Can we all get the arts? Debate in Stockholm

I am chairing a debating at the Arts and Audiences conference, this week in Stockholm, with the British Council in Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

Thursday 11 October, 12.30pm until 2.00pm. Hotel Rival, Maria Square, Stockholm.

Can we all get the arts? 

The Arts Council England’s policy on diversity holds that ‘artistic excellence relies on the richness and innovation that diversity brings’. It also aims to achieve ‘great art for everyone’, so we all have equal opportunities to enjoy the very best of the arts. Brian McMaster, who conducted a major review of arts policy, argues that diversity across a whole ‘span of ages, religions, cultures, sexualities, disabilities and socio-economic backgrounds’ can give rise to excellence that we can all appreciate. Diversity in this view is seen as a vital building block of the universal. In contrast, writer and policy-maker Munira Mirza has argued the politics of diversity and identity are actually corrosive of the universal in the arts. If artists are defined by race, gender, ethnicity, does this lock them into such a definition, denying the possibility of transcendence? Maybe it becomes easier, in terms of access to funding and even acclaim, to identify as a Young Black Artist rather than in terms of any new art movement?Nonetheless it can be argued that those who want to make the arts open to more people should at least find ways of removing barriers and increasing interest in the arts. One commonly cited barrier is that the arts are not inclusive enough: they speak to, or are perceived to speak to, a narrow section of society. For such critics, there simply won’t be wide enough ethnic diversity in museums until the collection becomes representatively diverse and welcoming to people of different cultures. Is it true that the arts, sometimes by their very nature, discriminate against certain potential audiences and should be given an equal opportunities makeover? Simply put, does diversity trump excellence? Is diverse art good simply because it is diverse or might some art just be better than other art, regardless of the artist’s identity?It can be argued that a focus on audience access results in chasing audiences when the real requirement is to build audiences, which would mean stimulating genuine interest in the arts while recognising that not everyone will be won over. After all, to get art requires an ability to discriminate on the part of the spectator. If audiences have to be discriminating to get great art, just why is it that so many cultural institutions today think they have to be for everyone?
Birgitta Englin
executive director, Riksteatern – National Touring Theatre of Sweden
Nikola Matisic
opera singer, tenor; founder, Operalabb Sweden; op-ed cultural writer; consultant on operatic culture
Dr Munira Mirza
deputy mayor, education and culture, Greater London Authority; author, The Politics of Culture: the case for universalism
Samir M’kadmi
visual artist and curator; board member, Norwegian National Museum for Art, Architecture and Design
Niels Righolt
head of development, Danish Centre for Arts & Interculture; chairman, Transnational Arts Production
Dr Tiffany Jenkins
sociologist and cultural commentator, author Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: the crisis of cultural authority.