Posted on May 16, 2005

Theatres Told: Meet Ethnic Targets or Lose Your Funding

Chris Hastings and Beth Jones, Telegraph (London), May 15

It won’t be all white on the night. The Arts Council has threatened to cut the funding of hundreds of English theatres and arts organisations unless they showcase more talent by people from the ethnic minorities.

The quango has written to 1,100 grant recipients warning that funds will depend on their ability to serve the needs ethnic minority audiences. The grant recipients, who include rural theatre companies and puppeteers — some of whom are in mainly white areas — have been sent the 110-page Race Equality Plan.

As part of the plan, arts bodies, including the National Theatre, will be expected to form partnerships with groups from the ethnic minorities and diversify audiences. The scheme has been called “Stalinist” by one critic and attacked by smaller arts bodies who fear that it will alienate local audiences.

The booklet states: “We will closely monitor the development of your action plan and your progress in meeting your race equality objectives, and future funding may include considerations on your ability to meet race equality targets.”

It also warns rural communities that the make up of their own population does not mean that they should not encourage more artists from ethnic minorities. “Don’t assume that it will be difficult to attract audiences to black and minority ethnic art in areas where there are not large black and minority ethnic communities.”

It adds: “No assumptions should be made about the kinds of art that rural communities want. They may want to experience art that is different from the art they are used to. Black and minority ethnic artists do not produce art for black and minority ethnic audiences, alone.”

The packs urge organisations to carry out a race audit and to ensure employment procedures are anti-discriminatory. It also says that organisations should ensure that “race equality permeates all aspects of the organisation, from the cafe to recruitment”.

Ronald Harwood, the Oscar-winning writer of The Pianist, said that the arts should not be used as a form of social engineering. He said that the scheme was “disgraceful” and akin to “Stalinism”.

He added: “I already know of some theatre companies who are under pressure from the council to drop work which is too white and too middle-class. The arts should not be used as an instrument of social inclusion in this way. I think it’s a disgrace.”

Jean Florence, from the Cinderford Art Space in the Forest of Dean where the population is almost 99 per cent white, said: “When I read the pack I just thought, gosh, what am I meant to do with this? We have a very small staff, one of whom is from an ethnic minority, and we have one face in our circus project who is black.”

She added: “I think that when you have an ethnic population which is small it’s almost like shooting yourself in the foot to write a policy that says you have to reflect that small minority.”

Jude Orange, a spokesman for the Norwich Puppet Theatre, which will get almost £170,000 over the next three years, said that the company was doing what it could for the local Portuguese population.

Recent statistics show that the city’s population is 97 per cent white and she was sceptical about the plan. “I think a show which caters for black and Asian people would be unlikely to find an audience in Norwich,” she said. “If every year we had to put on plays for them we would be happy to do that — but we would be playing to empty houses.”

Even without the council’s initiative, black actors and companies are making their presence felt on the nation’s stages. The National Theatre’s production of Elmina’s Kitchen by the black actor and writer Kwame Kwei-Armagh opened recently at the Garrick Theatre. It is the first play by a British black writer to make it to the commercial West End. The Big Life, Britain’s first home-grown, all-black musical, opened at the Apollo Theatre, in the West End, last week.

The Arts Council is no stranger to controversy. Sir David Hare, the author of Stuff Happens, this year branded the organisation an “insane bureaucracy” that squandered money on madcap schemes. Pauline Tambling, the council’s director of development, last night denied that the organisation was acting in a “particularly politically correct manner”. She said that it was not imposing a blanket strategy on its grant recipients but had issued advice to achieve individual goals.

“A lot of our organisations want to respond to the challenges outlined in the document but do not know how to proceed,” she said. “I think our approach is a lot more carrot than stick. Having said that, I would question any organisation which said this kind of approach was not relevant to its work”.

In 2000, the Labour Government required museums and galleries to meet a quota of ethnic visitors or face reduced funding. However, the next year, after protests, the Government abandoned the policy.