Is the way we fund arts today promoting inequality?


Picture of Alexandra Dariescu
Alexandra Dariescu

Award-winning concert pianist, Piano Professor at the Royal Northern College of Music and 2018 European Young Leader (EYL40)

Photo of This article is a part of our EYL40 Working Group on Arts and Culture series.
This article is a part of our EYL40 Working Group on Arts and Culture series.

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Show more information on This article is a part of our EYL40 Working Group on Arts and Culture series.

The European Young Leaders (EYL40) Working Group on Arts and Culture was established to share and brainstorm ideas for collaborating on pan-European projects related to arts and culture. It draws on the wide range of artists, musicians, writers and cultural practitioners in our EYL40 network.

Brexit, the rise of populism and the pandemic have threatened a sense of ‘European-ness’ among the citizens of Europe. The Working Group places a particular importance on how arts and culture – a core European industry contributing to 4.4% of European GDP – can be used as tools to help build that spirit while relaunching economies. The EU’s motto is: united in diversity. Our job will be to promote that diversity while responding to common challenges.

This series of articles complements the Working Group’s three meetings this year. The Working Group will produce a policy briefing to be launched in November 2021 and to be brought to the attention of high-level policymakers at the European and national level. Recommendations will also be handled over to EYLs, EU Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel and French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Clément Beaune, ahead of France taking over the EU rotating presidency in 2021.

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Worldwide, only 5% of music scheduled in publicly-funded orchestras today is written by female composers, according to a recent report published by the Donne Foundation. In the United Kingdom, over 60% of women in theatre are considering leaving the industry, with 85% worried that gender inequality will worsen in the post-COVID era as male work, considered ‘a safe bet’, is prioritised. In terms of ethnicity and diversity, just over 1% of the pieces programmed today are by black and Asian women, and just over 2% are by black and Asian men. What are the factors that lead to this inequality, and to what extent do we contribute to and reinforce this structure in the arts and culture?

Traditionally, arts producers maintain a significant role in shaping our world and the way we interact with each other on a daily basis. We consume arts like the air we breathe. Art influences society, shaping and changing opinions, while instilling values and translating experiences across demographies and generations. Research has shown that art affects the fundamental sense of self. The arts are often considered to be the repository of a society’s collective memory, so if we are to truly promote equality, diversity and inclusion, we must, first and foremost, start by addressing what we ourselves consider valuable from one generation to the next.

Having worked as a freelance musician in classical music for the last 15 years and in most European countries, I have observed the way in which creatives communicate their art to the public. The protagonists who transmit the message of our ‘product’ – meaning headline artists, including the composers, conductors and soloists whose names are publicly advertised and marketed – continue to be mainly white and male. The statistics are truly shocking and surely not where we ought to be in the 21st century.

Programming’s success is largely determined by box office results

All too often, we have heard the argument that it’s the role of artists, producers, agents and all those responsible for what goes into programmes to bring about change. But it isn’t that simple. Programming’s success is largely determined by box office results which ensure the organiser’s future viability, making it a much more complex system of various stakeholders. In addition, arts and culture are wholly subjective, so how can we expect those responsible to programme in imaginative or socially innovative ways, when they themselves have been caught up in the same cycle of a white male-dominated art form?

The predominant role of the aforementioned headline artists is to ensure audience engagement which, by and large, translates to box office success. While artists themselves can play a part in bringing about change, and they are invited to do so, the majority who appear on programmes worldwide have little or no incentive to engage with issues concerning the lack of diversity, inclusion and equality.

On stage, I represent myself as an artist, storyteller and citizen of the world. I have made it one of my personal missions to tell audiences just how diverse and inclusive the art form I love can be, despite the shortfalls of the past. I have undertaken extensive research to be able to offer producers a balanced portfolio of work by female and male composers, including composers from a variety of backgrounds. It is inspiring to discover and engage with work which hasn’t found its way to being published or promoted by the decision-makers on grounds of background and tradition rather than virtue of quality or relevance.

We should be asking ourselves if we can truly justify allocating taxpayers’ money towards promoting inequality

Not only have I discovered new composers, but it has changed my relationship with the dominant tradition. My own approach includes thematical links to the traditional repertoire that we have all learned to love and that we want to continue to see on our concert programmes. More often than not, however, I find myself being asked to play the traditional repertoire by white male composers as if it is taken for granted.

All this further underlines the fact that bringing about change cannot be solved by producers and artists alone. The issue is far more complex. It requires a more serious engagement at all levels but most importantly at the funding level. As a society, we should be asking ourselves if we can truly justify allocating taxpayers’ money towards promoting inequality in the way that we currently are. Adopting a 50/50 approach at the level of headline artists, coupled with a fair representation of minorities in programmes, would undoubtedly go a long way towards enthusing and educating the younger generation about great artists, regardless of their background and gender.

After all, a wider range of role models is what inspires all generations to work hard, never give up and continue to break down those unnecessary barriers that we, all too often, still put around ourselves today.

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