A Beginning...

Posted by Roberto Bedoya, May 24, 2016 3 comments

In regards to the America for the Arts Statement on Cultural Equity, I have no problem with the statement. It's earnest. I give it a passing grade with room for improvement assessment. My question, however: where's the muscle in the statement that may inspire the cultural field to take on it biggest challenge, racial equity in our sector?

Some contextual information that informs my assessment:

In 2011, at the Grantmakers in the Arts conference during a session on the racial equity in the field, out of frustration at their lack of engagement with racism in the field, I stated that Americans for Arts should change their name to White Americans for the Art cuz that is what they message to the sector.

Later that year, I was thinking of sending a staffer to the National Arts Marketing Project Conference in Portland, Oregon and discovered to my horror that there was a lack of racial diversity among their speakers. I pointed that out to the Americans for the Arts leadership prior to the final program being set but, at show-time, I discovered that there were 4 speakers of color out of the 77 presenters, which angered me. The message was clear at that time, and Americans for the Arts's lack of responsiveness to America's diversity made me wonder about their leadership and mission.

Five years later, we now have a revised Americans for the Arts diversity statement that foregrounds Cultural Equity, which they define as groups that have been historically underrepresented. A commitment to Cultural Equity where Americans for the Arts names equity in race, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, etc. is essential to a healthy society. However, an honest, deep and fearless examination of how racism operate in our nation and in the cultural sector is the work of our times.

The aforementioned Americans for the Arts areas of concern can be addressed by taking on racism and it impact on our complex identities, our social systems—ourselves in society. To be a trusted leader, Americans for the Arts needs to unpack how Whiteness operates in the sector and how it sets boundaries that create and regulate how we understand race in the cultural arena. For me, framing the Americans for the Arts work around cultural equity sidelines the difficult work of racial equity and reads as a document that fails to hold accountable the ways of racism in our nation, resulting in an anemic statement and missed opportunity.

The trauma of disenfranchisement by social systems that we encounter in the expressive life of our communities ask that our cultural work be deliberate and intentional in how one engages in systemic change. Americans for the Arts's statement spells out a few ways to do this and that needs to be supported. We also need to celebrate the ways this work is currently being done by our colleagues. There are many other efforts afoot in locales across the county. They are part of an effort to understanding how the racial imaginary works in our cultural policies, public policies., governance, management systems, and democracy.

There are models out there to applaud and learn from on how as a sector we work to achieve equity in our democracy. For example: Grantmakers in the Arts racial equity undertakings; the City of Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, in partnership with the city's Office for Civil Rights, work on dismantling institutional and structural racism in the sector; The City of Nashville's Metro Art, "Racial Equity in Arts Leadership (REAL)" program which is developing a peer network of leader committed to equity in their work and community; and the Los Angeles County's "Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative," designed to implementing model programs and County-wide conversations to ensure that arts and cultural organizations reflect and embrace the diversity of LA County.

I was surprised that I was asked to respond to Americans for the Arts's statement given my White Americans for the Arts reference five years ago. So first off: I thank you for stepping up to the plate on this complicated matter. Your voice via the Statement is a welcome addition to the on-going work that many art leaders and art organization have been engaged in and to the work that lies ahead for us as a nation. And secondly, thank you for this opportunity to contribute my remarks to your blog which I hope adds to the ethical desire of Americans for the Arts to contribute to the good work being done across the county to fully realize a just society.

3 responses for A Beginning...


arlene@arlenegoldbard.com says
May 26, 2016 at 11:23 am

I deeply appreciate these comments from Roberto Bedoya, Secretary of Belonging in the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture National Cabinet. I'm glad to see Americans for the Arts speaking up at long last; and sorry that the statement doesn't advocate specific, concrete action to redress historic inequities.
I'm reminded of a 1970 statement (hence the gender pronouns below) by Rene Maheu, then Director-General of UNESCO. He is speaking of the articulation of culture as a human right in article 27 the UN Universal Declaration of 1948, pointing out that it's one thing to assert a right, and quite another to create the means to exercise it:
“It is not certain that the full significance of this text, proclaiming a new human right, the right to culture, was entirely appreciated at the time. If everyone, as an essential part of his dignity as a man, has the right to share in the cultural heritage and cultural activities of the community—or rather of the different communities to which men belong (and that of course includes the ultimate community—mankind)—it follows that the authorities responsible for these communities have a duty, so far as their resources permit, to provide him with the means for such participation. ... Everyone, accordingly, has the right to culture, as he has the right to education and the right to work. ... This is the basis and first purpose of cultural policy.”
If cultural equity is a universal human right, as I believe, then there is a universal requirement that collectively and individually, we remove the impediments to the exercise of that right and provide the means to make it possible. Asserting a principle without calling for the real-world, concrete actions that make it more than words is disappointing. The actions called for in Americans for the Arts' statement mostly speak of learning, research, fostering, advocating. How will deeply embedded inequities be dismantled? To cite Maheu, what is the full significance of this text in terms of real action? I await news of the new initiatives that will put flesh on these bones. 

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