“The arts world has turned working-class people into a problem to be solved rather than audience members or artists to be developed."
Javaad Alipoor, 2018
I had every intention of starting this story talking about my experiences of being working class. Then I read this from Javaad Alipoor, “what is weird is the way that working-class artists talk about ourselves: our conversations always seem to begin with someone telling me how hard they had it growing up” (Alipoor, 2018). I wasn’t going to begin with a Dickensian tale of working class poverty, but I felt the urge to try and explain my background and almost justify my identity.
My working class-ness is a core part of my identity that influences how I connect with the world. It is integral to my professional practice. It is a deciding factor in the spaces in which I feel comfortable; and the norms I accept in my world. It weaves between other key aspects of my identity, my identity as a woman, the privilege I have as a white person and connects them together.
I am an anomaly in a creative leadership position. The majority of this country’s artistic directors and creative leaders are white, privately educated men (Alipoor, 2018) and unless we do something, it is likely to stay that way. People from lower socio-economic backgrounds make up 12-18% of the creative workforce in general (Brown, 2018), and then, even if we do rise to management levels, we are still more likely to be paid less than those from more affluent backgrounds. On average, people who come from working class backgrounds are paid 17% less than those who do not (Social Mobility Commission, 2017). In London, 96% of all jobs in the creative sector are held by someone who identifies as middle class or above. (Halls, 2018).
Obviously in London there are other issues at play, such as a huge lack of affordable housing; but this lack of representation is prevalent across the country. In the arts and cultural sector, we create a participation ceiling which purports systemic under representation. All too often we create 'engagement' programmes which only exist to achieve social outcomes to show our art is worthwhile and appealing to funders. We inflict arts upon people without fully understanding communities, or without considering what we might awaken. We create participants who need arts to heal, we're not supporting artists.
This brings us back to the Alipoor quote, “the arts world has turned working-class people into a problem to be solved rather than audience members or artists to be developed” (Alipoor, 2018). By fetishising working class people for the social outcomes of our engagement projects, we see working class communities as participants rather than artists who we can support and develop, and we reinforce ideas around what a traditional arts engager looks like. Rather than creating arts spaces where people feel safe, often we create bigger divides between who belongs and who is there for charitable purposes.
“Privileged people are curating a white, privileged art scene. Because it’s all about middle-class assimilation. Which means we’re kept out. The language creates barriers. The buildings make you feel unwelcome. The prices are alienating. My mum feels threatened in places that have fabric napkins, let alone in buildings that have words on the wall describing post-rationalism. They create these castles and fortresses because, ultimately, they don’t want people like my mum to break in. We’re too disruptive. We talk too loudly. We touch things we’re not meant to. We don’t play by the rules.” these are the words of Scottee, a theatre practitioner interviewed by GQ (Halls, 2018) .
No one tells you how to behave in an arts space. I have worked in the arts for most of my professional life, but I do not feel at home in galleries. I don’t understand how to behave, even if something is free can I just walk in and look at the art? I feel uneasy when I step in because I don’t know if the person in the room is a guard watching me, is looking after me in case of emergencies or if I’m supposed to ask them questions about the art. What if I’m understanding the art wrong? I am always astounded by the confidence of people who just stroll into galleries and start engaging with the art there.
This is not to say that working class people do not want to go to galleries or engage with more traditionally elite art forms. But invisible barriers are in place in many spaces, and they are incredibly strong. I have lost count of the number of people who have asked me to take them to see a piece of classical music because they don't know how to behave in the space. Some of these are very established artists, some who will happily go to a gig by themselves, but some who would never consider themselves arts engagers but want to go and see something.
Engaging working class communities isn’t a case of flyering your local council estate or running one workshop in a community centre. It’s about understanding your local communities and building relationships that make people feel safe. Here I’ve been primarily chatting about my experiences as a white working class woman, but the fact is there isn't one singular working class identity. Class and experience is intermixed with age, gender, sexuality, race and all facets of identity. With that in mind, I’ve created some suggestions of where to start if you want to have a conversation about engagement in your organisation or practice; but I can't offer solutions and there isn't one fixed solution to improving your work.
Address your organisation’s biases
Everyone has biases. It’s how we are aware of them and work to overcome them that is important. Have a conversation with yourself, with your board and with your staff and ask the hard questions: what do you consider an arts engager? How does how someone talks change your perception of them? How does how someone dresses change your expectation of them?
Find Out More About Your Local Communities.
Ask people how they see your organisation
Do people think you have a dress code? Do people see you as a safe space? Do people walk through your organisation to get somewhere else? Do people feel represented in your work or in your space? What barriers do people face to engaging with you? Are they willing to tell you?
Ask yourself why at every stage
If you’re planning outreach work to engage with a community keep asking yourself why. If you’re just in it for the money, then what’s the point? Are you ultimately doing more harm than good? Do you see working class people as participants or artists?
If you run arts engagement programmes can you signpost for those who want to go further? Can you support artists?
If people want to go further than your programmes allow, do you have pathways for engagement to support artists and allow them to break the participant ceiling. If you don't, can you signpost people to spaces who can?