Lara Ratnaraja Interview

Essay Interviews  
Lara Ratnaraja

Lara, I’ve known you for ages, how do you describe what you do?

Ha, this is an ongoing mystery in my family! My mum just thinks I know lots of people and that is my job! I describe myself as a Cultural Consultant. Everyone in my family has a title and it’s normally Doctor, so they don’t really get what I do. I tell them I’m a Management Consultant in the arts.

We met first when you worked at Business Link supporting the cultural sector, tell us about your journey to get there.

I haven’t got an arts background at all, so it was a complete accident, as most things are in my life. I didn’t have a passion for any one thing but discovered that I was a very organised person so when I came back from university…

Where did you go?

Liverpool Met. I did Russian, French and International Relations. So I spent a year living in Metz and I lived in Moscow and Kiev as well. Looking back, that period learning about other people’s cultures, how they live and their motives was such a valuable thing. One of the people we worked with in Metz was the archivist in the library (so I’m in the cultural sector there already) he had been interned aged 13 for speaking French when Metz was annexed by the Nazis. The other guy we hung out with a lot ran the local bar and had been in the resistance, he and his mates would get us massively drunk and tell us these amazing stories.

I was in Moscow at the beginning of perestroika when the Baltic States had started seceding from the Soviet Union. I think you knew about it at home before we did in Moscow, we just saw the tanks! Now, thirty years later, questions that were around then in Metz and the Soviet Union about the disruption of ‘liberation narratives’, who are ‘the victors’ and ‘the vanquished’ and how they are memorialised, ties directly into the work I am doing around representation, diversity and historical narratives.

So what did you do after Liverpool?

I worked in a call centre, obviously! I had a language degree and that didn’t equip me for anything (we didn’t know about transferable skills in those days). Basically I moved back to Birmingham because my best friends were here, we got a house together and I got this job in a call centre.

While at the call centre I started to run stuff for my brother and other people and began to realise that I was very good at project management, without knowing that was a thing. People approached me to run stuff and start stuff up. At one point I was working for a property maintenance company organising the maintenance of 3000 premises, we set up the first emergency repair service, where you ring up one number and get any emergency trade person you need, we had several big insurance companies as clients and I was about 22 or 23, so I didn’t know what I was doing!

Then I ended up at Solihull College as project manager for the Arts Office, where I set up all their adult learning and work based learning, remote learning, distance learning and vocational learning. Through that I made friends who introduced me to the artists David Osbaldestin and Andrew Tims. David, for some reason, thought I worked in HR and so invited me to join the board of Birmingham Artists. That was it, I was on my first arts board.

At that time I didn’t know how the arts worked, so when our first bid was turned down I got in my car and drove over to the Arts Council office to complain. The bid was resubmitted and we got it. I would never do that now!

The job at Business Link for the Creative Industry role came up at a good time for me, when I was looking to move on from the college. Getting that job was a massive fluke, they saw I was on the board of Birmingham Artists and thought I had much more of an arts background than I did, but it worked out well. The job grew in scale, I started as project manager on the Birmingham programme and became director for the West Midlands, I was much more interested in developing policy than delivering programmes. I immersed myself in the arts sector and also learning about skills and leadership and I talked about diversity. We did more in the cultural sector than any other Business Link, so we spoke to the Arts Council at national level and I chaired a group for DCMS [Department for Culture Media and Sport] about what best practice looks like. It was going really well and then the coalition government closed it all down.

And that was your prompt to go freelance?

It wasn’t my prompt, I went freelance out of necessity. I was looking it up recently, in 2011 132,000 public sector employees lost their jobs.


Yes, if you look at it, it’s 1.1 million since 2010. I can get you the source if you want.

I don’t think I’ve ever lost having public sector values, even now I’ve got a portfolio career (as they call it). I’ve been employed part-time by Birmingham University and work freelance. So for the last five years I’ve been doing things I’m really interested in doing. Working with academics and artists in a collaborative way, brokering intelligent partnerships between them. I help organisations build resilience and for the last four years I’ve been looking at leadership and diversity with Helga Henry. So I’ve got a really nice set of ‘projects’ – for the want of a better word. Together they form a cohesive whole.

My work splits into two complementary narratives. One is around (the sector having) a much more diverse work force and looking at what leadership means in that context across all the protected characteristics. And the other is about the intersection of Digital and Culture. That’s not just about putting things online, but looking at what it means for artists and audiences. Representation in the digital space needs to be diverse as well, so these two strands of my work do intersect.

This year Helga and I are working with Unlimited and how they transition from being a project within ArtsAdmin and SHAPE into becoming an independent organisation over the next 2 years. Coincidentally, we got asked to develop and run a leadership program working with disabled artists in Coventry, so that’s fantastic, what we learn from Unlimited we can apply to Coventry.

