Diverse Critics 2023: Flipping the script on arts journalism

Disability Arts Online's Assistant Editor Joe Turnbull introduces the Diverse Critics programme, aiming to rewrite the script of arts journalism for emerging writers

Article by Joe Turnbull | 15 Jun 2023
  • Diverse Critics

Readers with a keen memory may recall an article we produced for The Skinny’s March 2020 edition, introducing the first iteration of Diverse Critics, a career development programme for disabled arts writers. Spoiler alert: turns out, unless you were a toilet roll manufacturer, a trainee dog breeder or were thinking of getting into making substandard PPE and knew a government minister, March 2020 wasn’t exactly an ideal time to be launching a new venture.

Yes, 60% of COVID deaths were amongst disabled people. Yes, if you are Black you were three times more likely to die of COVID. And yes, the arts and culture ecology as we know it came to the brink of extinction.

But the pandemic did teach us some valuable lessons. For society at large, the outpouring of outrage and then white guilt (if we’re being honest) following the murder of George Floyd reminded those of us who had conveniently forgotten that racism is actually a thing and maybe (just maybe) the long entrenched impact of colonialism and its resultant human rights abuses should be explored with more depth and gravitas. For the arts, we discovered that the digital provision which disabled people have been screaming for for decades could be implemented almost overnight. And for our humble programme, we found that workshops for disabled arts writers are actually more accessible when delivered online.

So here we are, three years on. I’d love to say we changed the face of Scottish arts criticism in the interim. Not quite. We did support the original cohort to have their work published, and one of them even secured an article in The Independent. But the arts in general, and particularly arts criticism is still too much of a monoculture, with too many perspectives relegated to the margins. A situation arguably exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Professional arts criticism is an important element of the creative cycle and so it’s vital those voices are representative of the diversity within our society,” says Graham Reid, Equality and Diversity Officer at Creative Scotland. “Building on the success of the 2020 pilot project, we’re so pleased to continue support towards removing some of the barriers met by diverse emerging writers and recognising the rich diversity of perspectives held by readers, audiences and artists.”

So, with support from Creative Scotland and The Skinny, we’re doing it again. But different. As well as disabled people, we’re also supporting aspiring writers who are Black and People of Colour (BPOC). We’ve got an amazing cohort of eight writers, each of whom has something truly original to say about arts and culture. They’re all getting a bursary, training, mentoring and publishing opportunities. We’re trying to teach them the ‘script’ – industry secrets, tools and methods – but in the full hope that they’ll rewrite it.

"There are so many structural barriers that hinder Black and People of Colour writers from thriving in the arts journalism world, particularly when we face multiple marginalities,” says writer and anti-racist educator Titilayo Farukuoye from Scottish BPOC Writers Network, who we’ve brought in to co-lead the programme. “This is why I am so keen to work with Disability Arts Online on their Diverse Critics programme, which is an ethical, supportive way of giving very talented disabled, Black and people of colour an enthusiastic welcome to the art journalism world, and a fair chance to hone their craft and learn how to navigate a system that is designed to exclude them. And the crazy thing is, it will really serve us all – imagine the creative sector represented in its full variety and diversity, reviewed, and engaged with by people who have a nuanced understanding of the works – currently we are just missing out!”

In planning this programme, we were delighted to have secured an additional partner in gal-dem (a new media publication, committed to telling the stories of people of colour from marginalised genders) – one of the few beacons of hope and diverse-led brilliance in an otherwise bleak media landscape. Alas, as is symptomatic of how desperate these times are for publishing in general, in March gal-dem sadly announced they would be closing down after eight years at the forefront of the UK’s radical media.

With the collapse of such an incubator of diverse writing talent, this programme is perhaps more needed than ever. We’ll be supporting our writers to get published in The Skinny’s hallowed pages and other culture outlets, foregrounding artists, ideas and perspectives that are too often ignored. But we’ll also be nurturing conversations about how we can do things differently across the arts and culture sector, informed by anti-ableist and anti-racist ideas.

How can it be less exploitative (looking at you, Fringe), less competitive, more empathetic, more radical and just generally more vibrant? We hope it won’t take another global catastrophe to find out. No matter what the future holds, you can bet it’s those people who have to navigate barriers and discrimination on a daily basis who will have the most creative solutions to these questions. Working with this bunch gives us hope for change. So here’s to embracing it.

Work from the Diverse Critics programme will be published over the summer in The Skinny's print editions, on this website and at disabilityarts.online