We need to fight systemic inequalities in the arts to create a diverse talent pool

Arts need to be invested in all over Britain – not just London (Getty Images)
Arts need to be invested in all over Britain – not just London (Getty Images)

At the beginning of 2020, Arts Council England set out bold new plans with the potential to kickstart a radical shift in the cultural fabric of our country. 

The ten year strategy focused on creativity and diversity and heralded a welcome shift from lofty “great art” language. It emphasised “everyday creativity” and moved away from elitist views of arts and culture, which made the arts inaccessible for so many – especially young people. 

However, arts, culture and youth services have taken a real hit, with a decade of funding cuts and the impact of Covid-19, meaning many organisations face threat of closure. 

This cannot happen – arts and culture are the soul of our communities and central to our lives, improving wellbeing and connecting people. We know that music-making, as an example, has an enormous impact on people’s social and personal development, it teaches vital skills and, as Youth Music’s research project Exchanging Notes showed, also helps young people to engage with education. 

The Fabian Society recently published a report analysing Arts Council spending across England with a series of recommendations to ensure the survival of the sector. It rightly called for a real plan, with local government at the heart.

But the notion that Arts Council England should distribute National Lottery funding on an equal basis across the country will not improve the pro-London bias. There is only one outcome to the equal distribution of funds – large urban centres and typically “arts engaged” communities will continue to get the lion’s share of funding, while towns and rural areas will continue to miss out, and we still end up with an unequal picture.

We must instead look to an equitable approach that provides those with the greatest need and the most support. This is the only way of addressing the disparities that exist. 

This is how we invest at Youth Music – equitably rather than equally. We ensure a minimum investment in every region of the country and then prioritise investment according to demographics, existing funding, and a focus on the most deprived areas, or “cold spots” – areas where there’s not so much going on. In 2019-20, more than 84 per cent of Youth Music’s investment was allocated outside of London, with no region receiving less than 7 per cent of our total investment.

But it’s not as simple as redistributing funds. The money must be backed with concerted action to make the arts relevant to young people, welcoming the art forms that they engage with on a daily basis, and a shake-up of the industries. From local music educators to major labels, we must all try harder to fight systemic inequalities and throw open the doors to a more diverse talent pool. 

The industry has a responsibility to regularly review and, where needed, overhaul recruitment policies to promote diversity and inclusion, reform entry-level roles to ensure meaningful experiences, end unpaid internships, become Living Wage Employers, and build long-term relationships with the music education sector and grassroots projects.

There’s also work to be done at education level. The music curriculum must be more young people-led and representative of their tastes. In addition, we must open up education to teachers and community practitioners with different backgrounds and experiences, to engage young people and give them vital access to representative role models. 

The arts sector is going through a period of immense change and we face many challenges. But with the right funding, education, and support, the future is bright. Out there is an incredibly diverse, energetic and tenacious talent pool, ready to take the arts forward. We are passionate about paving the way for young people to access the opportunities to do so and reinvigorate the industry.

Matt Griffiths is CEO of Youth Music, a national charity investing in music-making projects that help children and young people develop personally, socially and musically

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