The Greater DC Diversity Pilot Initiative, #2: Talking Diversity in the Arts (Reflections on the Community Diversity Forums)

Posted by Abe Flores, Dec 09, 2014 1 comment

I had never been accused of being white. It was the second Diversity Forum with about two dozen local arts stakeholders and a clearly skeptical gentleman asked, “What are two white guys from a national arts organization doing facilitating a local conversation around diversity in the arts?” The question took me aback. “I’m not white, I’m Latino,” I instinctively responded as if my bona fides to facilitate this conversation were my non-whiteness. The gentleman had come into the meeting space with folded arms and body language that clearly expressed skepticism towards the purpose and the conveners of the forum. I continued to address the gentleman’s questions with a more detailed overview of the Diversity Initiative:

  • We were there working with the local arts agency to create a space for dialogue to discuss diversity issues identified by our partners and forum participants.
  • We are doing this in the six regions that constitute the Greater Washington DC area to help bridge efforts and learning locally and if possible nationally.
  • Finally, we are doing this because the arts administration field has made it clear to us that it’s time to move beyond simply agreeing on the need for more diversity and begin to create actionable frameworks. Our first steps were these sometimes awkward conversations to develop small objectives to begin to address local diversity in the arts.

Are we the ideal conveners? Debatable. Is this the perfect process? Unlikely, but it’s a start. We do not have all the answers but we do have a set of questions and a space for open dialogue that we hope surface a workable direction to address diversity for our partners and our field.

So again, why us? Because our department’s (Local Arts Advancement at Americans for the Arts) purpose is to serve and advance local arts, and the three staff members leading this effort have expertise running a local arts agency. We’ve conducted a major research initiative on diversity, and have facilitated many local community arts meetings. Americans for the Arts understands that “All the Arts for All the People” does not happen automatically and the health of the nation’s arts ecosystem depends on serving everyone (in some way) by increasing access and cultural equity. Diversity in the arts is about serving all segments of your community and ensuring their robust participation in the arts.

Thinking and writing about diversity (which isn’t only about race of course but also gender, social-economic status, sexual orientation, etc.) in the light of Ferguson and Staten Island, I can’t help but feel that my role in the conversation is insignificant and that I am out of my depth. There are major forces at play when it comes to bias –big systemic and institutional issues that will not be resolved by any one individual, organization, or sector. This is the effect of poverty, inequality, disenfranchisement, oppression, distrust, and the legacy of racism. We all must have the guts to be wrong, to have uncomfortable conversations, and to embrace the complexity of these issues. We must be respectful and know that when we talk about diversity, we are talking about trying to understand and serve individual and collective perspectives and experiences that are not our own. We all have a story, and we all must be ready to listen.

In our diversity initiative forums, the participants, conversations, and flow have varied greatly. As with any community conversation, the participants in the room ultimately define the conversations. We planned these forums to be open dialogues with some presentation of census data, key diversity terms, and local context provided by our local arts agency partner. But diversity conversations of all types, particularly those around race are highly sensitive and personal issues defined by our own experiences, and this made the conversations take unplanned and at time tense turns, even if they always ended up as illuminating necessary conversations. A couple of conversations, comments and ideas particularly stand out to me:

