Purnell under fire

An article in theatre magazine The Stage today reports the critical response from the black theatre section and politicians to culture secretary James Purnell’s comments about inclusion and targets in the Guardian interview (see James Purnell interview).

BME theatre brands Purnell’s inclusion claims ‘insane’

The Stage, Friday 27 July 2007

by Alistair Smith

Culture secretary James Purnell has come under fire from leading figures in the black theatre sector after he claimed inclusion in the arts could now be “taken for granted” and access targets should be overhauled.

Speaking earlier this month in his first statement of policy since taking over the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Purnell revealed he intended to re-examine “target culture”. Purnell told the Guardian the battle had been won when it came to meeting quotas relating to priority groups such as ethnic minorities. He said: “When I was cultural adviser at Number 10 a decade ago, people talked about access and excellence… Coming back ten years on, people are saying to me, we can take all that for granted now, it’s in the bloodstream of British arts. I think that’s true.”

However, companies working within the black and minority ethnic (BME) theatre sector have hit back at the claims, insisting that below the surface, very little has changed when it comes to ethnic minority participation and attendance. Paulette Randall – former artistic director of Talawa, which was to have launched the UK’s first black-led theatre building before the project collapsed – said Purnell’s comments were “insane”. She told The Stage: “If only that were the case. I don’t know where he’s got this from or which theatres he’s been going to. It’s convenient to say this, but it’s simply not true. We still have so much to do. It’s not that progress hasn’t been made, but not enough. We are nowhere near.”

Nitro artistic director Felix Cross said he thought the idea of re-examining target culture was “interesting, but complex”.

“I’d like to see his evidence that the battle has been won – I don’t believe that the evidence exists,” he said. “In my experience, trying to get some organisations to walk in this direction towards the inclusion targets has been like pulling teeth, and I’m concerned statements like these could let those companies off the hook.”

Theatre Royal Stratford East artistic director Kerry Michael said it was crucial that inclusion wasn’t taken for granted. He added: “Some may argue we have come some way, but I have trouble seeing much difference below the surface – artists from ethnic minorities still have very little power within the creative sector. For example, do we really have more non-white creative leaders of institutions than we did ten years ago?”

Purnell has also come in for heavy criticism from the Liberal Democrats, who insist he is scrapping targets for inclusion that his own department has failed to meet. According to figures for 2006, attendance of arts events by BME groups has actually dropped by more than 5% since 2003. Liberal Democrat shadow culture secretary Don Foster said: “James Purnell claims the battle for inclusion in the arts has been won, but his own figures tell an entirely different story.

“Far from winning the battle, his department has failed on nearly all their arts inclusion targets. No wonder he wants to see many targets scrapped.”

Tory shadow culture minister Ed Vaizey, meanwhile, said he supported Purnell’s call to end “target culture”, but warned: “That does not mean we should lose sight of the need to increase ethnic minority participation in the arts. The fact is, leading black and minority ethnic artistic groups are woefully under-represented when it comes to the awards of grants from bodies like the arts council, particularly in London.

“So we should support leadership programmes and grant programmes for this sector. You will get greater participation that way, not from setting meaningless targets.”

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