October 20, 2020

Why the Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries programme is needed now more than ever

The Creative Industries’ Policy & Evidence Centre (PEC) published the first paper in their Class in the Creative Industries series in late August 2020.  This was just as me and the team behind Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries (WJCB) were prepping for the first of our four weekly induction sessions with our 50 new Host organisations.  The PEC is exploring the participation, retention and progression of those of different class origins within the creative industries.  In a similar vein, we are launching the fourth edition of the WJCB programme, which for the past ten years has sought to improve the chances of those from low socio-economic backgrounds to get in and get on in the arts and cultural sector.

Their headline is bleak:

“Those from privileged backgrounds are more than twice as likely to end up in Creative Occupations than their working-class peers. The privileged dominate key creative roles in the industry: our 2019 data offers little in the way of reassurance for those concerned that talented individuals from working-class origin might make it into the occupations that include our curators, or authors, our musicians, artists, actors and entertainers, and our film-makers.”

WJCB partners with arts and cultural organisations across the UK to create and host year-long Fellowships for those from low socio-economic backgrounds.  These are year-long paid roles (above Living Wage Foundation recommendations) for those in the critical early stage of their careers. For the reasons outlined in the quote above, one of the key changes we made in this edition of the programme was to require all Fellowships to be artistic/creative roles, meaningfully connected to the artistic/cultural leadership of the Host organisation.  We are being much more up front and centre about the ambitions of the programme – to fast track the careers of 50 emerging creative practitioners who will have the artistic and institutional power to decide who gets to make the art in the future.

David Olusoga made this point very powerfully in his recent MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh International TV Festival.  Without diverse commissioners and controllers making the key decisions about what content is made, the sector will continue to haemorrhage amazing talent who are routinely overlooked in favour of those who look and sound and think like those in positions of power.

Conversations about class and background are complicated and are often uncomfortable to have but collecting and understanding the data is a very good way to start these conversations.  The PEC is providing a valuable service to our sector by pulling together the figures to make a convincing argument that change is needed.

They are also helping us to understand how class intersects with other factors (such as gender, ethnicity, disability and skills) to create “double disadvantage”.  As Stef O’Driscoll, Debbie Hannan and Nessah Muthy wrote in a recent blog: “Classism is the seam through which every single other marginalised identify intersects” (“Theatre 2021: Stef O’Driscoll, Debbie Hannan and Nessah Muthy .. on class” The Stage).

The authors of the PEC paper (Heather Carey, Rebecca Florisson, Dave O’Brien and Neil Lee) point out that these findings pre-date the Covid-19 pandemic and we know that those in precarious financial situations are suffering so much more than the rest of society currently. The pandemic poses “the biggest threat to the UK’s cultural infrastructure, institutions and workforce in a generation” (DCMS Select Committee inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 July 2020), so even while the sector is facing unprecedented challenges – from social distancing making theatre, dance, music and live performance financially unviable, huge gaps in support for freelancers – we felt the need to act fast and adapt the programme to be deliverable online and in new, Covid-safe ways.  An alum of the programme, Lauren Walsh, made a strong case on Twitter for how the pandemic was affecting her life. Losing talent such as hers would be a bitter blow to the arts sector of the future.

The PEC paper concludes with “Industry leadership on social mobility in the Creative Economy is vital and employers will need to play a central role in addressing the multi-faceted causes of class imbalances”.  This is why in this fourth edition of WJCB we have introduced a new Organisational Development programme, with our partners people make it work, to support our Host organisations to make lasting change internally to address these class imbalances in our sector.  Throughout September we all got to know each other on Zoom and heard from inspirational speakers to help Hosts think about how to change the way they recruit.  With Richard Watts and Clare Thurman guiding us, we heard honest and powerful insights from past Hosts (Nikolai Foster, Artistic Director at Curve Theatre and Bronwen Price, Deputy Director at Literature Wales); alumni of the programme (Vicky Moran and Athenoula Bartley Sophocleous) and speakers such as Teresa Cisneros, Inclusive Practice Lead at the Wellcome Collection, and diversity consultants Kamaljit Poonia and Hardish Virk.

We also heard Sara Whybrew from Creative & Cultural Skills who explained that recruiting is so often seen as an administrative chore, but in actual fact is one of the most important things anyone with management responsibilities gets to do in their working lives.  Ben Anderson from In Good Company and Derby Theatre said “When considering how people engaged with our Job Pack, it really made us think about the experience throughout the process beyond getting to the know about the opportunity from the pack. How does someone go from learning about the opportunity to being in the interview room, and what different barriers might they face throughout that process.”

The first tranche of Fellowships went live on Tuesday 20 October with the remainder being rolled out between now and Spring 2021. It is a really exciting moment after all the planning to see them taking shape.  The new Music/Sound Creator at Clod Ensemble in London will work with Founder/Artistic Director Paul Clark on new commissions and performances and develop their own practice.  At Creative Scene, a Creative People and Places project in North Kirklees, the Participation Producer: Creative Cultures will research, devise and deliver new programmes for young people in the area.  And at Common Wealth in Cardiff, their new Associate Director will work with them and National Theatre Wales to develop and deliver four theatre productions staged in non-theatre buildings and initiate their own creative project.

We are absolutely delighted that all 50 organisations selected to be Hosts back in early March are more committed than ever to being part of the programme.  We are building a really powerful partnership which will spend the next 18 months advocating for change – 50 Hosts, their soon-to-be-recruited 50 Fellows and our wide range of partners and funders all pulling together to inspire the arts and cultural sector to address socio-economic inequalities and build a more inclusive, balanced and representative future.

We are also working with the wider creative industries and cross-industries to exchange best practice and bring more learning into our sector.  We are currently partnering with the Social Mobility Commission to create their new Creative Industries Toolkit which will launch later this year.  This builds on our own Toolkit published last year, focussed more specifically on the arts sector, part of our mission to share the experiences of our Hosts beyond the programme.

For more information about the programme, please contact me on [email protected].

What Am I Worth?, Produced by Diverse City, 2018. Image: Paul Blakemore