Lara Ratnaraja and Helga Henry on diversity in the cultural sector

Lara Ratnaraja
5 min readJan 22, 2018


“Cultural identities come from somewhere. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous play of history, culture and power.”*


The narrative on diversity in the cultural sector is a well heard one: under-representation, social mobility, exclusion, ethnicity, gender, disability, class, sexuality; all have come under the microscope recently in the laudable aim of a far more diverse arts workforce that represents and engages with a far more diverse audience that is representative of the world we live in. The subsidised arts sector is more aware than ever of the relationship between the public money it receives and the relatively narrow segment of the public who traditionally partake of their activities.

This means the cultural sector is led by cultural leaders who do not on the whole represent the audiences who wish to engage with culture. A lack of visible diverse leadership has a direct correlation with a lack of cultural participation by diverse communities. As the 2013 Consilium Report for Arts Council England states “It is also vital that the arts and cultural workforce becomes more representative of the society it serves. In particular, we need to do more to ensure that entry routes into employment, and opportunities for people to further their careers, are fairer and more accessible to all. This is as true for the leadership and governance of the sector as it is for those entering the workforce”.

Recently, through our work on programmes such as RE:Present and ASTONish — both schemes aimed at transforming the diversity of cultural leadership in Birmingham (and Aston and Newtown respectively), we (Lara Ratnaraja and Birmingham Hippodrome) have been committed to developing and nurturing diverse cultural leaders. We have noticed while delivering these programmes that the barriers we and they face is a slow-moving sector that has yet to embrace diversity as a creative opportunity and move beyond the permissions culture that is endemic in the arts.

The use of language in culture continues to exclude and “tag”: ‘diverse’, ‘marginalised’, ‘disadvantaged’ ‘hard to reach’ are words used to seek inclusion but also by default achieve exclusion. The language we have heard around programmes such as RE:Present and ASTONish has othered participants; the words “them” and “they” are used liberally, as is the implication that artists of colour are in some way “less,” (less relevant, lower quality or amateur) only relevant for community engagement contexts whereby the quality of creative work is in some way of less of value than it would be in main stream programming.

But with workforce data showing little change, it is evident that whilst policies such as Arts Council’s Creative Case, Race Equality Action plans and initiatives such as Changemakers and Evolve are making incremental changes, within the sector itself there is little change or perceived inclination to self-examine why the arts sector is so unrepresentative.

From data submitted by National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) and Major Partner Museums (MPM) in 2015/16, 17% of the NPO workforce is Black and minority ethnic and 7% of MPMs (against the working age population average of 15 %). However, at senior levels just 8% of Chief Executives, 10% of Artistic Directors and 9% of Chairs of Boards are BME (Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case 2015–2016, Arts Council England, 2016) Birmingham, is under-served in terms of support for next stage leadership development in an area where 42% of the population self-identifies as non-white. The leadership of cultural organisations doesn’t reflect its audiences and this is reflected across the West Midlands.

As a result of this, in 2016, supported by Birmingham City Council and Arts Council England we ran RE:Present, a pilot initiative which was aimed at cultural leaders/producers and artist/leaders from diverse backgrounds who are currently under-represented in Birmingham and the wider Midlands region. This led to a network of over 40 artists, curators and producers who continue to reach new achievements, create new collaborations but also crucially are transforming the way cultural leadership is evolving in the city. From this we developed ASTONish. ASTONish is a programme of cultural leadership and creative entrepreneur training and development aimed at emergent and established artists, musicians and creative entrepreneurs in Aston and Newtown who have the ambition and potential to transform both themselves and the sector.

The regional art frameworks that seek to promote diversity are interventionist and generate from a cultural model of production that emanates from the centre. The arts in general uses distribution models that are based on an invitation “in”; a permission to view culture on their terms as regards location, timing and context. These frameworks don’t allow for a reframing of cultural identities and willfully ignore the “continuous play of history, culture and power.” In doing so they continue to disseminate a cultural picture that can be irrelevant or even hostile to diverse audiences.


The othering of artists of colour means their practice is labelled as marginalised. It is either ignored, or presented as coming from outside the frameworks of culture that stem from white, hetero-normative patriarchal constructs. It is exoticised, or used instrumentally to engage with audiences of colour, (Bhangra and samosa nights for Asian people and spoken word, Windrush reminiscences and Hip Hop for African-Caribbean people). The medium might change but the song remains the same.

Inclusion narratives on diversity allow artists of colour in, giving them permission to participate. As well as doing artists of colour a disservice, this only perpetuates a huge cultural divide which alienates and divorces the arts from the socio-political transformations that are affecting society at large. Equally it muffles instead of amplifing a plurality of artistic voices to wider audiences.

But ignoring these voices isn’t silencing them. Artists of colour are creating new dialogues and communities and modes of practice. They are reframing their cultural identities on their terms and refusing to adhere to the colonial identities ascribed to them.

The time is now to co-create a new narrative on diversity and cultural creation and engagement. This narrative destroys the traditional permission and invitation-based inclusion model and provides a new cultural and creative dialogue which is based on collaboration, equality of discourse and equity of diverse cultural value to allow for a fluidity and intersectional cultural ecology.

“…identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.”*

Let’s change the song: instead of singing it “at” people, “reaching out” and “doing” singing to people, let’s listen for the songs we all carry with us, and figure out a way to make that music anew.

*HALL, STUART. (1990). Cultural Identity and Diaspora. Identity: Community, culture, difference. 2.

Lara Ratnaraja Cultural Consultant @lararatnaraja Helga Henry, Director of Organisational Development Birmingham Hippodrome @helgahenry Co-Producers ASTONish

Originally published in New Art West Midlands

  • Lara Ratnaraja and Helga Henry on diversity in the cultural sector