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21st June 2017 Bea Udeh

The Heart of the Matter #ADA


The Audience Diversity Academy has come at a critical time of change for Sarah Robertson, ADA 2.0 Fellow at Colston Hall, Bristol and issues around diversity and inclusion are at the heart of this shift.

I’ve come to realise that my organisation could be doing more to address the needs and wants of Bristol’s diverse communities. We’re not slacking by any means, and our education output and engagement work, especially around performers with special education needs and disabilities, is a national exemplar at our level. But at some level our response to diversity is centred around what works for us on an organisational level, rather than what the people of Bristol want us to do for them.

This thinking is encompassed by a huge issue on which the Hall and our team has taken courageous, and to some, controversial, action.

In April 2017, Bristol Music Trust announced that the venue which we run, Colston Hall, will reopen under a new name when our transformed building reopens in spring 2020 after an ambitious capital project.

Edward Colston was a renowned 17th century slave trader who is seen as a figurehead of Bristol’s merchant past. He was a huge philanthropist in the city, founding schools and alms-houses. His name appears on streets and statues.

Our concert hall opened in 1867, 146 years after Edward Colston died. None of his money was used to fund the build. Yet we were named after him and as an arts venue, with a remit to be open and welcoming to all, this is a problem.

Many in BAME communities will not attend and engage with our artistic programme because of the name Colston. This is clearly a barrier to participation and engagement – our BAME attendances are below the Bristol population and many high profile BAME artists and civic leaders refuse to be associated with us because of the name. Some of our staff members even have family members who won’t attend the venue.

So, in April, Bristol Music Trust and its Trustees acted upon its longstanding desire to make a change and announced that we will not be called Colston Hall in 2020. There has been a huge amount of comment on the issue from stakeholders and the public, not all supportive of our change. It is the implications of this move that I want to explore within the Audience Diversity Academy.

How can we address this issue with our audiences in a creative and artistic way that gives communities a sense of belonging? How can we recognise the issue of Colston in a way that isn’t erasing our past? What do audiences want from us and how can we serve them better with our music and outreach programmes?

These implications are not just felt by our audiences, it has affected the organisation internally too. How can we support our staff through what has been a destabilising time? Who are our allies? How can we use this experience to grow stronger and more resilient as an organisation?

These are huge issues that, with the help of my mentor, I will be working to break down into smaller, more manageable, less daunting chunks. I also hope this process will be able to help me reflect on what has been a challenging process!