Access in the Arts. Are things are getting better or worse?

Our mission statement at Get The Chance is “Creating opportunities for a diverse range of people to experience and respond to sport, arts, culture and live events.”

After the publication of the new Arts Council Wales, Corporate Plan, 2018 – 2023 “For the benefit of all” we interviewed a range of arts professionals in November 2018 to discuss the intentions of Arts Council Wales and suggest ways that their ambitions may be best realised.

A year one from this article we spent time broadly discussing the aims of the Corporate Plan and what change (if any) has occurred in the sector. The questions we asked elicited a personal response from everyone involved. We are publishing our first response below from X who has requested that we publish their response anonymously.

Hi X Can you tell us about yourself please?

Sure, I’m a performer, facilitator, theatre maker and all round professional idiot based in South Wales.

What was your personal pathway into the arts?

 Quite roundabout really! I’m from quite a privileged background and going in to the arts was considered “a waste” and the best way to end up unemployed and homeless, in my parents view. I received a lot of threats from them over the years about what would happen if I pursued it and was heavily pressured to attend a “good” University, which I dutifully did – St Andrews in Scotland. However through a combination of undiagnosed (at the time) mental health issues, lack of support network and the 2008 financial crisis I ended up unemployed and homeless anyway. So it sort of seemed silly to let worries about that stop me pursuing a career I wanted. Once I was back in a more stable living situation I took out a career development loan and went back to uni in 2013. And to give my parents their due they did assist in the paying back of said loan once I graduated.

Do you think your class; gender or ethnic background has impacted on your education or career?

 Massively. Firstly it was a barrier, which is weird when I think about it now. The arts is almost solely the playground of the middle/upper class so for there to have been a social stigma around pursuing it from the very middle/upper class background I had seems odd. For the record I went to private school in Edinburgh, almost entirely white etc etc. However I absolutely wouldn’t be in the position of where I am now where it not for my colour and class – I’m very aware of the fact that overcoming the hurdles presented by my period of homelessness (complete with arrest and criminal record as the whole thing coincided with one of many mental health breakdowns I’ve had, this being the first and the one that led to me getting a formal diagnosis) is down to my privileged background. My colour kept the charges and sentence from being too serious and my parents wealth allowed for a decent lawyer and eventually for me to easily re-enter formal education without accumulating a large debt. Basically although I have faced pretty large barriers I’d be an idiot if I didn’t also acknowledge they’d be a hell of a lot worse were it not for the fact I come from a nice comfortable rich white family. It’s just a shame none of that makes you a particularly nice person.

What have you found to be your personal barriers to accessing the arts and being able to develop a sustainable career? Is a sustainable career even possible?

My age, weirdly enough. Lots of schemes and things for newer artists are aimed at those under 25 (or at a push under 30). I’m 34 and was 28/29 when I graduated so by the time I’d found my footing professionally and started to accumulate experience to qualify I was too old for a lot of things! I mean the obvious one is my mental health, which crops up in all sorts of ways. As you’re freelance you have to stay on top of opportunities and time consuming forms, and I struggle with focus a lot so a form that might take a neurotypical person a day could easily take me a week. Then there’s the lack of any sort of confidence in myself that requires friends to read over forms for me and to reassure to its OK to send and I don’t sound strange, or weird, or crazy, or stupid. I guarantee that my responses to this will have been read over by several people before I send them to you even though I’m just writing about my own experience! It’s not exclusive to the arts but the lack of support as a freelancer is kinda hard. One barrier I come up against loads is information not being easy to find or clear: application deadlines (one application I did recently didn’t have the deadline anywhere online, google brought up ones from last year as the site hadn’t been updated, even employees got it wrong when I phone and asked), even questions and criteria (why ACW ever thought an application to look at an application form was a good idea I don’t know). Basically what I’m getting at is with any sort of mental health illness or disability every day tasks are already pretty overwhelming and tiring. Make your application as pain free as possible and information applicants need easy to find and clear. Be so upfront and clear, more than you might think you need to be. So many companies don’t even use contracts when working with freelancers, not even bothering to set out expectations of the role you’re doing and what you can expect from them in terms of support.

