The Question of Equity

I am gratified to see that the question of equity and the arts remained on people’s radar screens over the Holidays. A number of end-or-the-year posts listed it as a major topic of 2011. (Notably, Ian David Moss’s Createquity post The Top 10 Arts Policy Stories of 2011 and Barry Hessenius’s Barry’s Blog post Resolved.)  It looks like it will continue to have some traction. And, as is always the case when there is the prospect of oxen getting gored, there is a good deal of heat that is being generated. (Mixing metaphors is a specialty of mine.) Of particular interest to me, because of the high visibility of the NY Times and my background coming out of the arts establishment in music, is Anthony Tomassini’s column at the end of December: Occupying the Arts, One Seat at a Time. Diane Ragsdale beat me to the punch in responding (Time to start pulling off the duct tape …) and got a couple of high dudgeon replies, but that doesn’t mean I can’t play too.

Mr. Tomassini holds that because free or low-cost tickets are available to some classical music programming, there is therefore no issue about equity. “[C]an we all agree to put aside at last the charge of elitism? . . .  At least in New York and in many other American cities, as well as most college towns, there are abundant opportunities to attend free or very affordable concerts and operas.”

Really?! That’s what defines equity (and trumps any concern about elitism)?

My initial (emotional) reaction was in line with Ms. Ragsdale’s. Now that I’ve simmered down a bit, it’s occurred to me that a brief review of the meaning of equity is in order.

To me, equity is about access, true; but it is also about agency, the individual’s ability to make choices meaningful to them. Further, let’s be clear, it is about who gets to make what choices.

So, access: Free or inexpensive tickets do provide access. My experience of such tickets, however, is that they can require considerable savvy and persistence to obtain and exist for a pretty small percentage of the total cultural experiences available in a city. In addition, they are often for limited times and less than ideal locations. But I will absolutely grant that they exist and that they provide access. It is worthwhile to remember that their role is often not primarily to provide access but to fill seats–as my theatre buddies say, “papering the house.”

Also, as a side note for the record, as I often mention to my arts management students, events on college and university campuses are often not comfortable destinations to outsiders. (Mr. Tomassini cited free programming on campuses as a significant element of his argument.) On-campus events can be incredibly difficult to locate (when was the last time you tried to make sense of a map on  an unfamiliar campus?) and they can feel intimidating to those from outside academia. These factors make them, for some, functionally inaccessible.

Agency: If an event is free but I’m not interested in it, it’s “freeness” is not meaningful to me. Of course, that is not the fault of the provider; but if none of the cultural opportunities available speak to me or are not expressions of my culture, then I’m out of luck and the system as a whole (as opposed to any individual provider) is not serving my needs. This is the source of one of the disconnects in the discussion. There is a difference between systemic inequity and the issue of equity with respect to individual arts organizations. (Although the public good mandate of 501c3’s injects another element into the equation, one that is too big for this post.)

Who gets to make what choices?: And here we get to the BIG QUESTION. We have an infrastructure that provides (and has provided) millions (and millions) of dollars to support the delivery of DWM (dead white male) cultural artifacts. [PLEASE, before anyone goes off on me for that observation, bear in mind that I am a product of that infrastructure and am in this business because of my personal love for DWM arts and their contemporary expressions.] This is not just support for programming; it is training systems for artists and buildings (offices, concert halls, museums and galleries) along with arts organizations and their support mechanisms. All of these have evolved over the last century (mostly the last fifty years) and have as their principal function (whether explicitly or de facto) to support European culture and arts derived therefrom. (“Therefrom” is not a word I get to use frequently!)

And who makes the choices about what arts are presented? Artistic directors trained by and/or products of the arts establishment, donors for whom the artistic status quo is meaningful, and Board of Directors largely made up of donors. Cultural expression from outside the European reflective arts tradition has no natural advocate in this richly resourced system. (Yes, I know that all arts organizations struggle to make ends meet. I teach arts management after all. But imagine what the cultural life of the U.S. would be like if, for instance, African music, dance, drama, and visual art had as much infrastructural support as does European.)

