Wac Arts: Letter slamming Hampstead arts charity’s board ‘comes from a place of despair’

WAC Arts

WAC Arts - Credit: Polly Hancock

High-profile Wac Arts alumni have spoken out about their reasons for signing an open letter on the college’s “state of crisis”.

Open House visitors walk through the modern atrium where old meets new architecture at WAC Arts base

Open House visitors walk through the modern atrium where old meets new architecture at WAC Arts base at Hampstead Town Hall on 21.09.19. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

The letter, written in early July, was signed by more than 80 figures, from across the arts world. These included Hampstead filmmaker and playwright Che Walker, the Olivier award-winning actress Sheila Atim, and Hamilton star Jamael Westman.

But the list also includes current and former teachers at the Wac Arts.

The letter – from a group called Wac Arts Concerns – raises concerns about “microaggressions” arising from a lack of race and class diversity on the charity’s board, the furlough policy during the Covid-19 pandemic and the reduction in programmes.

Actor Danny Sapani, most recently in the BBC drama Killing Eve, grew up at Wac Arts in the 1980s.

 Celia Greenwood retires as CEO of WAC arts

Celia Greenwood retires as CEO of WAC arts - Credit: Nigel Sutton

He told the Ham&High: “We set up this Concerns group really to deal with a lot of the issues we saw happening at Wac Arts. A lot of which have been ongoing concerns since Celia Greenwood stepped down as chief exec in 2014. Most of our concerns come from a place of despair.”

The Wac Arts boards has said it does not “recognise any truth” in the complaints, and that it has tried to engage with the complainants and carried out an “independent cultural review”.

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It has self-reported the issue to the Charity Commission, as a matter of good order. The commission is currently assessing whether a full investigation is warranted.

Citing an inability to open a line of communication, Danny, who has been a patron of the charity for eight years, said the group thought it was vital for organisations like Wac Arts to continue to provide “a key resource” for young people unable to afford arts education.

He said: “There’s a disconnect between the senior management and the rest of the staff and the students.”

The group said it had questioned why the charity is only now advertising to replace the chair of the board, Liz Cleaver, who is stepping down, and why the makeup of the board does not appear to reflect the diversity of the Wac Arts community.

Danny added: “We are all patrons, alumni, parents and staff, we are ready and willing to help.”

The group’s other concerns include anxiety over turnover of finance staff and communication. Members said they had been trying to meet with the board for two years.

Stephen Medlin still runs Senior Wac, the weekend programme which made the college’s name, and was the course leader of the charity’s three year performing arts diploma – which closed this year.

He told this newspaper: “One of the key things is we have been pushing and pushing to meet with board to talk about diversifying it. Decisions are made at board level without consultation with the programmes team – there’s a real sense of upstairs, downstairs.

“It feels like a very corporate board. I fully get that you need some of those sorts of people, but in the last four years [since Celia Greenwood stepped down as chair of the board] it’s accelerated in that direction.”

Wac Arts was founded in 1978 by Celia Greenwood – who would go on to be chief executive until 2014 and chair until 2016 – ED Berman and Theresa Noble, since then a star-studded list of performing arts icons have passed through.

It is now based at the Old Hampstead Town Hall in Belsize.

Both Stephen and Danny said they felt that, with a diverse staff and student body, it was vital that the board reflected that diversity.

Danny said concerns came from “a place of love” adding: “We’re family, and we care and love this charity.”

In a statement, Wac Arts’ board said: “The board of Wac Arts takes any accusations made against it extremely seriously, especially where they are without foundation. We adhere to high standards of governance and are mindful of our responsibilities to the diverse community in which we operate.

“Whilst we do not recognise any truth in these allegations, which until July 5, 2020 were all made anonymously, we have made every effort to engage with the complainants over a two-year period, including carrying out an independent cultural review.

“We have already self reported the matter to the Charity Commission, as a matter of good order.”

The commission is currently assessing whether a full investigation is warranted.