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BLOG: Abigail on 50:50

Posted on 3 July 2019

Last week Sage Gateshead signed a pledge to have a 50:50 gender balance in all of our commissioning, our associate artists and our festivals. In doing this we joined hundreds of other organisations as part of Keychange, an international movement to increase gender balance in the music industry. Last week I also watched two operas containing some of the most beautiful music ever written – Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte and Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen – both composed by men some time ago and each with gender politics which are outdated to say the least.  Also last week Sage Gateshead opened its second Young People’s Festival and over 1,000 young people – boys and girls in equal numbers – raised the roof of our building with their varied and imaginative music-making. They performed hip-hop, jazz, folk, classical and DJed, in a mix which reflects one of Sage Gateshead’s core principles – all genres have equal status for us.

Until quite recently, I had been very cautious about targets and quotas. And I am still of the view that there is a risk of over simplifying a complicated and wide-ranging matter. None of us, as women, want to be promoted on the basis only of gender. Nor do I want to stop hearing Mozart or Janáček’s glorious musical storytelling. But I also think about the potential in 1,000 young people performing music  – within this number, some of these young people might want to pursue music and become professional musicians.  A small number might have this potential future – a far greater number will have the potential to have music as a skill, an interest, a part of life which builds meaning, identity and resilience – all things which contribute to healthy individuals and ultimately a healthier society.  However, as the saying goes, if you can’t see it, it’s harder to be it. So we owe it to our young people to get balance in our programmes and on our stages, rather than only show 500 out of 1,000 young people what is possible.

Much has been achieved in recent years, but there is still some way to go. Take three sets of numbers…Firstly, in a survey of 15 orchestras across the world, promoting 1,500 concerts with 4,000 pieces of music this season, only 142 were composed by women – that’s 92% of concerts presenting works only by male composers. Secondly, our major music companies declare a 30% gender pay gap. And thirdly, last season 76% of artists on festival stages in the USA were men. That’s all in 2019, not 1919!

So, whilst we won’t ignore the complexities in this matter, we decided to set ourselves a challenge at Sage Gateshead – to stretch ourselves and to find new ways to explore what has gone before and to set up a slightly different way of approaching what’s to come.  What, after all, are cultural institutions for but to be progressive, to widen the net. We are civic organisations – for and of our communities. So if we don’t try set an example for last week’s 1,000 young people, half of them won’t see themselves on stage and we won’t be able to look any of them in the eye.

Abigail Pogson, Managing Director, Sage Gateshead