Thinking back to that Business Link time, there was a point when arts organisations were being told to be more ‘business like’. I wonder if you have any thoughts about what business could learn from the arts?

I aways got cross when people said “the arts should be more business like” as if they were all a bunch of students that didn’t know what they were doing! If you look, at most people in the cultural sector they have to expand and contract and turn on a sixpence, you can see that happening at the moment. I think businesses are looking at the arts for their flexibility and agileness. People who are shielding can learn from disabled artists who are saying ‘we’re used to doing this, you probably want to talk to us about it’. I notice smarter organisations are talking across the sectors. I was talking to Colmore Business Improvement District about the After The Interval survey that Indigo did (which was an amazing piece of work) and asking ‘why isn’t every sector doing that?’ because how people feel about going back to the theatre will be how they feel about going on holiday or to a restaurant and there’s a lot of that thinking that can be applied in retail.

You see a lot of art. Does ‘seeing behind the curtain’ spoil it for you?

No, now I watch things purely for pleasure. I was with two friends the other day and one said “wow your hobby is your job” and the other said “oh no, your hobby is your job” and I probably straddle those two responses. I do get really tired with the sector and the question of diversity which people have been really struggling with under lockdown and seeing really bad responses to that, but equally it was then a joy to be in a board meeting at Derby Theatres having a conversation about art and artists and what they’re doing to support them though all this.

I love being in a gallery, maybe because my dad took me when I was little. I never take my privilege for granted, I’m amazingly lucky, especially professionally, to get to see the amount that I see it’s incredible, lots of people don’t have access to the amount of theatre that I do.

What do you get out of being on an arts board?

I don’t know why more people don’t do it! In all the years I was on the Stan’s Cafe board, all the meetings I went to; maybe one was a bit boring. You arrive at seven pm, tired at the end of a working day and by the end of the meeting you’ve forgotten that you were tired. It’s energising being around good people on a good board. I’m careful about what boards I join. I joined Derby Theatres and Vivid because I’m aligned with their missions. That’s what I got from Stan’s, not that we all thought the same but the vision and purpose of the organisation has been really collaborative and underpinned everything.

I get loads out of being on a board, I get biscuits – which I can call dinner – and I learn. My understanding how theatre works comes from Stan’s. I was a founder member of Grand Union and my understanding of galleries came from that. A good board brings together people with complementary skills and one of the things I think the arts does badly is to think ‘we want an HR person and someone from marketing’ – just get really cool people and they’ll bring all that with them, or they’ll know someone who can.

On a good board there’s a mutuality of value, you get access to thinking not just from the company but from other board members. I think Rob Elkington is one of the best chairs I’ve ever encountered and all that stuff he talks about around young people and creative learning is all stuff I can talk about now. This sounds like a cliche but you get out what you put in. If you go onto the board thinking you are the one that’s bringing everything in then you get nothing out. Like I say, I don’t know why more people don’t do it.

What boards are you currently on?

They’re not all boards but… Derby Theatres, Vivid, Area Council [of Arts Council England], the Equality Monitoring group for Arts Council Wales, Shout!, Coventry Biannual… have I missed any… no, that’s it.

Area Council is a mysterious thing, can you tell us about that?

The first rule of Area Council is that you don’t talk about area council! No, well, we’re not a constituted board or anything like that. The Arts Council devolves its governance to each region and that is to make sure you have regional differences, which is really important. The big national conferences are fascinating as there are such massive disparities between the regions.

Area Council has a watching brief, we offer guidance in the NPO process and look at the whole portfolio, make decisions on applications up to a certain level and a lot of our thinking goes into decisions above that level and we advise on strategy. So that’s it and it’s all open, anyone can apply to be on it and it contains a mixture of arts organisations, local authorities, representation from people with protected characteristics and some of us are freelancers to make sure their voice is heard as well.

I enjoy being on Area Council as the gaps in my knowledge are huge. I’ve learnt about how ACE [Arts Council England] policy development works and how we feed up into National Council is good. I like knowing that what we flag up does then get taken up. The best way to change the organisation is to do it this way. I really like that the other members come from very diverse places so I learn from them too.

How do you think we will look back on this Black Lives Matter moment in the future?

I hope and think it’s the moment when the power balance is really disrupted. I don’t want it to be a David vs Goliath moment around big organisations because a lot of problems I have aren’t with the big organisations but are in the independent sector. I think this moment has held a mirror up to lots of people who thought they were anti-discriminatory and shown them that there is a massive difference between being anti-racist and pro Black Lives Matter.

I have been quite vocal about this. I think there was a lot of performative ally-ship going on. If you have never had a Black or Asian person on your board or your staff, then putting out a Black Lives Matter statement or putting a black square on your social media then was at best hypocritical and at worst meant you don’t actually know what bias is. I now withdraw my labour, emotion and time from any organisation that I don’t think has the values they have displayed on Instagram. That has caused a couple of problems already, as I won’t have my name associated with certain organisations and I think that’s fine, everyone has privilege and everyone uses their influence, so if my influence is to point out what I think then that’s fine.

