In the second of our provocations leading up to our 2021 Conference, we asked “How has the pandemic impacted EDI in the arts and heritage sector? Positively, negatively or not at all?”
It wasn’t good news, with 79% of respondents saying EDI had been negatively impacted. This combined poll results from across Facebook, Twitter and the AMA website.
But what’s behind the numbers? Two themes emerged – one, the impact on our sector workforce, and the other the impact on audiences.
Equality, diversity and inclusion have been a priority for most of the UK’s national arts funding organisations for years. Arts Council England’s new Let’s Create strategy foregrounds inclusion and relevance as a key funding principle, and their Creative Case for Diversity was published in 2015. Creative Scotland has a 10 year plan spanning 2013-2024 in which their Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion Connecting Theme features prominently. Arts Council of Wales has a Strategic Equality Action Plan, while Arts Council Northern Ireland published an Equality Scheme Action Plan in 2019. So in theory, the arts sector (or certainly the publicly funded aspects) in the UK should have EDI “baked in”. Yet even before the pandemic there was a long way to go, and progress was slow.
Both our workforce and our audiences operate in a social context, as well as our own sector-specific context. Looking at the bigger picture, combined with the contribution of the pandemic, progress has not only been slow but possibly even gone backwards…
- In a report published in March this year, the European Commission found “The pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities between women and men in almost all areas of life, both in Europe and beyond, rolling back on the hard-won achievements of past years.”
- In the UK, we’ve seen economic inequality worsen in our lifetimes. Income inequality has increased by 2.2 percentage points in the 10-year period leading up to financial year ending 20201. 23% of the most deprived local authorities in England are currently not prioritised for the £8.77bn levelling up funding.
- We’ve also seen racial equality slide, with the recent 2021 Runnymede Trust report identifying that racial inequalities are worse now than when they submitted their previous shadow report in 2016 – and claimed the government approaches to racial inequalities is making it worse.
- The pandemic further highlighted racial inequalities with the mortality rate from Covid-19 being 3.5 times higher among people of black African descent in English hospitals compared to rates among white British people. In Wales, males of Black African ethnic background had a death rate from Covid-19 that was 2.7 times higher than males of White ethnic background.
- People of colour are twice as likely to be in frontline roles and therefore exposed to more risk – for example, people from non-white racial background make up 4.5% of the English population yet comprise 21% of the National Health Service (NHS) workforce.
- Gender inequalities were also highlighted in the pandemic. 76% of healthcare and social-care workers and 86% of personal care workers in health services are women, facing more frontline risk exposure. At home, during lockdown, the bulk of care-giving and domestic duties fell disproportionately on women.
This paints quite a gloomy story of our wider social context. In the context of the points raised above, it’s clear that government action is not successfully making progress to address inequality. So for change to happen, it will need to be driven by demand. Mid-pandemic, in 2020, the death of George Floyd thrust Black Lives Matter (which had been active since 2013) into the foreground, providing a way for the public to channel some anger at the racial injustice, with huge numbers of people – and arts organisations – speaking out in support. But a year on from George Floyd’s death, has this been backed up with action?
The recent publication of Barbican Stories shows that there is more of an expectation of accountability – where commitments and supportive words are not backed up with action, there will be a reckoning. The arts and culture sector needs to look within itself to make sure workplaces are fit for their EDI purpose. Organisations ignore this at their peril.
A number of respondents to the poll commented that our sector is not good at “walking the talk”, and the pandemic has made this worse.
“The pandemic has shone a light and created the space for discriminatory practices to come to the surface. The downside is that due to lack of activity, those individuals are the ones who may leave the sector, given they were likely to be freelance, or not on contracts where they could be furloughed”.
“The remaining Professional Creatives will be those who can afford to continue practicing thanks to pre-existing privilege, either through already being “a name”, nepotism and/or wealth. This was already the case but the pandemic has exasperated the massive inequalities in the arts sector… Equality of opportunity and progression for the majority is non-existent – and the pandemic means the situation is more desperate than ever.”
“In museums, short contracts and badly paid jobs have increased – these are impossible for many people leading to quite a homogenised workforce! We have more orgs doing lip service to EDI but as soon as someone asks for a reasonable adjustment for interviews it’s all shut down.”
This highlights the threat that unless the arts and culture sector is more proactive, what progress had been made is at risk of being lost – the EDI agenda must be at the forefront of organisations’ strategic thinking and hardwired into policies. Organisations need to be held accountable and start doing things differently. For the arts sector to attract and retain the best talent, from across the whole of society, change needs to happen. We’ll be talking more about this, and how we can influence that change in our roles, at AMA Conference 2021.
Where more positive comments were found, these related to audiences and digital access in the main. It was encouraging that at least some organisations were able to make the most of the time spent in lockdown to explore EDI further.
“I think it’s a double-edged sword. In some respects, it has improved, for example, with online events / activities for those housebound with live captioning etc. But the digital divide has widened so it has got worse for those without the skills or the equipment to get online.”
“Although there are still a lot of people who don’t have access to the internet, having events be live streamed is helpful for those of us who have conditions that make it difficult for us to go out.”
“Speaking for my own organisation, the pandemic has given us a little extra time to consider our EDI strategies and operation and look at how we can improve. I’ve certainly benefited from having the time to talk with other venues in order to develop a plan that will ultimately be of benefit to our audience”
One respondent observed that some of the benefits of digital access remain to be seen:
“Surely it’s too soon to tell? Seems many changes were made out of necessity to respond to coronavirus restrictions, rather than from conscious desire to improve EDI. So test will be whether orgs keep these changes or resort back to the “old normal” as we move out of restrictions”.
The overall picture this provocation shows is that as a sector, we have a long way to go. The pandemic needs to be a call to action which we all heed. How we adapt our practices and ways of working – internally and with our audiences – will ultimately determine whether arts, culture and heritage is something which has relevance to a wide audience… or contributes to a decline in engagement and loss of value.