The Growing White Elephant in Birmingham

***This blog was originally written by Rebbecca Hemmings in 2016, a version this was published by Arts Professional online magazine, entitled ‘Birmingham’s Big Problem’. This is part 1 of 3***

We have a huge problem in our city and it is getting bigger. Are Birmingham’s arts organisations fit for purpose? The short answer is ‘no’. Well not entirely, not when it comes to delivering high quality arts for and with all. I know that may hurt some of you reading this, so I must warn you if you are scared of being asked difficult questions and hearing some really honest responses, then you might not to want to continue reading this and go find a sandpit.

This originally started out as a quick blog to reflect on my wonderful (on the whole) day at the Arts and Learning Strategic Planning Day inBirmingham (I’ll explain more later). However, the more I thought about and researched the major issue that came out of the day, the more I started writing. Therefore, this has now become a 3-part blog (or an essay in its entirety). I make no apologies as the issue I raise has far reaching consequences and is currently affecting our city in a huge way right now.

To put the origin of this post into context, I should explain that I am the Director of a small drama education company called Strawberry Words based in Aston Birmingham. I have 20 years’ experience of working in drama education which include: several years running my company Harvey Arts and working for the former Sister Tree Theatre Company, four years at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Education Department, several years freelancing for Birmingham City Council’s Education Department, a year TV Presenting on The Wassifa Caribbean Show (Big Centre TV), Radio presenting for 6 years (Newstyle Radio). I am also an African Caribbean woman. I say all of this to demonstrate that I am firmly rooted in the history of Birmingham arts provision and I also have excellent links within the African-Caribbean community.

Photo credit: Engin Akyurt

After having had a three year break from the arts education scene (to have my daughter and other amazing stuff) I started Strawberry Words in 2013. Since then, I have been busying myself, establishing, defining and refining the organisation. Now two and a half years into that process, I am only now reaching out and learning more about where Strawberry Words’ sits in the wider arts ecology of Birmingham.

As part of that process, I attended the Arts and Learning Strategic Planning Day at Birmingham City University on 29th April 16. It was a day organised by Arts Connect whose role it is to connect children and young people to “…enjoy a rich and meaningful arts and cultural life.” I wasn’t sure what to expect. The promotional information spoke of “exploring the idea of working together to improve the quality of provision, extending reach and addressing cold spots within the city”. I thought ‘great, that sounds like a brilliant opportunity to get to know who is currently doing what and how we as an organisation can extend our own reach.’

There must have been about 90 people in this gorgeous conference room from which we had a scenic view of the stunning and ever-changing landscape of Birmingham City Centre. Before now, I had not noticed just how colourful, vibrant and unique all the structures and buildings are; beautiful! This was juxtaposed with a somewhat less varied scene within the room. Let’s be frank: I counted maybe six people who were from a black or minority ethnic background, everyone else was, go on hazard a guess… Give up? They were white.

I will let that thought marinate but you know I’m not going to leave it there. Read more in part two.

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