In conversation with Abid Hussain about the pandemic and what the future holds

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Disability Arts Online Associate Artist, Ashok Mistry had an informal conversation over Zoom with Director of Diversity at Arts Council England (ACE), Abid Hussain in late July. They chatted about ACE’s initial response to the pandemic, working from home and what the future holds for the arts sector, especially where diversity is concerned.

Photograph of a South Asian man in his 40s with a trimmed beard, short hair, wearing a suit jacket

Abid Hussain. Picture by Edward Moss. All rights reserved.

Ashok Mistry: Welcome Abid Hussain from Arts Council England, Director of Diversity. So Abid, How are you feeling at this moment, in general?

Abid Hussain: Up and down. Things are changing literally by the minute and by the day. It’s been a surreal experience, working from home for the last four months, home-schooling the kids, doing the day job and trying to make sense of everything that’s happening, it’s been surreal. I think it’s made me realise how much we can do working from home and certainly as policymakers we’ve been able to work quickly over the last four months. That’s been a real eye-opener and something that stands us in good stead for the future knowing you can make difficult decisions and make them quickly.

Ashok: In terms of not being in the office has that made a big impact on how you work? Do you think you work better from home, overall?

Abid: You miss the social interaction. So sometimes, the things you pick up just from being able to walk up to somebody through having that informal conversation. Working from home has been incredibly productive, I’ve gained all the time that I would normally be spending travelling up and down the country but the one thing that you do miss working at home even though you’re constantly on video calls is those informal moments to catch up with a colleague. When you have a conversation by chance. So that’s the thing I really miss, those random conversations that take place because two or three people are in the same physical space, and that doesn’t always happen organically if you’re all working at home.

Ashok: Let’s go back in time a little. And if you can tell us a little bit about where you were, just before the pandemic started. In terms of your work around diversity, where were you end of February, early March?

Abid: At the end of February, we were completely focused on how we were going to develop a response to our new 10-year strategy, Let’s Create. And for me, from a diversity perspective, the really exciting opportunity there was to start work on our new investment principle which is around inclusion and relevance. So how do we make the sector more inclusive and relevant? And certainly, from the experience of the last four months in lockdown, that work is more important in terms of how we move forward to ensure the sector becomes more inclusive and relevant as we move forward.

Ashok: Could you tell us about how things unfolded, and how you needed to respond.

Abid: Yes, as soon as we went into lockdown, and the government announced that the sector had to close its doors for public events, we needed to act quickly. That was reflected in the speed at which we turned around the emergency response packages. And certainly, with the funds for individuals, and non-regularly funded organisations I’m incredibly proud of the work the team at the Arts Council did to turn those funds around so quickly. But equally, in making sure we built in time to have conversations with people to help shape the thinking that went into that. I remember writing the blog shortly before we announced the publication of the guidance, and it was a real eye-opener to recognise how much work we had done to make sure the funds could be as accessible as possible. We were removing barriers to funding, but also recognising that we could put more resources in place to support disabled practitioners in particular.

Ashok: What do you see as the main barriers to diversity having agency within the mainstream sector? So that’s the connectivity between people working within the diversity subsector, for want of a better phrase, and people in the mainstream.

Abid: The big thing is equity and so for me, the one takeaway from the last few months which will definitely inform my work in future is how do we find a way of addressing some of that imbalance in terms of resourcing and power distribution? Some of our best disability-led organisations, they’re incredibly agile, but they don’t have the same level of access to resources that the larger organisations have. So there’s an opportunity for us to have a very open and honest conversation around how we better support some of those amazing organisations that have really stepped up to the plate. I guess on the flip side of that Ashok, we need to set greater expectations and there should be greater accountability for those bigger organisations to make sure they’re becoming more inclusive and relevant – the responsibility they have to maintain opportunities for communities that have historically been underrepresented, in their previous offer.

Ashok: How can we stop the value that disabled people bring to society and the arts from losing prominence? So what we’re talking about there is, how can we stop the work around disability in the arts, being seen as a luxury, as people/organisations are trying to just survive day to day?

Abid: For me it has to be an essential component of what happens going forward. Looking at some of the amazing work that’s come through initiatives like Unlimited and organisations like Graeae, Deafinitely Theatre and so many other organisations up and down the country, that voice is now more relevant and more important than ever before. And certainly over the last few months what I’ve been struck by, Ashok, is how disabled artists, colleagues and peers have come together. And they’ve not only had conversations with each other, they’ve had conversations with government, they’ve had conversations with the funders with arts organisations. And one thing that has changed is we’ve connected people who’ve not been connected previously. And that’s resulted in some uncomfortable and challenging conversations. But the one thing we can’t let happen in the future is going back to the way things used to be. Now more than ever, it’s vital that the voices that have struggled to get platforms that their talent deserves, get heard. It’s important in the future that changes.