Equity is both an individual and a systemic issue. The individual one may, on the surface, seem easier to address; however, individual equity cannot be separated from systemic equity. Without the latter, from where do the culturally meaningful arts experiences come? (Even when established arts organizations “reach out” and program outside their cultural center, it is, by definition, an add-on. Why should it be the Euro-centric organizations that are provided the resources to program cross-culturally instead of the individuals and organizations for whom those arts are native?)

I have no immediate answers to offer. Like the Occupy movement generally and Scott Walters of Theatre Ideas more directly, I believe that acknowledging the issue is a first step. I know my succeeding steps will be focused on pointing out that the arts establishment has a (long-term) self-interest in responding to the inequity that does exist (sorry, Mr. Tommasini) in the arts infrastructure in this country.



Not Equal image AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by holeymoon (And thanks to Clayton Lord at New Beans for finding it first.)


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  1. Frank Hibrandt says

    “On-campus events can be incredibly difficult to locate (when was the last time you tried to make sense of a map on an unfamiliar campus?) and they can feel intimidating to those from outside academia. These factors make them, for some, functionally inaccessible.”

    There is your task. Let academia fix its own home first. Then we will talk.

  2. Habeas says

    I am intrigued by your concept of agency so I want to take it apart. “Agency: If an event is free but I’m not interested in it, it’s “freeness” is not meaningful to me. Of course, that is not the fault of the provider;”

    Let’s start here. If the above is taken as a given, then it appears a “provider” doesn’t have an obligation to serve the people who lack interest in what it provides. If a provider gives me a gift (free tickets) that I don’t want, I have the agency to reject the gift. Free tickets only remove economic barriers, not interest/culture barriers. It can be assumed that existing/ surviving arts organizations are already serving a population interested in their work. Free tickets are one meaningful step toward addressing economic barrier issues that might increase the size of the audience served. Free tickets do not in themselves address cultural issues such as an individual’s discomfort on a college campus. (Do existing organizations have an obligation (legal or moral) to address such cultural issues? Is this what “public good” means? food for thought…)

    “but if none of the cultural opportunities available speak to me or are not expressions of my culture, then I’m out of luck and the system as a whole (as opposed to any individual provider) is not serving my needs.”

    However, the system is composed of individual providers. The first part of the definition suggests that these providers have no obligation to work with uninterested individuals. So does “agency” lead to new organizations in order to meet my needs? If so, who is responsible for creating and maintaining them? Trying to figure out where your concept of “agency” leads, and what if anything it suggests as a course of action for existing organizations and for individuals.

    • says

      There are basically three issues. First, individual arts organizations have no inherent responsibility to address systemic inequity. (Although, as I said, there is an argument to be made that 501c3 status *does* create some responsibility in this category, but I don’t want to open *that* can of worms here.)

      Second, it is my contention that there is a pragmatic reason for individual arts organizations to expand their focus and take steps that have the result of addressing inequity because the world is changing. The social, political, and economic world that led to their creation is morphing into something far different. Expanding the focus of arts offerings is in their long-term self-interest.

      Third, the arts establishment is not simply built of individual arts organizations. There are national, regional, state, local, and genre-specific arts service organizations, educational institutions, and funders, to name a few categories. They have interests and abilities (and perhaps responsibilities) to address inequity that individual providers may not.

      Agency simply refers to an individual’s capacity to make meaningful choices, to take action. I would say that primary responsibility for address equity issues that supports individual agency rests with those who have capacity to foster change in multiple institutions. I also contend that great opportunity exists for individual arts organizations to undertake change that strengthens their future.

      • Habeas says

        I couldn’t agree more that there are pragmatic reasons for existing organizations to be doing equity work. I’m leading a workshop next week examining precisely these questions and issues of institutional self-interest, among them audience-building, capacity-building, better access to more good plays for production and more good actors if we can diversify casting accordingly, and so forth.

        The lively discussions taking place right now though are often framed in terms of institutional (and funder) obligation, rather than institutional and funder self-interest. This blog differs from many commenters’ perspectives elsewhere in your contention that individual organizations don’t have an inherent responsibility to address systemic inequity. I tend to agree with you more than disagree. As someone working within multiple arts organizations who are all contending with how to do equity work, we keep coming back to the need for funders to change what they’re funding (shifting more money to smaller, more diverse organizations instead of big gifts to behemoths). But we don’t have the power to make that happen, so the actions we can take within a single organization seem limited. Worth doing, but with very local impact.