The response to Black Lives Matter by the arts in the UK has been revealing and, like many other organisations, the Albany has responded artistically, shared its stats, and started conversations. However, it is clear to me that any commitment we make has to be backed up with action that makes immediate changes, sitting alongside a transparency that allows us to be held to account. As we start to come out of the Covid-19 crisis, a period which has heightened inequalities in the UK, there is a real danger of just trying go back to ‘normal’, rather than rethinking and taking this as a moment when change can happen, when it needs to happen.

It has always seemed obvious to me that a venue like the Albany, or any venue for that matter, needs to reflect its constituency or local area, in terms of the stories it tells and the people in its audiences. That cannot happen unless this is also reflected in its staff teams, its Board and the artists it works with.

The demographics of our home borough Lewisham seems like a good benchmark. Of the 300,000+ people living here, 46.5% are people of colour (rising to 77% in school age population), and 53.5% are white. Black people are a significant population in the area, comprising 27% of the total.

The Arts Council of England publishes the diversity data of its larger funded organisations and, for 2018/19, the Albany had the highest level of Black and minority ethnic staff for any organisation in the country at just over 40%. This was broadly reflected in figures for the Board, artists and audiences. Youth participants are 73% people of colour.

However, people of colour have a lower representation in senior management and that I think has always been the case. The current senior artistic team of three (myself included) are all white. We’ve published our current figures here and they’re not moving in the right direction, with the number of people of colour on the staff falling to 30% last year.

There is clearly a lot of work to do, and a process of real change over a period of time needed. We need to take intersectionality into account, the representation of working-class and disabled people in the arts for instance is shockingly bad, with only 6% of the workforce disabled, and only 18% coming from a working-class background. Any changes we can make as a small organisation must also be matched by a commitment to campaign for structural changes in the arts and our wider society.

Our first steps need to happen now, and we’ll make these four changes alongside our longer-term commitments:

  • At least 50% of new freelancers appointed will be people of colour. We will also review pay scales and procedures to ensure people are paid fairly, consistently and promptly.
  • An open recruitment for a Black artist to join the Albany Board. This is even more critical after long standing Board member Vicki Amedume stepped down earlier in the year.
  • Appoint an artist of colour to a new paid Associate Artist role, as part of our ‘Artists of Change’ programme, funded by the Paul Hamlyn and Garfield Weston Foundations. We recently announced details of this new programme, which aims to give both artists and local communities a much greater stake in the Albany’s programme.
  • Appoint a new Senior Producer to join the creative and senior management teams, with the aim of diversifying our knowledge and perspectives. There isn’t any new money available for obvious reasons but even in the current situation choices can be made. We have reallocated funding and restructured the team. The current team (including myself) are happy to see cuts in hours if that’s what it takes to make a new role possible.

This clearly is only a start and we will commit to continuing a robust and honest conversation internally and externally, which will include:

  • An overhaul of all recruitment procedures including more accessible information and processes, and better representation of people of colour, participants and artists in recruitment.
  • A review of staff structures and working culture to make the Albany a more inclusive, equitable and welcoming place to work, with a training and development programme in place.
  • Improved monitoring across the organisation, including for class and socio-economic backgrounds from this year, and a commitment to publish all data transparently.
  • Changes to our artistic policies which will give diverse artists and local communities a greater role in decision making.
  • A commitment to making a case for wider structural change.

The aim for diversity and inclusion feels like it should be part of the DNA of the Albany. It reflects our history as pioneers of ‘community arts’, Black and queer arts, as well as our role in the anti-racism battles of the 70s and 80s. It has been a key part of our plans and thinking over the years I’ve been here, but the Black Lives Matter movement has made us reflect on the need for more radical change. We need to do better and we need to do more, we need to be honest and transparent, and we need to be active as part of a campaign for a more profound shift in the arts and our communities.

Gavin Barlow, CEO and Artistic Director, The Albany

– Photo credit Helen Murray