Sunday, March 24, 2013

The More Things Change, They More They Stay The Same

I sat on a panel earlier this month at the Association of Arts Administration Educators 2013 Conference in New Orleans and was dismayed to see how few faces of color were in the room. Now before I go off on my usual rant about the dearth of diverse voices in my world, I want to say that I was also surprised to see more “colored faces” in the room than I had expected, but even so, there weren’t nearly enough for me to feel like things are moving rapidly forward in the arts world. I was on this panel with Tony Micocci (Assistant Director of UNO Graduate Arts Administration Program & founder of Micocci Productions LLC) and two of my National Performance Network colleagues, MK Wegmann (NPN CEO/President) and Maria Rosario Jackson (former NPN Chair & Senior Program Officer at Kresge Foundation) and our topic was SERVING THE 98% which was meant to address the 98% of the arts patrons who are not represented by the 2% of arts organizations/institutions that receive the vast majority of arts funding, both private & public. The theme for this conference was One Step Ahead: Advancing New Paradigms so I assumed we needed to address how the next generation of arts administrators and those who are training them need to understand the changing demographics of America. Having guest lectured for several years for the SMU Arts Administration Program, I am well aware of how insular the academy is when it comes to exposing students to anything other than the “mainstream” arts world. The knowledge of how mid-sized, small and ethnic-specific organizations stay afloat is negligible at best so our topic was bound to raise questions. I was pleased with the information each one of us delivered but I have to admit I left this plenary session shaking my head, thinking how little has changed since I entered the field of arts administration nearly 40 years ago. One of the biggest changes, of course, is the fact that you can now go to school to become an arts administrator! Back when I got into the business of arts management it was full of artists who decided they needed to eat better meals and possibly be able to rent a real apartment or, God willing, actually buy a house! The NEA had been on the scene a little over a decade and the country was making a shift to include the arts in its national conversation regarding what it took to make livable cities. I am fortunate to have cut my “real” arts administration teeth at what was in the 70s the leading state arts commission in the country as far as innovative programming was concerned, Connecticut Commission on the Arts. Tony Keller, the head honcho, was the leader in the field and so much of what we were able to do hinged on his trust in us and our creativity. But even as forward thinking as the CCA was, it lagged in one critical area, cultural equity. In fairness, I should say that CCA was no worse than any of its peers in so far as lack of commitment to cultural equity was concerned, and in fact, in many ways it was ahead of them in that it at least had some organizations of color on the “full funding” list as well as some artists of color receiving individual artists grants. CCA even had more staff of color than most of its peers, albeit most of us were relegated to the neighborhood arts category (translation: colored jobs!). But the fact that all but one of these ethnic-specific institutions survived the economic downturn of the 1980s is a testament to discrepancies in the support they received from the agency. All my screaming about de facto segregation and benign neglect went pretty much unaddressed (yes, alas I’ve spent my life screaming about injustices which is probably why I have so little tolerance left!) So when I fast froward to 2013 and see that we are still engaged in a conversation that has us trying to explain cultural equity vs. cultural diversity to a group of people who are charged with educating the next generation of arts administrators, I can’t help but to think the more things change, the more they stay the same. We still have a situation where the bulk of the arts dollars are only donated or provided by public agencies to 2% of the arts groups, all of whom represent Eurocentric cultures; all of which are large institutions; all of which use “outreach” as their major contribution to the discussion of cultural equity. If ever we are to see significant change in this situation, it will have to come from those who decide to work in this field and who recognize that 98% of all arts patrons may not be getting their arts experience in these large, largely Eurocentric institutions. They must realize that just as the Republican Party had a wake-up call about what America is today, the arts world must do the same! The diverse nation that America so proudly proclaims itself to be to the rest of the world must begin to live up to that claim or risk losing all of its major arts institutions to stagnation and irrelevance. A good start will be to get some people in these academies who’ve worked in the trenches and who understand how to energize communities by including heretofore excluded populations. Community Engagement cannot become the millennium buzzword for “colored people outreach”, a construct that has been such a disaster in the past. There must be the will to make real paradigm shifts which means real shifts of power and this is always a hard pill to swallow. The academy must reflect the real world and have both faculty and students that reflect that world as well. If I attend another arts conference where I’m hearing a rehash of the same conversations I’ve heard since 1974, I will be inclined to slit my wrists! Well maybe not, since I am much more inclined to simply decline the next invitation to attend. A luta continua...

2 comments:

Akintunde Funso said...

I hate to be cliche but Frederick Douglas said it best: "Power concedes othing without demand"

Unknown said...

this would be a great post for black art in america