Current ARAD student Sarah Lamade recently interviewed Davinia Gregory, a visiting scholar in the Arts Administration Program and the Sociology Department. Davinia is currently working on her PhD at the University of Warwick and will be presenting “The Creative Case for Diversity? UK funding policy and The Drum arts centre,” on April 1, from 6-8pm, at Teachers College, Columbia University in GDH 543. This presentation emerges from Davinia’s PhD research, which compares the United Kingdom’s (UK) arts funding system and those in France and the USA. Debates surrounding interculturalism and post-race in the UK context will also be discussed. This talk is free and open to the public.
By Sarah Lamade
SL: So, I’ve read a little bit about your work with the Drum, but maybe we can start with a brief overview of your research?
DG: Sure. The Drum was a performing arts center, in Birmingham in the U.K. It closed in 2016 in its 20th year of running, and that was a shock for everybody. It was the last of a series of quite well-established Black-led arts centers in the U.K. to be closed down by the Arts Council because of a lack of funding, but it had been doing really well. People who weren’t on the inside didn’t expect this closure, and the question was always sort of “Well, what happened?”
I had been brought in as a PhD student to do a collaborative PhD between The Drum and Warwick University. The expectation was that it was going to run for the duration of my PhD, and six months in, it was gone. My PhD became this kind of post-mortem of the organization, looking at not only what happened within the organization, but also what happens within the U.K. funding structure, which is a very top-down funding structure. I’m looking at the Arts Council’s policies and how they affect small arts centers and regional arts centers outside of London, but also how their cultural policies can be decolonized so that centers like The Drum that served to supplement the mainstream can be valued as much as mainstream arts organizations. It then also became a critique of the idea of a “mainstream” and other streams, and figuring out how to devise a structure that aims not to fix the branches on a rotten tree but cut down the tree and start again. My work looks at why an organization like the Drum was needed in the first place, as a sort of supplementary organization, but also at the role of what decolonization of arts policy could do and could be in preventing something like its closure from happening again.
SL: Can you explain to me how you’re thinking about these terms of colonization and decolonization in the arts sector and in funding specifically?
DG: It’s huge. So, decolonization, from the beginning of my PhD, as the four years have gone on, the word has increasingly become kind of stripped of its meaning. But, in making an argument for the word and for sticking with the word, if we actually look at its meaning, it’s still very much relevant. The people who The Drum served initially came from former British colonies in the 1950s to rebuild the country after the war, by invitation from the government. The people in the U.K. weren’t told that this was happening, so there was a lot of hostility when they came, and the immigrants ended up in these silos, one of which was Handsworth, in Birmingham, and the Drum sits on the edge of East Handsworth. These people, who were Afro-Caribbean, largely Jamaican, and also South Asian, largely from Pakistan and that area, ended up forming a kind of alliance and built these organizations. The Drum in itself in the beginning was decolonial, not necessarily in decolonizing the nation, but decolonizing the minds of the people who had been brought there. They needed to have some kind of solace, sort of a community center. When The Drum opened in 1995, it had multiple decolonial slogans from the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean across its walls. The Drum closing down and being the last of its kind said a lot about what’s happening with decolonization in the U.K. At this point, because it closed on the day of the Brexit vote – yeah, it was quite poetic – we want to ask, so what is happening now? Do we need to revisit this idea of decolonization, and are centers like the Drum not needed at this point? It doesn’t seem to me that that’s the case.
SL: What was the experience like of starting your PhD and having your case study close on you, and how did that change your research and your methodologies?
DG: Well, that was terrifying, but we all had to kind of snap out of panic and think well, actually, it’s terrible for the organization, it’s a loss for the nation, but actually for the project, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It makes the argument stronger, and it enabled me to consider things that I couldn’t necessarily consider before. And people were more willing to talk. My PhD is in sociology, and not the arts, and so my methodology was largely ethnography, but I also had access to people who were afraid of speaking to me in interviews because of the turbulent times for the organization, and they weren’t sure of their job security. Once it closed, they were like, “Ok, I want to tell you my side of the story.” So that was helpful, cathartic, I think for everyone involved, and it was good to be there as a kind of neutral voice.
SL: Based on your research so far, how are starting to think about applying theory to practice?
DG: It just happened naturally. I don’t know how to say it apart from the theory came out of the practice, really. Because the organization closed down, I didn’t have the luxury of doing a theoretical framework first, or even writing out the methodology first. I did it off the cuff. I was still taking my courses in sociology, I had come from a design history background, so I didn’t even know the methodologies, and I just did it. And then, I created my theoretical framework from had happened, so I almost did Grounded Theory, without knowing what I was doing.
Elizabeth’s Ettorre’s work on Autoethnography as Feminist Method really helped, because I needed to get a sense of my own experiences in the processes of doing this as part of the methodology. That became something that was first methodological, but then I thought, “Why am I using all these men for theory and then the women for methodology?” when actually, my methodology was really theoretical. So, I switched them over, and I have this kind of theoretical methodology and methodological theory section. It made me realize that in applying theory to practice, I did it through constant self-reflexivity and writing it down and recording it, and changing the way that I thought about my interactions with people and my position in the organization, always reflecting on that and then encouraging my readers as I write to do the same thing with their position as they’re reading it, considering where their opinions are coming from. Then, it became what I call self-decolonizing feminist practice, and that to me was inherently theoretical. So, there’s no distinction, I think, between theory and practice in my work.
As part of it, friends of mine who are sociologists, artists, and arts administrators created a group called Friends in Theory, and we ran it for a year. We used to meet up every month in London and read theory that we were putting into practice in our everyday lives, because all of us are engaged in decolonization in our various organizations in some way. It was a way of being able to discuss what we were going through in terms of the heart work and the hard work that decolonization requires, but through the lens of these theoretical texts. That really helped, but then we worked out that actually that was a practice in itself, and that comes into the thesis as well because you can’t do this work without that. The self-decolonizing feminist practice starts with the self but it goes out in waves. Eventually it gets to the organization, but there needs to be a self, a community of people who think like you, and then colleagues you find who are kind of on the same wavelength, and then the organization.