The Guardian’s view on diversity in the arts: Continuity matters | Editorial
Jhe reopening of London’s historic Africa Center in new premises south of the Thames is welcome news for those who remember its glory days in Covent Garden, when it became a home for political dissidents such as Desmond Tutu and Thabo Mbeki. But times change and generations pass. The design and decoration of the new center rightly challenges the idea of a monolithic Africa, with nods to Tanzania, Ghana and the Eritrean Italianate culture of its architect, Jonathan Hagos.
Whether it will thrive in its new location, only time will tell. The part of Southwark it’s in isn’t central, like Covent Garden, or a community center, like Brixton or Tottenham, both of which have their own, less flashy, black-run cultural centers. Brixton’s 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning – which is on Railton Road, the front line of the 1981 riots, and currently features the art of a hero of that era, Pearl Alcock – was founded in 1988. The center Tottenham’s artistic Bernie Grant was purpose-built. in 2007 as a multidisciplinary home for black arts.
For these established venues, struggling to make up for the losses of the pandemic, this is an anxiety-provoking time, coming at the time of the Canada Council’s funding cycle when the sector is waiting to hear which organizations have been accepted as National Portfolio Organizations (NPO s), providing them with financial security for the next three years. The Bernie Grant Center has not yet obtained NPO status, while 198CAL will reapply as part of a consortium with local photography center Photofusion.
The problem these places face is two-fold: while ticking all the boxes of growing diversity and working with young people, the unemployed and people with disabilities, they now find themselves competing with newer, more high-profile initiatives. Simultaneously, the Arts Council’s upgrade program, which aims to spread the money more widely beyond the capital, has redefined the nature of diversity, putting them one-on-one with places in other parts of the country.
While few would argue that it is wrong in principle to try to spread the money beyond the capital, in the realm of ethnic minority culture the equation is complicated. Diverse communities tend to cluster in big cities, and there is little point in pouring money into initiatives in areas where there is no population to support them.
The scarcity of strong, empowered Black and Asian leadership is another issue, with an Arts Council report last week revealing that across all nonprofit-funded organizations in 2020-21, 9% of managers were ethnic. black, Asian and ethnically diverse (compared to 21% of artists). Without this leadership, there is a danger of blitzkrieg initiatives, which never have a chance to take root and establish new visions of what a truly representative culture should look like in the 21st century.
The recent awarding of City of Culture status to Coventry and Bradford – two cities with strong personalities and well-established diverse populations – is a positive step, but one year of supercharged culture is not enough. The now-running eight-year-old Bradford Asian Literature Festival is among organizations waiting with fingers crossed to see if it will win its second NPO bid. Like so many others, she has emerged beaten but rebellious from the pandemic and needs support.