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Arts sector pays lip service to cultural diversity

The gap between rhetoric and practice is so alarming, Diversity Arts Australia’s executive director  Lena Nahlous has called for the introduction of diversity targets to achieve more equitable representation in the arts sector by 2024.

What we are hearing from people of non-Anglo migrant backgrounds is they … get to a certain level, and there is this glass ceiling, as there is for women.

Diversity Arts Australia’s Lena Nahlous

Leaders set agendas and make decisions, and when you don’t have leaders from diverse backgrounds this is often reflected in the programming, employment, casting and audiences of the company, she says.

“You need a carrot and a stick with this kind of work,” Ms Nahlous says. “I think you do need mandatory targets because if people are receiving public funding and it’s for all of us in the community but it’s only representing a minority, a smaller amount of people, then they need to be held to account.”

The ground-breaking report, Shifting the balance: cultural diversity in leadership in Australia’s arts, screen, and creative sectors, has been completed by Diversity Arts Australia (known as DARTS) in partnership with Western Sydney University and BYP Group as a first step towards establishing a reference point to track cultural representation. The report has also received funding from the Australian National Commission for UNESCO.

It examines the cultural backgrounds of 1980 board chairs and members, chief executive officers, creative directors, senior executives and award panel judges from 200 major cultural organisations, government bodies, and award panels.

“The research hasn’t shown a lack of people willing to step into these leadership roles,” Ms Nahlous says. “What we are hearing from people of non-Anglo migrant backgrounds is they are quite often stuck at that mid-career level and are rarely given opportunities to step up into those higher-level leadership roles. They get to a certain level, and there is this glass ceiling, as there is for women.”

The report has found only 6 per cent of board chairpersons and deputies across all the nation’s creative institutions are representative of first, second and third-generation migrants in comparison to 14 per cent of artistic directors, curators, senior editors and heads of screen production.

Among award panels reviewed, only one in 10 judges have been from non-Anglo migrant backgrounds.

As a point of comparison, a report for the Australian Human Rights Commission, released last year, found 95 per cent of Australia’s elected leaders, company chief executives and education leaders have had an Anglo Celtic or European background.

Influential work is being undertaken to address participation rates but they are often on the margins, and outside of mainstream and major arts organisations.

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But for real change to occur, Ms Nahlous says inclusive practices, leadership pathways like mentorships and other strategies need to become a condition of government funding.

More fundamental changes around the way performers are nurtured and trained, the type of projects which are commissioned, and casting decisions might also be necessary.

“A starting place might be to look at the curricula when people are studying in the arts. What’s attracting people to this area and what’s deterring them? I remember a young African performer telling us that her parents discouraged her from becoming a performer because they didn’t see people like her on stage,” she says.

“A lot of performers tell us that they can only get ‘ethnic’ roles, they might be Australian born and bred and have the most ocker accent ever but if they are brown-skinned or Asian Australian then they are mostly limited to playing characters defined by their cultural background.”

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