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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Cultural perversity

By Norman Lebrecht / August 22, 2001

INTO the festering confusion of British arts funding, a new criterion has ominously intruded. For half a century, the arts were sustained by a Keynesian formula with two clear aims - to raise standards and spread culture. New Labour attached two strings - access and education, harnessing the arts to its social policy. Now, an extra political virus is about to kick in.

London Arts, which disburses grants around the capital, has issued an "action plan" invoking something called Cultural Diversity as a novel precondition for administering subsidy. Under this ultimatum, arts companies will be required to monitor ethnic-minority numbers in their staff and audiences and meet LA targets for improvement, or else. "In cases where progress is poor," warns Lady Hollick, the crusading LA chair, "inevitably we will look at the implications for future levels of support."

Her threat, couched in the subterfuge of a "consultation' paper", has terrified London's orchestral community, which plays mostly white music to mostly white audiences. A symphony orchestra, like a giraffe, cannot readily convert to a grass-roots diet. If London orchestras are to be funded according to the number of non-white faces in the Festival Hall, their futures will be decidedly short.

One manager promptly challenged the policy as racist on the grounds that it does not require steel bands to report white attendances at their gigs. "This is going to be a tough one," sighed a more prudent orchestral chief, buried beneath a mountain of Arts Council equal-opportunity questionnaires. Next spring, the ACE will launch a Year of Diversity to support the new criterion.

Sombre as this sounds, there is no need to panic - not immediately at any rate. Lady Hollick's goal is admirable in principle and potentially helpful in practice to many arts groups who have failed to keep pace with London's demographic revolution. One in four central-London dwellers is now of non-European origin. The crises that perpetually beset such post-war monuments as the Royal Opera House and South Bank Centre stem from their protracted failure to adapt to population shifts.

Younger, brighter companies that wooed a mixed audience quickly prospered. Battersea Arts Centre and Broomhill Opera, two of the trendsetters, presented mix-and-match menus of high-C lyric theatre and rough-guide cultural tourism - without compromising artistic values or bothering to check anyone's ethnicity at the box office. A fascinating melting-pot culture is emerging in any number of out-of-the-way theatres, and what the funding authorities would like is to control it with slide rules and quotas.

The objectionable aspect of Lady Hollick's pale-green document is its proposed imposition of numerical ratios on all public art in the biggest metropolis on earth. The consequences can be plainly foretold. Theatre directors will be pressured in auditions to favour minority actors. A ballet troupe conducting its end-of-season cull will have to watch ethnic numbers or risk losing subsidy. Every string quartet will require a black viola player to conform with population norms, every art gallery a black madonna.

In recent weeks, London Arts has held seminars with 50 clients to discuss implementation. Reactions ranged from unfettered outrage to the egregious obsequiousness of fringe ensembles who will sign anything to earn a public buck. Once the talking was over, officials tightened the screw. "We have asked organisations to let us know this autumn how they are addressing these issues," says Greg Hilty, LA's director of arts.

The policy is anything but original. London Arts has, by its own admission, copied large chunks of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act which, while fair and enlightened, has yet to nurture a vibrant creative culture. Canada is a country held together by the mutually assured detestation of its two main communities, English and French speaking. It is hardly a global model for cultural communion.

But culture is the last consideration of those who formulate and enforce multiculturalist directives. Their aim is to create jobs for social planners and expand the thought police who patrol the frontiers of political correctness. They may care deeply for fairness and equality but, in a diverse world, their concerns are undermined by the complexities of the human condition.

What, exactly, constitutes an ethnic minority? According to the Commission for Racial Equality, it includes anyone "who may be subjected to racism, direct or indirect". According to London Arts, it includes just about anyone in the phone book. "People born in Ireland, Cyprus, the European Union, the Middle East, Central and Southern America are included in the definition 'Black and minority ethnic'," declares Lady Hollick helpfully.

Huge sighs of orchestral relief. With a little tweak of the rules, they can count Welsh, Scots and West Hampstead-born oboists as ethnic minorities and the funding wheels will grind as before. So that's all right, then? Not quite. There's another pile of forms to fill in, another artistic freedom hemmed in by bureaucracy.

3 January 2001: My manifesto for a richer life [Norman Lebrecht on government and the arts]
5 September 1998: Cut the funds, kill the Council [Norman Lebrecht on arts funding]
30 August 1997:Labour's triple whammy on the arts [Norman Lebrecht on Labour and arts funding]

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999