Looking Like the People We Serve
Reading Americans for the Arts’ 2013 study on Local Arts Agency Salaries took me back. Way back to 1981 when I took my first position as executive director, and only employee, of a county arts council in North Carolina at what I thought at the time was an incredible sum of $16,000 per year, plus health benefits. Now my parents thought I was crazy for leaving the classroom with its pay (not much more than then LAA job) and benefits. I was still young enough to see the change as a great new adventure. Nearly 30 years later and a wonderful career, I know I made the right decision.
On the plus side, salaries and benefits have come a long way since the early 1980s. On the whole, salaries and benefits are better across the board. Some highly skilled positions demand a higher level of compensation, and rightfully so, than one might expect. For example, Senior Public Art professionals are required to be a planner, have a keen aesthetic/artist eye, project manager, legal negotiator, financial wizard, and more importantly are hard to find. It is right that their compensation levels are rising. I know some of my colleagues still struggle with wages that are not commensurate with their education and skill level or the demands of what we all know can be a 24/7 job. So we shouldn’t take the survey results as any more than a snapshot in time and hopefully provide information to help boards and commissions understand how peer agencies are compensating their employees.
But it is the not so positive side of the study’s results that I find more alarming – all in all as a field, we do not look like the people were are employed to serve. Yes, we are a profession dominated by women. I see that as a plus and actually enjoy working in an environment where women can and do succeed. But, we are way too white. I did not need the study to tell me this. I can tell by simply walking around the corridor in our office or looking at the audience at the recent AFTA Convention in Pittsburgh – but what I do not understand is why. People of color have made huge strides in filling the ranks of public service jobs from the federal to the local level. They lead programs large and small and serve with distinction. Yet, I know from personal experience that just posting a position does not ensure a diverse pool of candidates. I have even had to send search firms back out to identify diverse candidates rather than just accept the obvious candidates they bring forward. We have learned that if reflecting the people you serve is an organizational priority (which, in my opinion it should be) you must make deliberate steps to make it happen. This is not just true for staff but for board members as well. And, it has to be reflected in the investments we make in programs, organizations and the geography we are here to serve. I am not saying that we have gotten this right in Charlotte. But, we are trying. Over the past 3 years, we have convened professional staff and volunteer leadership of cultural organizations, including our own, in sessions to build both the awareness of the rapidly changing demographics of our nation and the need to have the ability to listen and communicate across difference of all types. This has led to a new emphasis on individual organization’s responsibility to address their own deficiencies in board make-up, staffing and yes, programming. We have made progress, but have a long road to hoe.
So while there is much to read as progress in the AFTA study, there is much to read as opportunity. If we don’t, the people we are called to serve will rightfully question who we are here to serve.