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Animated Edition - Summer 2004
The culture of diversity
Writer and producer Deborah Williams reports on her research into the needs of culturally diverse disabled artists, asks important questions that still need to be addressed and encourages us to ask them
In the search for a new way of seeing the world and challenging the status quo, cultural diversity and disability have been put on the national agenda by every respectable quango, organisation and 'body' in the arts sector. But how is this cultural of diversity going to create real change, understanding and most important of all how is it going be sustained.

For the last year I have been working on a selection of projects and programmes both national and regional looking at the options available to Disabled, Culturally Diverse and culturally Diverse Disabled Arts professionals across art form and at different levels in the sector. The findings have managed to raise more questions than answers. Some were old, some were new and many a fore-gone conclusion.

One of my most recent pieces of research has been to look at the position that Culturally Diverse Disabled artists find themselves in as a group and as individuals. The first and most direct question that I want to ask about this group, in which I included myself until the end of last year, is where are they?

As a rule groups of people identified by society as being disadvantaged and marginalised are just that, groups.You know where to find them, it's just that no one has ever been looking for them that has created the barriers and problems; but once the spotlight is turned on them then, BANG! Doors open and opportunities arise. However, how does that work when you have no idea where these professionals and artists are? When the 'group' is a mish-mash, hotchpotch selection of people who are just out there somewhere, doing something arts related and not really engaging with the inner spectre of the 'arts funding', 'professional development' and 'professional' sectors? Do we only exist as artists if a funder or regularly funded organisation knows about us?

My second question is, what is cultural diversity? Over the last 18 months the funding system has changed on many levels, the biggest one being a concerted effort to include all cultures and forms of artistic expression in the wider more 'mainstream' sector - be it Eclipse, Glass Ceiling or Decibel, all the stops were pulled out to create opportunity and offer choices, but on who's terms; and within whose definitions?In order to keep disability on the agenda it was included as a culture, the work that is identified as disability arts has to be created by people who are disabled, the sense of understanding has become increasingly more identifiable as a diversity that should be respected. This is quite right in most cases, but what happens when you are not white, western European or English born? When you want to talk about race, ethnicity, prejudice through your work in a disability setting? Alternatively, when you as one person have many layers that need to be explored and opened up, but there is no box to tick on a one-box tick form, which one do you opt for? Do you become a radical by ticking two boxes and writing on the 'OTHER' line?

The scramble for funds and getting in before the money runs out has led to the strange phenomena where cultures and diversities are fighting against one another as opposed to joining forces and looking at the bigger picture. I ask you what does one do when you are attacked as getting an unfair advantage because you are ' black, Asian or Chinese' and those cultures take precedence over disability. Can one person have two cultures? Is that allowed in the arts?

The third question is whose identity. Similar to the discovery late in the day of cultural diversity as something in its own right, identity is going through that same process now of being thrust onto a person and used to box them and create a community or place for them to live in. What if the person has chosen to be an artist, is happy dancing and working in the sector as they choose? Never engaging with disability arts or 'black dance, south Asian dance, Chinese opera or Butoh?' What then does one call them? Are they allowed to call it as they see it and decide or does it always have to come with a clause and a course? Where is the artist's choice? Maybe they jut want to be a dancer, actor or manager, with no strings attached.

Don't get me wrong there have been developments and improvements, in fact they have been thick and fast. There are now more disabled artists securing funding for projects, capital and touring in the country and across the art forms than there were even five years ago. Companies who were once destined to stay in small scale and community touring, on low budgets and with work that was screaming out for a wider more diverse audience are now being supported and encouraged to upgrade to the middle-scale and in some cases international scale.

The same is happening with the Arts Council England defined, culturally diverse work, no one will ever be able to say that there are no black, Asian or Chinese choreographers and lead companies producing quality work again, because it is just not true. The Eclipse theatre-touring network is opening doors and will soon, I suggest, have a parallel in the dance sector and then the barriers will really begin to fall.

However, what about those of us who cover both sections but do not fit into either?

As I have said, many more questions than answers were brought up over the last year... Some of the gaps were filled as the work went on, in that there are a small group of people scattered around the country who are thinking about these issues and the needs of arts professionals in this tricky position. They are trying, in their CPD programmes, programming for events or in employment and recruitment practices to think and deliver based on the people who come through their doors and the needs described or identified. I do believe that the results will bear fruit, but not for another ten years, if we are lucky and keep on pushing.

Then there are the artists who just do. Creating new companies and developing community based work, (which is of course where all great things start), working in schools and with young people, redefining what it means to have layers or multiple identities and work with people on their own terms, and in relation to their own leisure and pace.

It is fair to expect a comprehensive development plan from any sector or organisation within it when arts and arts funding are in such a flux about something it is not defining or acknowledging. Nor is it just to ask the artists who identify or are identified as being culturally diverse disabled artists or arts professionals to have all the answers readily available. After all, one man's expression is another's oppression.

But the questions do have to be asked and answers sought, for until we acknowledge there is ignorance on all levels with there subjects, a wider understanding of what diversity really means will not happen, which in turn will continue to feed the cycle of 'you are who I say' as opposed to 'you are who you want to be'.

There is no shame in saying I don't know, or I don't understand, because the help is out there and its not anywhere near as complicated as we have all been led to believe.

Why not have a specific event targeting artists from these backgrounds? Talk to an organisation in your region or art form that works in Disability or Cultural Diversity, start a debate, a conversation or do some research. It does not have to be enormous. Something local to you will do, it will start a ball rolling. Be pro-active, go out and find artists, good artists who's work you like. Get out and see work that you would not usually create, something with them as opposed to for them. That s the best way to learn how to work with and gain an insight, the same as with any other artist, root out work wherever it may be. Only when these real barriers are broken down will a sustainable future be created for the opportunity of all who work in the arts not just those defined by a box ticked on a form and held in a filling cabinet somewhere.

Deborah Williams is a writer, consultant and producer. Contact 020 7681 7160 or email

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Animated: Summer 2004