Ashok: Do you think protected characteristics are more visible, now? I say that because I’ve noticed a lot more people mentioning that they’re shielding. Whereas before I didn’t even know, that’s due to some kind of illness or disability.

Abid: In some ways, and I think part of that has been around how COVID has impacted different communities. Evidence shows COVID is more likely to impact on certain communities than others. And that’s probably heightened the conversation in a way that we’ve never talked about previously, because we’re now talking about people’s lives.

Ashok: Do you think disability, and diversity in general, is much more visible now? Because we’ve seen statements from people where they’re talking about disability or race equality, whereas months ago they wouldn’t have.

Abid: I think people are talking about things. The jury is still out on whether that then results in real, tangible change. I think what’s happened during COVID is people having ever more direct conversations; they’ve become a little bit more honest. And you’ve got more people from across the spectrum of the arts and culture sector talking; organisations sitting down with independents and freelancers. You’ve got disabled artists in the room. Where previously they might not have had access to those organisations. I think the conversations are absolutely happening. And the litmus test will be as organisations start to programme and recommission whether the conversations have resulted in the shift. So I think the conversations have become more prominent. But the jury’s still out as to whether or not we will see people follow through on those conversations and make the commitments that they need to, to change the work that they produce and present.

Ashok: What do you think is going to change now? Can you predict any particular changes in attitudes or work practices and that sort of thing?

Abid: Yeah, I think there are a few things. I think people are going to be more flexible around how they work. We’ve all found that we can do a lot of things from home, that don’t require us to be in an office or a particular building. So I think that’s going to allow us to be a more agile and fluid in the way that we work. And I think that will create opportunities for people who live in different parts of the country to work with organisations in other parts of the country.

Ashok: I was just going to say what about in terms of priorities? I’m talking about things like the ‘levelling up’. Do you think that’s going to be easier or more difficult now? Then there’s the balance between artists and organisations, things like that.

Abid: Well, I think that’s part of the wider conversation. So for example, there’s an opportunity for us all to think differently around how organisations and independents work, that will certainly happen. There’s a bigger conversation around how artists and arts organisations engage with their communities. Because we’re all part of that conversation, and certainly from my perspective, I think it’s recognising the importance across the country of having robust infrastructure, that gives opportunities to everybody. And so what needs to shift moving forward is what’s presented, compared to what used to be presented in the past.

Ashok: Is there one aspect or practice within the arts that you think we shouldn’t dredge back? I’m not talking about a person or a place, I’m talking about the way things are actually done. The way the arts works. Is there a cog that you don’t want to pull back?

Abid: It’s a good question. I’m going to have to come back to you on that Ashok.

Ashok: Yeah. That is a little bit of a difficult question, but I guess it’s one that has been on a lot of people’s minds in the sense of how the arts worked before and how it’s actually going to work in the future.

Abid: I guess what I would say is, we need a more autonomy in decision making. So speaking from an Arts Council perspective, when we managed the Emergency Response plans we got more of our staff involved in the decision making creating an exciting and a different way of working, where you could make decisions more quickly and having access to different perspectives within the room. It wasn’t just one set of people making all the decisions. Greater autonomy and democratisation of decision making is something that I’d like to see more of.

Ashok: And what single positive change in the arts sector would have the biggest impact?

Abid: It’s more collaborative working. It’s getting rid of some of the historic hierarchies that we’ve had. So, a good idea should be a good idea and we need to bring different people together. What I would like to see more of in the future which will make a positive impact is how do arts organisations, independent creatives and communities work more collaboratively and we’ve seen a lot of that through the Creative People and Places programmes. There is also an opportunity for the sector to think about how they want to work differently and how they involve people in that new way of working. So that could be exciting.

Ashok: Great stuff. Any final thoughts or anything you wanted to add? A message for the sector or anything?

Abid: From my perspective, working with the Arts Council, there is a real moment for us to reflect on how we want to deliver our new 10-year strategy. We can have a conversation about the language we use, how we use our development agency function as well as our responsibility as a funder. There is an opportunity to think about how our funding can make more of an impact in the future. And one of the things I’m definitely interested in is seeing how we can get more funding directly to disability-led organisations and disabled practitioners. There has been a lot of learning, in terms of how you can improve and simplify systems and processes to move quickly without losing the responsibility and accountability that comes with being a custodian of public funds. I think more agility, more collaboration, having an honest conversation about redistribution of some of that funding and recognising where more support is needed. If we can achieve some of those things in the future, I think we will be in a position to really see some exciting work emerge in the coming years.