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Dr Roaa Ali and Lara Ratnaraja share their responses from our first Covid-19 webinar

In this blog, Lara and Roaa share their thoughts on what the research presented at the webinar is telling us about inequalities in both the cultural workforce and in cultural engagement. If you missed the webinar, you can watch it in full here. 

Lara Ratnaraja – Inequalities in the workforce

Lara is a freelance cultural consultant specialising in diversity, innovation, leadership, collaboration and cultural policy implementation within the HE, cultural and digital sector. She develops and delivers projects and policy on how cultural and digital technology intersect for a number of national partners as well as programmes around leadership, resilience and business development for the arts and creative industries. She works or has worked with the University of Birmingham, Coventry University, Birmingham City University STEAMhouse and University of Salford delivering and developing projects on diversity, digital engagement and research collaborations between arts, HEIs and SMEs. 

The data showed some not wholly unexpected workforce dips. Where a live experience was the de facto standard (eg Music, Performing & Visual Arts) the workforce had shrunk dramatically. By comparison the falls were not as sharp in the more service-driven side of the creative sector where more staff could work remotely, and in organisations where staff were furloughed such as local authority and publicly funded sector organisations such as museums and galleries.

I can’t think anyone is surprised that the lack of financial stability, networks and inherent bias in the structure means that those leaving the sector are largely those who are the most under-represented and disadvantaged by the sector: women, ethnically diverse people, non-graduates, disabled people and young people.

And I think if you looked at occupation, these would be predominantly front of house, entry-level or early career roles, as well as zero-hour or sessional work, as that is where staff with these characteristics get side lined (particularly ethnically diverse staff).

And of course, this is now an opportunity to completely reset and disrupt the structural inequities within the sector, not least because audiences across many different demographics that have found themselves without the physical cultural infrastructure for nearly a year have enjoyed a highly eclectic cultural life online. So now is the time to really start questioning the sentiment of ‘going back to normal’ – whatever normal means.

The research showing modelling in Greater Manchester is interesting. It is too simplistic to talk about one model vs another as the conversation needs to be about the wider ecosystem and how everyone benefits – not just in city centres but across regions.

In terms of inequity, we just cannot rely on flawed and instrumentalist cultural structures which perpetuate inequalities.

A collaborative and symbiotic ecosystem is needed which is more fluid, responsive and iterative, as we flex and move through different periods of recovery over the coming years.

Lockdown has changed our notions of national and regional; you can access content anywhere, but your local high street has become even more important. What cultural systems can’t do is ignore the wider impact on city centres and town high streets, as well as the fact that culture is now on your doorstep as well as being global.

So, we need to start reframing what cultural value looks like and stop using a centralised production model that invites people in and gives people permission to view culture through a centralised lens of homogeneity. There is no longer a sole authorial cultural voice that mandates what cultural value is or indeed, where it is located.

Dr Roaa Ali – Inequalities in cultural engagement

Dr Roaa Ali is a researcher and educator with a growing research profile in race and the cultural industries, access inequality and the politics of minoritised cultural production. She joined the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) at the University of Manchester as a Research Associate in 2018. Currently, she is researching racial and ethnic inequality in the Creative and Cultural Industries at the intersection of Covid-19 and the Black Lives Movement (in collaboration with Creative Access).

The major migration of cultural consumption to online platforms has shifted both the conditions of cultural production and habits of cultural engagement. It seems that as much as the current crisis has presented a great challenge to the cultural sector, it is also presenting a unique opportunity to revisit established assumptions and practices about cultural engagement and audiences, which had so far enabled inequality.

Two points spring to mind in response to some of the findings in audience engagement:

  • Sustainability: while heavily subsidised cultural organisations might be able to continue their digital offering, other commercial organisations might find it tricky to generate revenues and could alienate newly developed, less financially well-off audiences.
  • Digital poverty: this will impact digital engagement with culture and further limit the access of those already excluded by existing inequalities.

The stories we tell:

While it is clearly positive that cultural organisations are actively thinking of having more diverse representations and programming, the momentum created by the Black Lives Matter movement can easily be lost. In our project at the Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity,  I am specifically looking at how Covid-19 and BLM have impacted ethnic inequality in the cultural sector. We are hearing the ethnically diverse workforce expressing this as a real concern, with some noticing that diversity is already falling down the agenda.

Moreover, even though there is a general uptake to diversify the sector, it still is not translating to structural changes or appreciation for the value of diversity. The fear is that some diversity initiatives might perpetuate the precarity of ethnically diverse people whilst simultaneously increasing their outputs, thus rendering them more easily exploited and expendable. Moreover, financial pressure on organisations means that diversity initiatives might be the first to go in moments of economic panic.

The Covid-19 crisis is likely to make the cultural sector more risk-averse, which could have a huge impact on the agenda for a more equal sector. A risk-averse sector leads to reliance on established and trusted models both in terms of outputs and workforce, which usually excludes talent and people from ethnically diverse and working-class backgrounds. The fear is that diverse creatives and contents might be sidestepped in favour of what commissioners think is safe and would bring ‘bums on seats’.

Despite the dark picture, the opportunity to shake old established habits and reinvent modes of cultural engagement that place inequality at the heart can be positive and promising.


Image: Lara Ratnaraja (left) Dr Roaa Ali (right)

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