In 1985 Ken Livingstone welcomed the arrival of a Black Arts Centre at the Roundhouse, announcing that it would ‘challenge the institutionalised racism of mainstream arts’. However, just one year later the project had folded and the Roundhouse was left empty once more. Emily Kerr explores what went wrong.
In the early 1980s, calls were mounting for better support and recognition for artists from minority ethnic groups. London was recognised as one of the most ethnically diverse capital cities in the world, with over 19% of its population from minority ethnic origins. However, Naseen Khan’s The Art Britain Ignores presented an analysis of a cultural scene manifesting racism in both arts institutions and literary circles (for example the Lyceum Theatre had introduced licensing policies excluding black people). Khan called for the different sub-groups such as the Caribbean Artists Movement and Drum Arts to come together and find a central focus.
There were several attempts to raise funds for such a centre (including a gala headlined by Sammy Davis Jnr) but little progress was made until a report was delivered by the Principal Race Relations Adviser to the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1983 declaring:
The time has come to give black theatre a home; black dance company a proper stage; black filmmakers a place to promote and show their films; black writers a place to research and write; black painters and craft people to show their work.
The GLC Arts and Recreation Committee listened, and together with Camden Council approved a project to create the Black Arts Centre. The Centre was to deliver on the following expectations and functions:
- To be a centre of excellence
- To be a monument and symbol of black achievement
- To be a venue of regional, national and international significance
- To be a long lasting institution for the promotion of cultural and artistic expression
- To programme work that promoted the best of black talent from Britain and abroad
- To accommodate training schools in dance, drama, visual arts and music
- To be a resource/library on black arts
The proposed Arts Centre would not be ‘a facility to provide yet another roof over the heads of ethnic artists’ or ‘another under-funded, under-resourced facility given to the black community as a token gesture’!
The Roundhouse was chosen as the Centre’s home – despite reservations around the level of renovation required the plethora of committees involved agreed that its location and reputation meant it had ‘tremendous potential’.
GLC documentation reveals that hefty costs were involved with £940,000 set aside across 1983-85 for acquisition, repairs and conservation. Dugald Gonsal, Camden Council’s chief representative on the project and engineer reveals how much of these repairs centred around the roof of the building which was in a dire state.
As renovations continued, the Centre began running off-site workshops at locations including Notting Hill Carnival and Queen Elizabeth Hall. As the building work approached completion a 12-day festival of cross arts performance and workshops was held to herald the Centre’s bright future. Artists involved included Ravi Shankar and the Dance Theatre of Harlem to name but a few.
Very little has been documented about what exactly happened next to the Centre. It is clear however that the political winds were changing. Livingstone’s high-spend policies were putting the GLC into direct conflict with Margaret Thatcher and by 1985, the government reacted without mercy. The Local Government Act 1985 was narrowly passed in Parliament, setting the end of the GLC for 31 March 1986. It can be assumed then that, with the dissolution of the GLC and an an insurmountable funding gap to fill, Camden Council were forced to look at options to sell the venue and abandon the project.
Would the Black Arts Centre have addressed racism in mainstream arts had it survived? Local resident Efua Taylor raised concerns to the GLC, suggesting that some believed that the initiative’s segregated approach may have been counterintuitive:
What are Black arts? Does the term refer to the arts performed or to the people that perform them? Does it mean that a Black person painting in the style of Picasso or playing Verdi is not depicting ‘Black art’? Would there then be no place for this person in the centre?
One thing that is certain however is that the extensive renovation work carried out as part of the project were not a wasted effort. The Roundhouse today provides the facilities, workshops and showcase opportunities for a diverse range of artists, just like those that the Black Arts Centre aspired to deliver. The building undeniably owes a debt to this initiative, however short lived.
- Report by Principle Race Relations Adviser. 10.2.83, Black Arts Centre Steering Committee Document Collection, London Metropolitan Archives.
- GLC Memorandum of Association Under the Companies Act: Black Arts Centre. Black Arts Centre Steering Committee Document Collection, London Metropolitan Archives.
- GLC Arts and Recreation Committee Grant Report: Black Arts Centre. Black Arts Centre Steering Committee Document Collection, London Metropolitan Archives.
- Letter from Peter Pitt, Vice Chair GLC Arts and Recreation Committee to the Director of the Committee. Dec 1983. Black Arts Centre Steering Committee Document Collection, London Metropolitan Archives.
- Letter from Efua Taylor to GLC. Date unknown. Black Arts Centre Steering Committee Document Collection, London Metropolitan Archives.
- The Arts Britain Ignores: The Arts of Ethnic Minorities in Britain by Naseem Khan. May 1976
- 12 Days at the Roundhouse, The Black Arts Centre (Festival Programme). 1985