Cultural Leadership Challenges and Recommendations

Posted by John Arroyo, Jun 01, 2007 0 comments

It's the first day of the 2007 Americans for the Arts Convention! It's hot in Las Vegas and although the Flamingo Hotel can be a little confusing, we've all managed to navigate our ways through the casinos, crowds, and mirrored hallways (they all look the same and seem to take you back to where you started!) to our respective sessions. Speaking of navigating through challenges and obstacles, I'll be checking-in frequently to report back on my musings and reflections from Leadership Track sessions over the course of convention weekend. I'd like to share some thoughts on today's Cultural Leadership session...

Being a person from an underrepresented background and an Emerging Leader, I thought it would be interesting to attend today's CULTURAL LEADERSHIP session. Personally, it's very important that the arts sector is responsive to the rapidly changing demographics of the communities we serve. This is an idea that's been on my mind for a while, especially coming from Los Angeles, a region that is one of the most diverse in the nation. Although I would agree that certain ethnic groups are no longer a minority (at least demographically), I feel there is still an obvious need to continue to diversify our workplaces and organizations, a charge I invite organizations to adopt and implement as a field-wide value statement.

The Cultural Leadership session presenters included Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer (Queens Council on the Arts), Brian Pu-Folkes (New Immigrant Community Empowerment), and Maria Rosario Jackson (Urban Institute). The first part of the session focused on the background of each of the presenters work in immigrant communities and highlighted the need to be on the ground floor in order to establish relationships and maximize outreach. The second segment sparked an interesting (and necessary) discussion challenging various perceptions of race and cultural leadership in the 21st century.

One of the most important statments made during the session was that cultural leaders aren't always who you think they are (at least not by title). I began to think about this idea, one I hadn't pondered previously. In his case study about NICE's annual food and film festival, Brian Pu-Folkes identified that one of his organization's most respected cultural leaders is an active member of the Colombian community in Jackson Heights (NYC). Within the field, it's easy to assume that our professional associations within the government or nonprofit sector automatically make us cultural leaders. Although our professional titles may reflect this, I assume that new members of diverse immigrant communities don't always identify with their local arts agencies, arts nonprofits, or elected officials (whether from their own cultural background or not) as their cultural stewards. Those who are cultural leaders surely don't sport business cards that say "Cultural Leader" on them. Conversely, for these often informally identified cultural leaders, their roles are not clearly defined. Through their own efforts they may utilize their cultural skills to help new immigrant communities get a strong footing in a new place yet not realize their indispensable need. How do they maintain their skills and more importantly, how they they pass this on to a next generation of cultural leaders, regardless of their own ethnic backgrounds?

Furthermore, many of our neighborhoods and audiences are undergoing rapid shifts in demographics and economic transitions. During the session Maria Rosario Jackson (Urban Institute) invited participants to explore the idea of cultural vitality. Sharing Maria's urban planning perspective, I realized that that arts too often rely on itself for advocacy however there is a tremendous value we often overlook in working with professionals across the urban planning field (public health, education, etc.). I was also really interested in Maria's challenge to move beyond engaging communities from the development of new audiences to investing more time in makeing them active participants in both creating and possibly teaching art, wether in a formal (arts center or institution) or informal (health clinic, school, senior center) setting.

Another great concept I'll be thinking about is the notion of cultural commons, described by Maria Rosario Jackson as a shared space for expression and access, somewhat like a potluck where everyone is invited to bring their best dishes. The problem lies in having the recipe, but not having the kitchen to prepare it (not having adequate art spaces-arts districts, live/work spaces, artist studios). This continues to be a growing problem given the lack of funding in the arts versus the inability to sustain the development of both existing and new organizations in our cultural ecology. It also feeds my own personal reasons for workingin the arts (seeing my work as an agent for community development and social change, one I hope the urban planning field continues to recognie and embrance). Those interested in exploring data related to this concert should review the Cultural Vitality in Communities: Interpretation and Indicators report on the Urban Institute's website.

Finally, the I wish we had more time to discuss diversity issues in the field, and not just on a social or ethnic level, but also through the lenses of age and economics. In the end, being leaders and cultural stewards is a tremendous challenge. Where it might seems ideal to have always have harmony, a good leader will take necessary (and sometimes unfavorable) risks and challenges in order to open more lines of communication. One thing I've heard mentioned in various leadership sessions thus far is that all leaders need to "be comfortable with being uncomfortable." This is especially true for those who lead the arts, allowing us to be agents for culture and change (perhaps even defined cultural leaders or not) through creatively manueving our constant battles with the challenge of traditional power structures or organizational models.

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