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Image - seyf.jpg

Photo of Mehrdad Seyf, the director of performance company 30 Bird Productions

Diversity, creativity and innovation - what are the links?

All this shows that diversity and equality cannot and should not be de-coupled. But the argument why this relationship is important needs to be properly fleshed out and articulated. In the recent past there have been many and legitimate ways in which those arguing for wider diversity and equality have sought to convince others – a moral case for diversity arising out of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry (it’s good for society), an economic case for diversity (it’s good for business), a legal case (it’s the law), but the creative case (it’s good for the arts) remains as yet under developed. That is not to say that it would be a hard argument to win. We believe that most people connected in the arts ‘instinctively’ understand that the dynamic between diversity and creativity and innovation lies somewhere at the heart of the artistic act – but where exactly?

Lakhbir Bhandal from the Change Institute argues that we need to put some thought into how diversity and creativity is ‘managed’ for us to reap the full benefit: "There is research into getting a heterogeneous team together and seeing if they do better than homogenous teams. They found that yes, there is more creativity in the long run but the process is complicated and difficult to manage. It’s not a given that if you throw a bunch of people together – it’s got to be quite carefully managed. If you look at arts institutions, including the Arts Council, it’s not that they aren’t diverse, but are they getting the best out of people. Is the diversity being mined in an active way? How many people in these organizations are reaching their full potential?" (Bhandal, op cit)

Bhandal found that researchers into this area have advanced the concept that each one of us is carrying different ‘knowledge domains’ conditioned by our identities and differences. The key is how we recognise and exploit these knowledge domains: "You can have a mixed gender group but a lot of men dominating, but it doesn’t mean that the women don’t have anything to offer. Unless someone is creating the conditions and that space for that knowledge to be expressed, it will remain unused."

The question that arises is how we create these optimal conditions in the arts world. Bhandal thinks that efforts by institutions such as the Arts Council have made a start and that an infrastructure of sorts has been created, but now it needs building upon. In plain talk, there is more to do: "We are still looking at changing institutions and structures and pulling down resources to get more and more people in the game and facilitate them, and to do that you have to prove that it works. No one will argue it’s not a good idea but it will remain on paper unless people can see what it’s really all about."

Bhandal argues that the arts community is diversifying along with wider society. There is a need to make sure that the different elements are there, but also to create democratic spaces where these elements can meet on a basis of equality: "There is diversity in the sense that there are different types of arts organizations but still the interface in a way isn’t there. The policies haven’t been wrong, you need black RFOs, but it’s only been half the process. On the one hand you have been creating an infrastructure but the second phase is to bring it together and I think that process has stalled. Black artists can’t integrate into those organisations unless they [the organisations] change." (Bhandal, op cit)

Of course more questions follow – crucially, how is value applied to diversity and creativity? You can measure the number of ideas generated by putting the two elements together, but what is their creative value? In short – is it worth it? Academics are starting to look at this area of work. A recent paper by cultural economists argued that diversity must be measured as a component of intrinsic value, a significant point that collapses the false opposition that has been set up in some quarters between diversity and excellence in the arts: "In the arts, perhaps above all other fields, diversity is an important requirement. Almost everyone has their own personal conception of good art. So, aside from encouraging experimentation and innovation, diversity is an important economic requirement in its own right. The arts world is as dominated by fashions and establishments as any other public sphere, and it is notoriously easy for struggling talent to be overlooked and minority tastes to be excluded. The valuation of diversity itself, as an element of rational choice, is an aspect of establishing intrinsic value that is tackled by economics. But it is entirely consistent with – and should support – artistic autonomy." (Bhandal, op cit)

Many artists seeking to relate to ‘the big fish’ in the subsidised arts sector report that an appreciation of the value of diversity in relation to artistic practice is not fully recognised or taken to heart. One barrier is how artists who offer artistic explorations rooted outside dominant practice find themselves at a disadvantage. This has been the experience of Mehrdad Seyf, the director of performance company 30 Bird Productions: "Our work is a combination of theatre, performance, visual arts, architecture, informed by where I come from – partly Iran, partly French School, and of course England. The Western world is accessible to the rest of the world, we have access to it, but the rest of the world is not as accessible to those in the West. I was told after an experimental show, ‘the next piece you do – can you do a plot with a beginning, middle and an end and characters we can recognize?’ No, I don’t want to do that. The critics are looking for ‘content’, performances and narrative. They are looking for a cathartic experience, but it’s not about that. You can have a powerful experience without catharsis. It’s not so much the Western canon in itself – but the way in which is it being used, is what needs to be fought. (Mehrdad Seyf, interview with the author, 20 February 2010)

Seyf finds that he comes sharply up against the vexed question of power. Who has the power, what are they doing with it, are they prepared to share it with others, and how do those with little or no power relate to it? He says: "The closer you get the big regularly funded companies, the more you have to bastardise your work to make it acceptable. It begs the question if they are not going to cede power to us, how do we create the work that we want, how do we challenge the establishment and have a dialogue with them at the same time?"

These barriers force Seyf in one sense to make a virtue of being ‘the other’: "You are all outside of it – this outsideness is important, even mentally I think about standing outside looking in, that is the nature of the engagement. Those of us who don’t really have a country are never quite 100%. A group of people who you cannot categorise but who have access to so many references. These in-betweeners are increasing. It’s the way of the future."

For Seyf diversity is not a formal code of conduct, rather it is preparation for a step into the unknown: "Diversity is very important, I make sure it’s there by choosing the people I work with, not preaching about it. I don’t go in saying ‘I am the Iranian director’; I come in and say ‘let’s create something’. The diversity will come hopefully in ways that surprise me."