Ahead of our Uncommon Ground symposium, Stella Duffy, Co-Director of Fun Palaces, shares her experience and tells us how Fun Palaces are working to make the arts more inclusive.

Monday 23 April 2018

As an artist, I know that it's far harder in our hands-on work, that making change often involves each of us making new choices every day, and sometimes our choice to make a difference has a personal cost.

Recently I did three nights of a new solo show. The venue had no funds to pay a BSL interpreter, so I paid an interpreter £300 for one night. I made, on a box-office split with the venue (and no funding for the show) a total of £542.14. That is, the interpreter earned more for one show than I did for three as performer and producer. No, that's not sustainable, but as an individual artist I wanted my show to be accessible. (I do have an income as a writer, but as a literary novelist I don't have big advances to support my work, it's a personal choice about change.)


Fun Palaces. Image © Helen Murray.


In the past few years, I've started asking who else is on the bill when I'm asked to speak. If I'm the only woman, I ask why. I ask how many people of colour are speaking, how many disabled people, how many LGBTQ. I do not ask how many 'diverse' people are booked because our diversities are so different, because women are not a minority, and frankly, I'm sick of being a three-for-one (working class, queer, woman) tick box. Many other people are also asking these questions, including programmers and producers. Yes, it can be uncomfortable, and sometimes it feels as if I'm irritating people by pointing up inequalities. On the other hand, it is tedious and often upsetting for some of us to know we are only in the room to represent 'diversity', instead of our own work as an artist. We make change by doing change.

We believe that no-one is hard-to-reach if you're standing with them

Fun Palaces published our annual evaluation in March. Last year there were 362 Fun Palaces created by and for local people for their own communities, in libraries, art galleries, theatres, science centres, gardens, ferries, trains, museums and care homes. 90% of them were outside London. In five years, with no regular core funding, our annual weekend of action supported by our ongoing campaign for cultural democracy has become a recognised date, named in the libraries' Universal Culture Offer, supporting tens of thousands of people to create their own cultural events, with over a third of a million participants. In 2017, 29% of those participants were from ethnic minorities, almost 20% of Fun Palaces in England took place in the least privileged postcode decile, and 28% of Maker teams included disabled people.

We believe this inclusion is happening because we say yes to anyone and then help them to lead locally - and loads of people want the chance to create for themselves. It's also because we work to support the creation of local culture, rather than provide that culture for others. It's because we believe that no-one is hard-to-reach if you're standing with them, no place is a 'cold-spot' when we value the culture that people already create. It's because we really do believe in Joan Littlewood's phrase, 'the genius in everyone'. It's because equality is at the core of what we do.

I certainly haven't got it all right yet, I will keep trying, keep learning. I'm learning from so many others, each one also making small personal changes that add up to a massive difference for all.

Sometimes these changes are huge and sometimes they are easy. I've been a freelance artist for over thirty-five years. I have never had sick pay, holiday pay, compassionate leave. I'm well aware that the cost of genuine diversity often depends on the sacrifices an individual artist is prepared to make. It's hard AND it's worthwhile.

Accept the hard truth that lack of inclusion is actually exclusion

At the WOW festival this year I chaired a panel of women in the arts and Josette Bushell-Mingo repeated the phrase "ask yourself what you are prepared to give up to make change".  To achieve genuine inclusion all of us will, on some level, have to do more. It can hurt to step aside to allow someone else a voice, give up space, give up money, give up power. It can be exhausting to have to speak out, speak up, be seen. We do it because what we gain - with equality, with inclusion - is better for all of us. We'll have better arts when our arts are genuinely accessible for all to create, not just consume - not that we've achieved that yet either. We'll have a better society when all voices are both heard and acted upon. We'll have a better future when it's created by all, not by a few for all. We will have inclusion in the arts when we accept the hard truth that lack of inclusion is actually exclusion, and that unless we make inclusion our core aim, we will never get there. I really want us to get there.