Leadership Diversity in the Arts

OPINION | Tim Lo Surdo | Aug 2019

Most people know the value and importance of the creative and arts spaces.

The reasons people give will vary. There’s an economic argument – the tourism it cultivates, the number of jobs it creates. There’s a branding argument – how a vibrant arts community enhances our global standing.

However, I think we know the importance of the arts because of something more elemental. The arts are how we define the human experience. Our theatres bring to the stage the complexities and contradictions of our lives. Our museums are our collective memory. Our orchestras enrich the tapestries of our lives. Our screens craft our personal and national identity.

So what does it mean when a new report released last week into arts leadership by Diversity Arts Australia reveals *more than half* of our major cultural institutions have no people of colour (POC) in their leadership teams.

Based on a survey of more than 200 leading creative and arts organisations and 1,980 Board and executive members in the space, the report uncovers significant and systemic problems with cultural diversity in the arts.

If the arts are how we craft our collective identity, celebrate our communities and fundamentally define our humanity, what does it mean when this report shows that only 9% of the leaders of our major cultural institutions are from migrant backgrounds?

It means a fractured, incomplete national identity that excludes migrant communities. It means a country that only celebrates some of its communities while ignoring the rest. It means people of colour who look to the arts, as most people do, to see their humanity reflected back at them and have their dignity affirmed don’t see that.

This isn’t a theoretical discussion. The diversity problems in the arts have very real implications for political discourse and public policy in Australia.

Let’s take immigration for example. For the first time, last year’s annual Lowy poll showed more than 50% of Australians preferred a lower annual immigration intake. Polling just before this year’s federal election showed the top reason (37%) people gave for opposing immigration was “new immigrants often fail to assimilate with the rest of the population”. Nineteen percent of respondents saw the most important problem with immigration being “it makes terrorist attacks in Australia more likely”. And a further 8% of respondents said their most important problem with immigration was “it makes our communities less safe”.

That’s 64% of respondents whose main problem with immigration was either ‘assimilation’ or ‘safety’ – two concepts that revolve around identity and perception. That’s significant, and it’s worth exploring where these ideas are incubated.

Part of the blame definitely lies with a political class that has consistently used communities of colour as a punching bag to further its own interests. There are a litany of examples: Pauline Hanson’s incessant demonising of migrant and Muslim communities, former senator Fraser Anning’s call for a “final solution” to immigration, the racialised crime panic around “African gangs” pushed by senior politicians.

But what role has the creative and arts space played in this increasing opposition to immigration?

The arts are how we tell stories about ourselves and who is part of our collective identity. When people of colour are excluded from those stories, we end up with a conversation that positions POC as the ‘other’ with an obligation to ‘assimilate’ and conform to meet an identity they were kept out of in the first place. And if every time you turn on the TV and the only character Arab, African and Asian actors are playing is the villain, what perception is that creating about the role people of colour play in society?

This is just one example of the corrosive effect the lack of diversity in the arts can have on our public discourse, and it points to the need for meaningful change in this space.

To be clear, this is not a new problem. The importance of Diversity Arts Australia’s report launched last week is that it illustrates the scale of the problem. What we need now is a genuine, resourced commitment from decision-makers in the arts to cede power and create space for people of colour at all levels. Because that’s the only way we’re going to see a more representative arts space where every person can go to and see their dignity and humanity affirmed.