A Necessary Discomfort
When reflecting on the modules I developed for Americans for the Arts' Arts Administrators Essentials: Serving Individual Artists program through ArtsU, I was honored to have been able to guide fellow arts administrators and practitioners along the journey of understanding practical ways to support visual artists and become a well-equipped coach and support system, both individually and institutionally. My favorite part of this experience was the external fieldwork that accompanied the facilitated instruction. More specifically, I felt deeply attached to one specific exercise which urged participants to immerse themselves in an experience (i.e. screening, performance, exhibition, etc.) that featured the work of local artists. Participants were instructed to reflect on audience demographics and engagement, their own reasons for having not attended sooner, and ways that their organization or individual practice could be beneficial to the practitioners and participants that were embedded within these events.
While I still believe that these sorts of actions can have a positive impact on administrators and artists alike, I can also identify and acknowledge a blind spot in my own development of the prompts within this portion of my presentation: education on, and awareness of, systemic and socio-cultural injustices. Now, more than ever, arts professionals need to be able to specifically identify the structural issues that impact the communities that they enter into, how their own privileges and identities can uphold or worsen these inequities, and the potential for change that exists when these problems are addressed in a thoughtful and well-educated way. When engaging in the aforementioned exercise, I see how it can be very easy to remove oneself from the equation or take a surface-level approach to experiencing “difference.”
Taking notes on diversity, impact, and programmatic development may feel productive. When combined with the application of self-reflection, I can acknowledge how this would feel like a proud accomplishment for someone who’s taking a leap into something new. However, to enter a space where your identity and privilege (white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgender, etc.) are a part of the societal majority, may be attached to problematic histories within that community, and not reckoning with those implications ultimately makes one complicit. It becomes easy to shift the gaze to the comfortable “they” rather than facing the complicated hierarchy that makes up the “we” in this field, and our nation as a whole. One piece of the exercise I developed asked: “What are some points of entry within your organization or an affiliate that could be useful to this artist or group, and how can you share that information?” In hindsight, this sort of approach could have created space for a need-based mindset to creep in—meaning that instead of allowing the greatness of these groups to shine through and be the focal point, the representative’s organization and its desired outcomes were placed at the forefront, possibly reinforcing a savior complex in the process.
Before moving the group to third base, the emphasis should have been on first: pausing to assess where efforts and resources haven’t been placed and understanding the depth of how that came to be. For instance, if a community doesn’t have access to basic human needs, affordable housing, and/or a thriving education system, how does that impact the sustainability of the organization you seek to support? Too often we see the doors of impactful institutions close permanently due to the web of racism and inequity that has penetrated its surroundings and infrastructure. It feels like I’m replaying a broken record when I say this, but it can’t be repeated enough: It is up to us to step back and hold space for those who know their needs and desires, and also accept when those plans don’t include us or our good intentions. Even in those instances, we are not absolved of all responsibility. It still takes a village and we are each a part of it.
In closing—before the titles, labels, and accolades, we are human first and foremost. If you proclaim to be forward-thinking and an active contributor to social justice movements, but you turn a blind eye to the hatred around you, you may want to rethink your stance on who and what you stand for. If you see weak spots in the connection between organizational mission and execution but you don’t advocate for or actively try to fill those gaps—you may want to rethink your stance. Most importantly, if you believe in the global impact and importance of art and cultural preservation without supporting and protecting human rights for all … you need to rethink your stance, because neutrality is not what gets the work done.