Arts council aims to build picture of class inequality in the culture sector

NPOs asked to collect data on socio-economic background of staff
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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The cultural sector has long had an elitist image, and new data being collected by Arts Council England (ACE) should help to reveal the extent of the problem. 

From April, the arts council’s National Portfolio Organisations will be obliged to monitor the socio-economic background of employees in their annual data surveys.

ACE is hoping the data will help build a more detailed picture of the socio-economic make-up of the sector’s workforce in England. There’s already a significant body of evidence that indicates that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are underrepresented in museums and other cultural organisations. 

The arts council conducted extensive research to determine the right question to ask in order to measure background. The question that will be introduced is: “Thinking back to when you were aged about 14, which best describes the sort of work the main/highest income earner in your household did in their main job?”

It will be piloted in the arts council's annual data survey next year and reported on for the first time in 2021. The question is in line with Cabinet Office recommendations and comparable with data monitoring in other industries such as broadcasting. 

Simon Mellor, the deputy chief executive of ACE, said: “Gathering better data about the backgrounds of those who currently work in our national portfolio is an important step in understanding the scale of the problem and helping us to consider what steps we can all take to challenge the barriers that people face in entering and progressing in our industry.”

Susan Oman, a research fellow on the University of Sheffield’s Living with Data project, conducted the research on a fellowship to the arts council. She told Museums Journal that the research interrogated how to introduce a new question as sensitively as possible. Around 50 questions were trialled with NPOs of different sizes and disciplines to gauge how people felt about them.

“People don’t really like filling in data monitoring forms and asking one of these questions that is used to measure class can feel even more jarring than the more familiar questions about protected characteristics,” she said. “We wanted to pre-empt some of the issues with introducing a new question that people weren’t used to.” 

Oman said the research project had also made clear that tackling class inequality is not just about looking at how people start out in the cultural sector. 

“All the conversations I had as part of the research were useful to break down what we mean by barriers,” said Oman. 

“We tend to be fixated on how people come into the sector and on creative education, which is all really valid, but what is becoming clearer as the research gets stronger is that it’s not necessarily about getting into the arts but also about the experience people have when they are working there. 

“Even when you’re in the sector you still don’t necessarily feel like you belong there. It’s about not making people feel like they have to assimilate into those middle class, white spaces. It’s about changing the working culture and changing the conversation.”

The new data monitoring question is one of several recent initiatives aimed at tackling the sector’s problem with class inequality. The Jerwood Arts philanthropic charity recently remodelled its Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries programme to provide more opportunities for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, while the Museum as Muck network was founded to improve working class representation in the museum sector. 

ACE has published a webinar that explores the barriers people face in the arts and cultural sector due to class. The webinar is hosted by David Loumgair, creative director of COMMON, joined by Oman, Abid Hussain, the arts council’s director of diversity, Kate Danielson, director of Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries,  Michelle McGrath, founder of Museum as Muck, and Matthew Xia, artistic director of the Actors Touring Company.



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