I think that there are a lot of people still pushing this issue down the track saying ‘in about three years we’ll get a black intern in’. There’s a real lack of understanding, with people thinking that it’s all about young Black or Asian people, when it’s about, across the board, what are you doing about systematic institutional racism within the cultural sector? We know it exists. I know exists because it’s happened to me and people say ‘even you?’ Yes, even me. It happened to me five years ago with a director of an arts organisation. What they said to my face was erasing my voice and undermining my lived experience and then they moved on to the next thing because they were white and they could do that.

These people don’t know what they’re doing. When referring to participants in our Represent and ASTONish programmes we’ve had people using the terms “them” and “they” in terms of ethnicity, completely ‘othering’ Black and Asian people.

So Black Lives Matter and what’s been happening subsequently is just what any person that is Black or Asian has been saying for a very long time. People who are really thoughtful are looking at it and saying ‘okay we thought we were doing this, but maybe we need to unpick it some more’. We’ve had this conversation so many times at Stan’s, we’ve always had this conversation. There’s nothing wrong with admitting “I don’t think I’ve got this right” and asking “what should I do?” but some people are now literally having this conversation for the first time and thinking you get a Black or Asian person on your board and you’re done.


Yeah and one of my main issues is that people are using the pandemic as an excuse to close in more. I think they are underestimating what ‘communities’ mean and what ‘audience’ looks like.

In a lockdown situation what are people exploring in terms of culture? Yes of course there are the big theatre ‘live’ streams, but there’s more independent stuff, go on Netflix and look at all the Korean films or Indian films, I speak to people about these and they say ‘oh those films’ in that way, as if they don’t want ‘those’ audiences, they want the ‘cool’ Black and Asian audience not that audience. They haven’t looked at the actual world and are still thinking they will produce in the same kind of way and put on ‘Jerk Chicken Events’ for Black audiences and ‘Samosa Events’ for Asian audiences! There was an organisation that only ever invited me to anything if it was by an Asian artist, they’d never invite me to anything else. Is that a racist way to behave? It’s on the sliding scale of racism, quite frankly. I think some organisations will close down over this and I think they should.

BOM [Birmingham Open Media] does it very well, MAC does it well, BMAG [Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery] does it, The Hippodrome actually does it really well – if you want to look at something that’s really inclusive the panto is extraordinary! I won’t want to go all the time, but when you look at the cross section of people in that room it’s brilliant. I know they’re not all then going to go off and watch The Ring Cycle but you bring people in if they feel welcome, that it’s for them, not because it’s a community project and it’s ‘the Asian Day’.

My two remaining questions are: what are you most proud of and what is your outstanding ambition?

The think professionally the thing I’m most proud of is Represent, the leadership program I did with Helga and I’m proud of it because of the people who went on it and what they went on to do, so I’m proud of them really. I think I work in partnership really well and we worked in partnership with so many people on that programme, they are still all in touch three years down the line and are still very generous and collaborative, they’re going out to support other people now, the next generation. I love all that, when people pass these things on and forward.

I want to be really open to what the next stage might look like because I don’t want know I’m going to be doing the same thing year in year out. I’m amazed at how many of our peers seem quite happy to stagnate

Helga and I have always wanted to do this work nationally and I think now is a time when we can really change what this means for the sector. We don’t just mean running another leadership programme but seeing how can also create spaces for people and help organisations change and adapt because if there are systemic issues across the sector and people are plonked into organisations then they just burn out or they become the one ‘go to person’ for race.

My ambition is for the sector to be more open, curious and diverse and bring in the audiences we are talking about in a much more exciting way. I think this is a great opportunity to not just work in a different way but to co-create and co-produce. Let’s look at different audiences and work out how people can really feel like part of this sector. I want people to be proud that in Birmingham we have The REP and Stan’s Cafe and Capsule. That’s the kind of thing you want and whether you go to it or not is a different matter, you should be really proud that they’re there. It happens in other cities, I want it to happen here.

Interview by James Yarker, Birmingham, September 2020.

For insiders Lara Ratnaraja is a familiar face (and voice) around the Birmingham arts scene. Her support of many organisations and individuals over many years as an advocate, facilitator, trainer, consultant and board member is hidden from audiences but influential to those in the know. Here, in our very occasional series of interviews with people whose stories we’d like to learn more of, I ask Lara about her journey into the heart of the art word, her achievements, Black Lives Matter and what the future holds for us all.

Lara is:
Co-Producer of AD:Vantage
Programme Co-Curator of Hello Culture
Co-Producer of RE:Present16 and ASTONish
Industry Champion for Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre