Wac Arts: Patrons of famous college resign en masse over unresolved concerns

Simon Callow and Ms Dynamite among high-profile supporters to step down over 'corporatist' changes

Thursday, 25th March 2021 — By Dan Carrier

WAC Arts at old Hampstead Town Hall

Wac Arts is based in the old Hampstead Town Hall

THE high-profile patrons of Wac Arts – a leading college for actors, musicians and performers – have resigned en masse after claiming their concerns about its future were not properly dealt with.

In a stinging letter of resignation, they said an “unthinkable situation” had developed in which staff and students had come up against the management, and that “allegations of institutional racism” had been dismissed.

The patrons stepping down include actors Martina Laird, Danny Sapani, Ann Mitchell, Owen Teale and Simon Callow, as well as choreographer Jonathan Butterall and Niomi McLean-Daley, the singer known as Ms Dynamite who has a plaque dedicated to her outside the college in Belsize Park.

Wac Arts, based in the former Hampstead Town Hall in Haverstock Hill, was founded in 1978 to provide classes for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Thousands have benefited from its classes and a glittering alumni have looked back with fondness and support.

Ms Dynamite has a plaque in the ground honouring her work

But the patrons’ resignations follow a turbulent period in which concerns have been raised over staff turnover and financial planning, and the New Journal revealed last year how staff and students had founded the Wac Concerns group that raised complaints about a lack of diversity.

New chair Justina Cruickshank was appointed in October and met the group, vowing to rebuild trust.

But the patrons, whose roles include promoting the college, said they have waited long enough and were now collectively stepping down.

Their resignation letter said Wac Arts had previously been “transformative… a beacon and inspiration”, where “gifts flourished, lives were changed,” but continued: “Wac as presently constituted is no longer the Wac we so admired and to which we passionately committed ourselves.”

The letter stated the patrons believed Wac Arts had moved away from its core objectives.

“With success came expansion,” the letter said. “With expansion came organisational changes, until, little by little, a formerly unthinkable situation occurred – management was pitted against staff and students.”

It added: “Allegations of institutional racism, intimidation and gas lighting were raised by experienced workers, only to be dismissed. This situation came to a head with the pandemic and an inexplicable attitude to selective and divisive application of furlough procedures. Staff and students became alienated.”

The patrons said attempts to mediate had failed.

Simon Callow is among the patrons to leave Wac Arts

“We view the situation with dismay, because its only outcome can be loss for the students and an increasing sense of marginalisation for the staff,” their letter said, adding that the board was moving ahead “with lacerating cuts” and “reshaping of the school along corporatist lines”.

Ms Cruickshank thanked the patrons for their work and said the college had listened, while also tackling challenges created by the pandemic.

Wac Arts chair Justina Cruickshank: ‘Real, long-lasting change does not happen overnight’

Ms Cruickshank said:  “A lot of work has been completed over this past year to build a stronger future for Wac Arts. As the incoming and new chairwoman, I promised to listen to the group’s concerns and did so via regular emails and Zoom meetings. I personally investigated all the allegations they presented to us and updated the Group regarding the policy and practices we have changed where it was appropriate to do so in the best interests of Wac Arts.

“However, real long-lasting change does not happen overnight, and I have been clear from the outset that this requires time and investment from all parties as over a decade’s worth of issues need to be addressed. I presented the Group a timetable of action which sees improvements being made throughout the remainder of 2021, so there is still a long time to go before our transformation work is complete. 

She added: “Our amazing staff team has been working incredibly hard to strengthen the charity’s culture, finances and operations, and to provide vital services to our beneficiaries during the extremely challenging times of this brutal pandemic. In my six months as Chairwoman, I am proud of the progress they have made, and we have lots of exciting programmes coming up for young people including a new local community-curated arts festival this summer. 

“It is true that Wac Arts is evolving, and it is becoming stronger. Its improved financial sustainability will help us to empower many thousands more young people through the arts and so serve our diverse communities better than ever.”

On the issue of racism, Ms Cruickshank said: “Wac Arts has a zero tolerance for racism, and we have reviewed and changed historic policies of concern. Staff and Trustees are about to undergo anti-racism and unconscious bias training and we are creating an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion working group that will feed into policy so that the charity best represents Wac Arts’ wonderfully diverse communities.

“I strongly feel that the last 12 months have been very challenging and exhausting for ethnic minorities and more needs to be done in all aspects of life to build positive allies and to remove the structural barriers that people face because of the colour of their skin.”

The charity reject the claim of ‘lacerating cuts’, adding that staff had received a pay rise and that “no cuts have been made to frontline provision at all”.

A statement from the Wac Concerns Group said: “Senior leadership, the board and the chair remain in denial about the damage they have caused to the community and Wac Arts’ reputation. We hope the patrons’ drastic action facilitates an awakening and a new course.”

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