  • Self- Identity is fluid. In a mixed room I’m Latino, with other Latinos, I’m Mexican, in Mexico, with my cousins I’m American, and at a comic book convention I’m a Star Wars nerd (first and foremost).
  • Perceptions often define how people are treated or engaged. This signals the need for extensive community engagement and collecting information directly from groups - not assuming you understand other groups’ needs or wants.
  • Geography and transportation play a big role in accessing arts. We have heard about isolated communities without easy access to current art offerings. This has sparked several comments on the need to go into communities and not just expect them to come to you.
  • Diversity challenges the mission’s of some non-profit arts organizations: If your arts organization mission is to preserve a certain art form, how do you engage new audiences without compromising your mission? Can and should all arts organizations serve all segments of a community?
  • Fear of alienating current audiences and donors. Changing your current programming to increase diversity can alter the experience and bring in conflicting audiences. I want to be able to take my 7 year old to the symphony, I’m not sure if an octogenarian (who may also be a big donor) sitting next to us would appreciate his fidgetiness.
  • People must feel that they belong at a particular arts event in order for them to participate. You must create comfortable and inviting experiences in order to bring new people into your doors.
  • Reciprocity is vital. You can’t expect people to come to your party if you don’t go to theirs. You want to engage your local Latino population? You want them to come to your event? Have you gone to their events? Community meetings? Have you talked to the groups serving them inside and outside of the arts?
  • Diversity is an internal and external process. It starts with your board and staff then moves to your community.
  • Confusing token diversity actions with real change. If you think that special programming during Black history month or Hispanic heritage month checks your diversity box, we have heard over and over, you are mistaken. Diversity is a sustained effort.
  • The importance of viewing the local arts ecosystem holistically. It’s not about making sure every single arts organization is serving every single person but rather that there is something for everyone in their local arts ecosystem. Local Arts Agencies have a critical role in diversity efforts by stewarding and understanding the whole arts ecosystem.

In my opinion, diversity discussions in the arts administration field are about the central purpose and mechanics of public funding for the arts. Who should receive funds? Based on what criteria? Who decides? And for what end? When do you “give people what they want” or “what they need”? How do you conclude what is needed versus what is wanted? What is the right balance among funding art preservation, art advancement, or art’s instrumental powers (e.g. community development, health etc.) When are you cultural tastemakers or cultural preservers? When is it appropriate to fund new experimental art instead of familiar art? Both are important to a healthy arts ecosystem, but both serve different purposes and audiences. These are difficult questions without definite answers and they can only be addressed by local stakeholders with open discussions, processes, and a whole lot of humility.

Personally, I hate either/or questions and always prefer the answer both/and. In an ideal world there will be funds for art that challenges and art that meets people where they are, but as all funders know – you can’t fund everything and you must make priorities. This then leads to the central purpose of publicly funded arts: to ensure healthy art ecology, where art itself advances, experiments, and challenges as well as preserves culture, connects, and persuades. So, if public money is to steward a healthy arts ecology then those charged with dispensing those funds must have a deep understanding of the current health, equity, and access of art offerings. This necessitates active arts leaders starting conversations with people who are currently being served and people who have never been served. Finding out who isn’t served and what art will connect with them requires arts leaders to build new relationships, listen, and develop new strategies.

Any conversation around diversity, cultural equity, and access must spend some time on big, complicated, and sensitive issues around identity, prejudice, and institutional racism. So there must be a collective recognition as a field that this is bigger than getting “minority butts in seats” and rather a discussion of the core purpose of publicly-funded arts and culture in general. Our field understands the power of the arts. Where and how that power is directed depends on the realities of the community being served.

Diversity’s implications for arts leadership (in my humble opinion) revolve around achieving true community engagement (particularly with unconnected and underserved communities), creating a space for open community dialogue to set local priorities and understand needs, and setting clear goals to achieve a community-defined healthy local arts ecosystem.

“The arts” are many things to many people, but we can all agree on their power to connect and build understanding. Our field has an important role in diversity specifically in aiding community relations. We are connectors and translators. We will not solve all of the systemic issues but we can be partners in the solution by engaging in these conversations and begin developing short-term objectives for our field that can lead to bigger objectives with other fields concerned with community health and vitality.

So where to begin? Start the conversation, whoever you are (even if you are white), find out where the gaps are, and when the skeptical gentlemen expresses his views and challenges you, meet him where he is. Know that only through dialogue will he unfold his arms, craft solutions, and move forward as a partner.

1 responses for The Greater DC Diversity Pilot Initiative, #2: Talking Diversity in the Arts (Reflections on the Community Diversity Forums)


John Ryerson says
December 10, 2014 at 10:23 am

Good article. You might think about "classism" as a another filter - the economic sustaining of white privilege is more subtle and more harmful in the long run because it is insidious

  • Please login to post comments.