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Diversity row: Stars threaten to quit as patrons of celebrated arts college

Crunch talks set up at Weekend Arts College

21 August, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

Simon Callow is among the patrons who have asked for a meeting

HIGH-PROFILE patrons of a celebrated arts college have threatened to resign unless concerns over how it is run are discussed at an emergency meeting with staff and users.

Actor Simon Callow is among those who have signed an email to the board of trustees at the Weekend Arts College (WAC) in Belsize Park, warning that “the very existence of this great indispensable organisation” is at stake. It follows discontent over what has been seen by some as a lack of diversity among WAC management, as well as concern regarding its finances and the future of popular courses.

Mr Callow was joined by fellow actors Martina Laird, Ann Mitchell, Danny Sapani and Owen Teale, as well as theatre and film director Jonathan Butterell, who all said they would walk away unless action was taken.

It follows the formation of the WAC Concerns Group, made up of staff, and current and former pupils, who say they have not been able to secure meetings with the trustees.

The group claim WAC needs to balance its books to protect courses, and bring in more representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. The board has now arranged to hold crisis talks on September 11.

In an email seen by the New Journal, the patrons wrote: “We are patrons of WAC, and have become increasingly anxious about a crisis that threatens the very existence of this great, indispensable organisation. We are deeply disturbed by the refusal of the full board to hold an enquiry into the situation, or indeed to meet the complainants.”

The college, based in Hampstead Town Hall, has enjoyed a four-decade reputation for providing world-class training for people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Its glittering alumni include the likes of singer Ms Dynamite, jazz pianist Julian Joseph, and actors Sophie Okanedo, Danny Dyer and Sheila Atim.

The Weekend Arts College is based at the old Hampstead Town Hall

The patrons’ email went on: “At the very least, the board have to admit that there is widespread discontent. All that anyone is asking is that the full board should address the matter in an open enquiry. If that enquiry discovers that there is no foundation to the allegations, so be it. But the board cannot refuse to engage. They are the guarantors of transparency and accountability.”

It added: “That’s what a board is for – to take responsibility and to be accessible. A secret board, an invisible board, a shy board, an anonymous board, is a contradiction in terms. If the board does not act now, WAC’s entire credibility is shot. We, the patrons, fear for its future, and hereby give notice that in the absence of action, we will all resign forthwith.”

Last month,  82 members of staff, pupils, parents and alumni had written a joint letter of complaint that questioned how the college was being run and how it could protect its core focus of offering opportunities to disadvantaged young people.

When contacted by the New Journal this week, WAC said that it did not wish to respond in advance of the scheduled meeting, and offered no comment. Theatre director and writer Che Walker, who has been involved with WAC for 30 years, told the New Journal that a complaint made to the Charity Commission, which the body confirmed they had received, had been put on hold until next month’s meeting.

Mr Walker added: “After months of wrangling, the board have agreed to meet with us all and I believe they have been swayed by the patrons’ email. Morale among teachers and the delivery team has never been lower. Sometimes we have children who have absorbed negative ideas about themselves and can be quite self-destructive.

“Turning that around means as much to us as a teaching community than the list of people who have been here and made their names. We fear the board do not understand how important that is. It feels like they come from a different world. Many feel they are too white and too corporate.”

Last month, the board published a statement underlining a commitment to increasing the “breadth of voices that impact our decision-making”, as well as changing their approach to recruitment and vowing to “diversify” management by 2021.

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