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Wac Arts urged to tackle ‘Upstairs Downstairs culture’

'Performers asked to provide entertainment in return for sandwiches'

10 November, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

Wac Arts is based in the old Hampstead Town Hall in Belsize Park

STUDENTS and staff at a leading performing arts college have made statements explaining why it must tackle a toxic “Upstairs Downstairs” culture and describing events that made black students feel “small”.

Documents outlining a litany of allegations have been sent to Justina Cruickshank, the new chair of trustees at Wac Arts in Haverstock Hill, Belsize Park. They show claims going back four years in which staff and alumni say they were treated unfairly.

She has vowed to tackle the issues with a root and branch review. One complaint relates to comments made by a trustee after a production of Shakespeare readings three years ago.

A former student said: “…[after we] did that performance, some guy who no one knew started talking about ‘Wac saves people from the crime of the street’. “To paint everyone as a possible victim of gang and crime culture to fit their own narrative and agenda is wrong.”

Another added: “As we all stood on stage he started to talk about how if it wasn’t for Wac us young people would be on the streets doing crime. He made me feel so small and almost as if my life isn’t as great as others.”

The documents also make a complaint about a fundraising auction, at which students were reportedly asked to watch while huge bids were made for dinners with celebrities.

One said: “It made us feel awkward, like props, waiting to be helped by our ‘beneficent saviours’.

“This is not the first time students expressed feelings of being ‘wheeled out’ as some sort of Victorian ideal of charity, poor people begging for money, unable to look after themselves, rather than as vibrant young artists, coming together to support their organisation, showing what Wac Arts meant to them, and asking others to share in celebrating and ensuring its continued existence.”

Other complaints detail how students were asked to perform at private events in large Hampstead homes – but, it is claimed, were then told they would not be paid for their time and offered sandwiches instead. “I was asked several times to perform with the promise of exposure,” said one student.

“However, once arriving it was clear what the intention was. I felt very much like the entertainment of the night. I felt I was being misrepresented as a struggling poor black female. I almost felt like I was being sold.”

Justina Cruickshank

Another statement came from a black and minority ethnic trustee who stood down shortly after joining the board, which said: “I was struck by the lack of diversity. It felt like Upstairs Downstairs.”

The comments have been put together by the Wac Concerns Group, which is campaigning for change.

Ms Cruickshank said such a culture would not be tolerated – and a Concerns Group spokesman added it was encouraged by her approach, which includes new anti-racist courses for staff and trustees and increasing diversity across the organisation.

A spokesperson for the Group added: “We look forward to solving the problems in partnership.” Ms Cruickshank said: “I have started investigating. I am ready to take tough, decisive action. I’m confident we can work together to ensure Wac Arts remains a welcoming and impactful hub for young people from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds.”

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