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painting of a black woman in a bright print dress holding her hands up

Sonia Boyce, 'She Aint Holding Them Up, She's Holding On (Some English Rose)', 1986, conte pastel and crayon on paper

'Diversity Lite' – inequality is still the issue

There has been criticism that often ‘diversity’ within arts institutions and the wider art world has been confined to specific micro-policies, while the bigger policy and operational areas have failed to integrate equality and diversity into their work. So while institutions can point to their diversity policies, major inequalities in reality may still remain. In fact, diversity is not the problem. Diversity exists; it does not have to be created.

The issue is inequality within a diverse society, and diverse arts community, and within its history, its practice and critical debate, some are far more equal than others. This presents the paradox of the creative process, diversity rich in inspiration, but the distribution and consumption of the creative product being delivered in the main through a network of exclusive clubs.

The issues of diversity and equality do need to be integrated into the bigger questions that we face. For example, there needs to be more conscious scrutiny of the economic and infrastructure models that are pursued in the arts and their impact on artistic practice, diversity and creativity. The ‘creative cities’ model was outlined in the urban studies theorist Richard Florida’s book 'The Rise of the Creative Class' (Basic Books, New York, 2002) and has had a profound influence internationally on politicians and town planners seeking to regenerate inner cities.

One study summarised Florida’s argument thus: "Diverse, tolerant, cool cities do better. Places with more ethnic minorities, gay people and counter-culturalists will attract high skilled professionals, and thus get the best jobs and most dynamic companies. And Florida seems to have sheaves of data to back it all up." (Max Nathan, ‘The Wrong Stuff: Creative Class Theory, Diversity and City Performance’, in The Centre for Cities, discussion paper no 1, September 2005, p 1)

The study goes on to note that: "Some cities and states are already putting Florida’s ideas into practice – Michigan, Cleveland and Philadelphia have all launched ‘cool cities’ initiatives, for example. In the UK, Liverpool is now considering creating a ‘Gay Quarter’. Dundee has zoned a new ‘Cultural Quarter’ next to the city centre.

Florida argued that cities need economic policies to attract and nurture the ‘creative class’ that is the dynamic hub of the model. On the face of it, this sounds ideal – urban regeneration built around a concept of diversity. Yet as many observers have pointed out – diversity without increased equality may be seen as no more than ‘diversity lite’. Some academics and critics have argued that the meritocracy and coolness of Florida’s creative class rests upon continued inequalities at the base of society. Jamie Peck has observed that:

At various points, Florida concedes that the crowding of creatives into gentrifying neighborhoods might generate inflationary housing-market pressures, that not only run the risk of eroding the diversity that the Creative Class craves but, worse still, could smother the fragile ecology of creativity itself. He reminds his readers that they depend on an army of service workers trapped in ‘low-end jobs that pay poorly because they are not creative jobs’, while pointing soberly to the fact that the most creative places tend also to exhibit the most extensive forms of socio-economic inequality. (Jamie Peck, ‘Struggling with the Creative Class’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research Journal Compilation, vol 29, 2005, p 741)

Lakhbir Bhandal, a Director of the Change Institute, who has been looking at the connections between diversity, creativity and innovation, puts it this way: "Florida is saying that people want to live in places that are multicultural and diverse and open to all sorts of people but then he says black people don’t benefit in those societies. They create a nice backdrop for the others, without benefiting themselves. It doesn’t necessarily follow from diversity that equality results." (Lakhbir Bhandal, interview with the author, 3 March 2010)

The creative class is drawn from the creative industries, which are themselves seen as an important driver for the British economy. Yet it is widely recognised that the creative industries have an ongoing problem with diversifying themselves. Creative and Cultural Skills points out that ‘The sector is 95 percent white and 65 percent male.’ (Barbara Gunnell and Martin Bright, eds, ‘A New Deal of the Mind Report’, in 'Creative Survival in Hard Times, Arts Council England' March 2010, p 23)

An Arts Council commissioned study talked to the student pressure body The Arts Group, revealing: "In a survey of its graduate members, The Arts Group found that the significance of contacts and networking was even higher. Kit Friend, the group’s communication officer, told us: ‘Networking remains the key method – around 80 percent – of finding opportunities, effectively perpetuating closed circles of contacts dominated by the middle classes. As long as there is no properly structured and accessible recruitment path, we will not be able to open up opportunities to those with talent. We appear to be heading quite willingly into a model where those who can afford to pay [by being able to undertake unpaid internships] are able to access the best paths to the creative sector."

An Arts Group study found that sectors that are part of the creative industries exhibit structural inequalities which go beyond crude ‘head-counts’: "The evidence also points to a clear occupational skewing of BME [Black and Minority Ethnic Community Services]... For example, in the film industry, much BME employment is accounted for at the exhibition and distribution end of the value chain, whilst BME employees are less likely to hold more senior positions."

It is clearly not the case that Black and Asian creative businesses are ghettoising themselves, and need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make more of an effort to break into ‘white’ networks. The doors must feel shut to them.