Bursaries help break down entry barriers

Alice Parsons, Issue 118/11, p17, 01.11.2018
Growing up in Liverpool, my interest in art and museums was a response to the city around me. People are often surprised when I mention my school trips to the Walker Art Gallery or the National Conservation Centre – surprised that although I grew up without excessive means, I still had access to culture.

Of course, for those living in places without investment in culture, free museums, galleries and events weren’t, and still aren’t, available. For me, educated in north Liverpool, these trips, as well as the city being European Capital of Culture in 2008, were a life saver. So when I realised that this kind of access was not universal, I was keen to understand how to address that.

Last year, a report from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) showed that 92% of jobs in what the DCMS defines as “creative industries” go to people from “more advantaged” socioeconomic groups.

Since 2010, Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries (WJCB) have set out to address this. My WJCB placement, as higher-education coordinator at Opera North, was surprising, rewarding and, at times, extremely challenging. Over the period of a year, we attended major arts festivals; were introduced to senior policy makers, artists and producers; and reflected on ourselves, our practice and our progress.

Having 39 peers across the country navigating their own careers was, and is, invaluable, in terms of support and advice. The WJCB cohort had low socioeconomic backgrounds in common, but this is not the sole barrier to a career in the arts. Many had experienced other systematic prejudices: race, physical ability, sexuality or gender identity. Family support and experience with the arts and culture also varied across the group.

Programmes such as WJCB can’t level the playing field on their own but are important because they recognise the extent of the inequality at play by acknowledging many of us were never even on the same field – and working to address it. I couldn’t dedicate all of my time at university to studying and interning for free, and WJCB offered me a paid training.

It is vital that museums of national significance are situated around the country. Being a beneficiary of such museums myself means I am keen to ensure we work with our communities’ interests at the centre of what we do.

Cultural organisations must represent visitors and communities across their workforces to enable this change. Creating new roles, flexible career routes and training to support individuals will empower new people to consider careers in the sector. Organisations engaging in positive-change initiatives must understand that this is not a tick-box exercise; diversifying the voice of the sector proves our viability, enhances our relevance and strengthens our creative outputs.

Alice Parsons is the creative producer at the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford

The Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries programme 2017-19 aims to redress the lack of graduates from low socioeconomic backgrounds in careers in the arts by creating 40 fixed-term paid roles across the sector.