Man it really feels like I’m just listing every day annoyances and I suppose they are. But I guess that’s the point, these things are an irritant but or someone with my type of access issues they can be insurmountable. Even a phone call can take a whole day of build up, support and coaching. So do your best to make sure as few of these sorts of things are in the way. While I’m here, and this is from my days training to help long term unemployed people back in to work, I may as well mention that the more specific your person specification role the better, people can literally just work their way down and say how they fit each section, which helps with structuring cover letters and so on. The most accessible and person friendly job advert is one that asks for a CV and cover letter with clear person specification, in my opinion. Your person spec is your companies order, my CV is the whole shop and my cover letter is the sales assistant showing you how I stock exactly what you’re looking for. So the clearer your needs the better!

Do you feel comfortable within your personal arts environment or is the different class, gender, ethnic background or privilege of colleagues something that impacts on you?

Honestly I constantly feel like an outsider and like I don’t belong. I’m also very aware that’s a common symptom of BPD regardless of working environment but it’s one of the many buggers of mental illness that being aware of a thing as having come from it doesn’t stop you intensely feeling the thing.

Are things are getting better or worse?

In the arts or in general? In the arts I think it varies from company to company. Some companies are very understanding and adaptive and will offer things like Skype interviews for people with difficulty travelling etc. But then Welsh arts as a whole also knows really well how to seem austere and close ranks when it wants to.

On a personal level and in general I’d say getting worse. It’s been ten years since I received a formal diagnosis for an illness that kills 1 in 10 people that have it. There was little support offered to begin with and what little was there has been withdrawn and whittled away as time goes on. They’re currently referring mental health patients to the drug and alcohol services in the Vale of Glamorgan, for example, as they have free counsellors and don’t turn people away. I received a secondary diagnosis of PTSD at the start of the year but because it’s not from military service I don’t currently qualify for support under the NHS. I personally can’t think of many life threatening illnesses that are just left to get worse over time and people left without treatment but in the case of severe mental health disorders we do. It’s hard to remain cheerful or hopeful about that. And considering the great big Brexit Elephant in the room it’s hard to see it getting better any time soon.

In the new Arts Council Wales, Corporate Plan, 2018 – 2023 “For the benefit of all” there are a series of Commitments which they aim to realise by 2023. Commitment 2 states; “We will enable a greater number and a wider diversity of people to enjoy, take part and work in the publicly funded arts.”

Do you think the key areas above will be delivered and why?

It certainly seems like a positive change. They seem open to listening and have made real, genuine efforts to change, which is often the hardest step. It won’t be right first time but an arts council that is open to listening and agile enough to be reactive and make changes as needed, even if it means things next year look different to this year. Part of being reactive also means having new, radical staff and life coming in to their building regularly. The world changes so fast and so often I don’t think any position should be for longer than a few years, let alone more than a decade. They expect us as artists to respond to and integrate the world in to our work, I think we can expect the same from them.

How do you think ACW would be able to best realise their intentions?

A kinder, more welcoming application process and corporate headquarters. They want to meet with artists before they apply so make them feel welcome in the space and by the people they meet. Technically we’re all artists and capable of great things and as residents of Wales we all technically qualify for ACW funding. It’s their job to make hard decisions on a case by case basis, not create an application and corporate structure that makes people question their value as artists in the first place. Everyone’s a bloody artist, making art is a beautiful, soulful and human experience. ACW should be facilitating that ethos.  Let’s face it whatever your access barriers (gender, sexual identity, race, disability) you’ve probably had a bad time of it with traditional corporate structures and attitudes. So why any group that wants to be more welcoming, especially in the arts, would want to mimic this set up is beyond me.

From your personal lived experience what needs to change?

A friendlier face, if people are made to feel like they don’t belong from the moment they make contact, even if its done with the best of intentions of ensuring only “serious” applicants access public money, they usually just won’t engage. Which means plenty of people who should get support and funding don’t. A clearer application process that also allows people to feel like it’s ok to get it wrong and ask questions also helps, previously it felt like there was a lot of assumed knowledge and had you not access to that knowledge then you weren’t a serious artist and remained an outsider.

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