Puzzling through diversity in the arts

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I am an immigrant. I live in a country where my frame of cultural reference is different. In my work life, I am constantly questioning how we reflect our society in community settings, on the concert or theatrical stage. There are some remarkable barriers that exist to prevent presenting genuinely diverse work that isn’t an example of tokenism. The arts ecosystem isn’t perfect. For a variety of reasons, there is still significant inequalities of opportunity/access for artists of diverse backgrounds. And I’m still puzzling it through.

I see this all the time in classical music. I work mostly in orchestral music and opera. We are still working on gender diversity in classical music – let alone inequality of access for other groups.

I’m reminded of the challenge the sector faces reading the news back home. Recently, the Director, a designer and a performer have stepped away from a production of South Pacific at Calgary Opera. This was over the proposed casting of a white artist in the role of a Polynesian woman.

Operas/musicals are a kind of historical document, sometimes quietly or overtly racist in plot and character portrayal, we should absolutely be aiming to present works with culturally-informed casting! But it has to be part of the artistic direction and process from the beginning – as well as reflecting Canadian artists versus hiring international artists. It must be ingrained in the process and conversation with our Chief Executives, Casting Directors, Production Teams, Arts Programme Education Teams, Theatre School Directors/Teachers/Enrollment Staff, High School Music Teachers, Primary School Music Teachers (if that even exists anymore) and in the minds of parents. Arts Council England outline in their ‘Creative Case for Diversity‘ that “the simple observation that diversity, in the widest sense, is an integral part of the artistic process. It is an important element in
the dynamic that drives art forward, that innovates it and brings it closer to a profound dialogue with contemporary society.”

I argue that we need more of a culture-shift in how we think about the relevance of the arts and specifically diversity – in Canada and England. On stage, we need to reflect our contemporary society with exceptional artistry – but if the side argument is that there isn’t a pool of artists to draw on, then let’s make more opportunities for young people to see a progression route to became an artist.

Let’s be creative and think about how we reflect the face of our community participants, our audience members and our society in our programming on and off the stage. Let’s choose female conductors, designers and directors because they are excellent – not just because they are women. And artists of colour, and Aboriginal artists and artists who live with disability. Let’s publicly talk about the relevance of art and show its relevance! With Canada still so dependent on immigration for labour growth and population growth, some immigrant groups don’t see the arts as a profession. It’s perceived as a hobby. Let’s change that perception.

Let’s make it possible for the next generation to make a living in the arts in Canada!

Canadian artists work incredibly hard, but there is very little infrastructure to support their career unless they are ’emerging’ or ‘established’. Grants are an important tool, but what about child care provision, pension, disability insurance if they get sick and can’t work? You want more artists, show the progression route, show that you can have a family and pursue an artistic career without some socio-economic leg up.

Let’s reflect our society on and off stage. Let’s keep questioning.

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