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A new study completed in the UK and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council reveals — and you might want to sit down for this — that there remains massive underrepresentation of black and minority ethnic workers in the arts, especially if they also have working-class roots. The study, released last week, is part of the Panic! It’s an Arts Emergency project led by Create London and sociologists from the Universities of Edinburgh and Sheffield.
Lead authors Dr. Orian Brook, Dr. David O’Brien, and Dr. Mark Taylor drew upon several academic papers for their study, as well as data from the 2015 “Panic! What happened to social mobility in the arts?” survey, which yielded 2,487 unique responses from cultural workers. The 2018 report, titled “Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries,” presents the analysis of the 2015 data regarding cultural and creative workers’ values and attitudes, with the pool of respondents coming from public and private arts institutions across the UK.
The authors used this data to examine inequities in the creative and arts sector, analyzing employees’ beliefs in meritocracy, the exclusion of people from working-class origins, unpaid labor, and an “unrepresentative” creative class with respect to cultural attitudes, values, and tastes. These are issues that most people who work in the sector might recognize intuitively, but the study’s authors feel there is a definite benefit in compiling hard data on the conditions that form unequal representation for black and minority ethnic communities in the arts, as well as those from lower social classes.
“I think our main aim is data- and evidence-led, or maybe informed, decision making,” said Dr. O’Brien, in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “Much of the debate ends up as one person’s anecdote against another’s, so we’re hopeful data can clarify the state of several different types of inequality in arts and culture. The obvious changes would be about making cultural jobs more equal and open to all. However, in order to do that there’s a much bigger debate about the purpose and function of culture in society that needs to happen.”
Respondents were asked to rank the following factors in levels of importance for getting a job within the arts: coming from a wealthy family, having well-educated parents, being well educated, having ambition, hard work, knowing the right people, your talent, your ethnic group, your gender, your class, and your religion. Those who believed in meritocracy said hard work, ambition, and talent were the dominant factors in getting in and getting ahead in the creative sector. Others rated social networks, connections, and aspects of race, gender, and class — reasons collectively labeled as “social replicators”— to be major drivers of success. Thirty percent of respondents trended toward ideas of meritocracy and another 34% believed in a combination of meritocracy and social replication. According to the study, “those who most believed in meritocracy … were those being paid more than £50,000 [~$69,000] per year.”
Apparently the concept of “social mobility” has never been strongly present within the art world. According to the study, the workforce demographics of creative industries in the UK demonstrate a major underrepresentation of black and minority ethnic employees across a number of occupations: in museums, galleries, and libraries they make up only 2.7% of the workforce. However, whereas “almost every occupational sector has an underrepresentation of women in its workforce,” museums, galleries, and libraries are exceptions, with 64.8% of their collective workforce being women (as opposed to 14.3% in sectors like IT, Software, and Computer Services, and 28.4% in Film, TV, and Radio).
These results are perhaps unsurprising when, as laid out in the study, many points of access to creative industry jobs or networks involve a system of transactional free, volunteer, or internship labor. Obviously, those from higher social classes are better equipped to withstand the short-term impacts of unpaid labor, enabling the pursuit of long-term professional gains, while those of working class backgrounds are more likely to view unpaid work as an inescapable form of exploitation.
“I think the paper sets a real challenge to people working in and setting policy for cultural organisations to be reflective about their own set of assumptions about what is culture, what it is to be a cultured person, and how these things are demonstrated — especially when it comes to recruitment,” said Dr. Brook, in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “If they think their own success is down to talent and hard work, then they see it as reasonable to expect people to do unpaid internships in the same way that they did, or have the same set of cultural references and tastes that they do, and it’s a delicate balance to challenge them to think outside their own experience without seeing it as dumbing down, or as an attack on their own merit.”
These statistics might also hold the key to why, despite efforts to engage black and minority ethnic audiences, cultural institutions continue to struggle to connect with these communities.
“Everyone has an everyday cultural life, the issue is institutions tend not to be interested in the broader definition of culture that respects people’s everyday lives,” explained O’Brien. “Rather they frame people as having a deficit for not coming to the institutional cultural offer and seek to change the potential audience, rather than change their institutions. Cultural organisations embracing a much broader and bolder definition of what culture is deemed legitimate, especially in relation to gender and ethnicity, would make communities feel a greater sense of ownership and thus could be one way (amongst many) to attract a diverse workforce.”
Sometimes research creates paradigm-shifting breakthroughs, and sometimes it simply gets hung up in endlessly defining the problem. With this new data on inequities in UK’s creative fields laid out so clearly in black and white, what remains to be seen is whether or not awareness of these problems can foster meaningful changes within the system.
Create London and the Barbican will convene on for a discussion at the Barbican Centre (Silk St, London) on Sunday, June 27 to publicly reflect on the content of this report.