delivering workshops based around the museum’s collections and see just how vital education in these environments is and how equally important it should be in schools across the UK. Arts and creativity are things that should be easily accessible for all to ACTIVELY participate in and influence.

“The arts and the way we consume it is changing rapidly and it is now for the sector as a whole with all of its sub categories to catch up.”

Over the past year I have developed a keen interest on how departments can work collaboratively in institutions/organisations looking specifically at learning and curatorial to focus on how permanent collections of these spaces can be adapted and changed in order to bring new audience members into spaces and be more reflective of the communities they serve rather than forcing engagement with items that do not resonate with potential audiences.

The arts and the way we consume it is changing rapidly and it is now for the sector as a whole with all of its sub categories to catch up. I of course acknowledge the fact that the sector is generally paid pretty poorly but there must be more done to support these bright young things from varying backgrounds to really be able to create a legacy in the sector. At present many people are being alienated from exploring career paths because they simply cannot afford to work in the sector which ultimately leads to a lack of diversity at entry level and going up the command chain which of course means no diversity at the top where we have decision makers.

As someone still navigating through but with a pretty clear idea of some of the changes I would like to make I see this as a real low point for the arts having lived and worked in it. In the future I hope to see more diversity in our established institutions and organisations in order to reflect the wealth of experience and ideas that are out there but don’t have the support or means of contact to get them off the ground. This also extends to the type of people one may find in these environments who have exactly the same life experiences and background which ultimately leads to a regurgitation of ideas and a focus on the same causes.

Art serves us all and more needs to be done to blur the lines between the traditional and non-traditional not just in terms of some of the “edgy” galleries that show provocative work but in terms of people, education and feeling.