Are we overdue to amend our default cultural policy?


A few weeks back, in a guest-post on Engaging MattersRoberto Bedoya extended an invitation for others to join him in blogging about “how the White Racial Frame intersects with cultural policies and cultural practices.” The proposition grew out of a series of posts (largely written by a bunch of white people, like me) focused specifically on the Irvine Foundation’s new participatory arts focus and, more generally, on (funding) diversity in the arts. I don’t feel qualified to address this topic and I’m positive I do not do it justice, but this is my sincere attempt to unpack some small part of this large issue. (You can read my previous posts on the the Irvine strategy here and here.)

Prologue on the white racial frame

A  few days ago, DC theater director Eissa Goetschius posted on her Facebook page:

Because I was curious, I just looked through the archives of the Shakespeare Theatre online to try to see how many directors of color have worked there over the years. Unless I missed some – which might be possible as this was only as scientific as googling the names I didn’t know – there have been two in all of their years of existence. Harold Scott directing OTHELLO and Rene Buch directing FUENTE OVEJUNA both as part of the ’90-’91 season. I REALLY HOPE I’M WRONG ABOUT THIS. SOMEONE TELL ME I’M WRONG. ‘Cause this means they haven’t had a person of color direct a show in over twenty years.

In a similar vein, about a week ago someone mentioned to me that it seemed like all the AJ bloggers were white. I don’t know all the AJ bloggers, so can’t confirm whether they are all white; and Elissa also gives the caveat that her search was possibly flawed. But if these figures are true, or even nearly true, they should strike us as remarkable. The question is, do they? On a day-to-day basis? Or do we take for granted that there is nothing all that strange about an absence of non-white directors and bloggers?

I am embarrassed that, for instance, I never noticed all the other AJ bloggers may be white.

When Roberto Bedoya issued his invitation/challenge, I felt I needed to read a bit about the “White Racial Frame” (a term credited to Joe Feagin). Here’s a paragraph I found to be useful (from Wikipedia):

The dominant white racial frame generally has several levels of abstraction. At the most general level, the racial frame views whites as mostly superior in culture and achievement and views people of color as generally of less social, economic, and political consequence than whites—as inferior to whites in the making and keeping of the nation. At the next level of framing, whites view an array of social institutions as normally white-controlled and as unremarkable in the fact that whites therein are unjustly enriched and disproportionately privileged(Italics added.)***

There has been an ongoing discussion for decades now about the need and desire to diversify the arts sector; and notable progress has been made at individual organizations. But if statistics like those showing up in Clay Lord’s recent graphs, and Elissa Goetschius’s Facebook post are accurate and indicative of the field generally, it would seem that much of the striving is insincere … or the efforts are sincere but ineffective/inadequate … or that we’re striving in vain because we have misidentified the problem … or the goal … or … ???

Growing diversity and the emergence of the cultural hierarchy

In his widely read 1990  book, Highbrow Lowbrow, Lawrence Levine documents the transition in America from the 18th and early 19th centuries—a time when Shakespeare and opera and classical music were popular forms of entertainment enjoyed, re-purposed, and performed by, for, and at the will of the people alongside jugglers, animal tricks, and Yankee Doodle Dandy—to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when cultural hierarchies emerged as a tool for not only defining the “highbrow” arts and segregating them from the “lowbrow” arts (a/k/a “popular”, which became a derogatory term) but defining the “cultural elite” and segregating them from the rest of society. While this history is understood by many in the arts sector, I feel compelled to revisit it in light of the topic of this blog.

Describing the fragmentation and subsequent loss of a shared public culture in the late 19th century, Levine writes:

Theaters, opera houses, museums, auditoriums that had once housed mixed crowds of people experiencing an eclectic blend of their expressive culture were increasingly filtering their clientele and their programs so that less and less could one find audiences that cut across the social and economic spectrum enjoying an expressive culture which blended together mixed elements of what we would today call, high, low, and folk culture. (P. 208)

What was motivating this shift? Levine tells us:

It was not merely the audiences in the opera houses, theaters, symphonic halls, museums, and parks that they [they champions of culture] strove to transform; it was the entire society. They were convinced that maintaining and disseminating pure art, music, literature, and drama would create a force for moral order and help to halt the chaos threatening to envelop the nation. (P. 200)

The “chaos” to which Levine refers related (in large part) to the arrival of new immigrants that “made an already heterogeneous people look positively homogeneous.” Culture was increasingly portrayed as both a force with which to “transform the American people” and as an “oasis of refuge from and a barrier against them.”

Related to (and perhaps stemming from) these contradictory messages, the more people were told that “the arts” were a certain kind of fare for a certain kind of people, (that is, the more they were told that art was serious and sacred and required education and civilized behavior to be appreciated), the more they felt disqualified (and disinterested) to participate. Hence the emergence of two worlds—a cultural gulf, in the words of Levine—moving in opposite directions, each less accepting and understanding of the other over time.

Sound familiar?

While the mid-20th century brought challenges to the cultural hierarchy in America and renewed (and sometimes even sincere) efforts to integrate, diversify, and democratize the arts, Levine suggests that by the close of the 20th century not much progress had been made. In the epilogue to his book, he offers as evidence the key propositions in Allan Bloom’s 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind. Describing views of Bloom (and others—Levine notes that Bloom is not a lone voice), he writes:

There is, finally, the same sense [as existed at the close of the 19th century] that culture is something created by the few for the few, threatened by the many, and imperiled by democracy; the conviction that culture cannot come from the young, the inexperienced, the untutored, the marginal; the belief that culture is finite and fixed, defined and measured, complex and difficult to access, recognizable only by those trained to recognized it, comprehensible only to those qualified to comprehend it. (P. 252)

The emergence of a cultural hierarchy in the early 20th century was a tool for social and ethnic exclusion and from its inception this segregation was led by wealthy individuals in society—at the time, white people, often men. The production of high art may have required patrons (productions costs rose while the patron base shrunk); but, more importantly, patrons demanded that the worlds of high and low art be separated.

I wish I could say that this does not still feel like “the natural state” for the arts in the US.

Disrupting the hierarchy

A few years back Clay Lord interviewed me about the work on intrinsic impacts that Theatre Bay Area and Alan Brown were doing (which, as I understand it, found that a production at a small community theater in the upper Midwest had greater intrinsic impact on its audiences than any production by a professional theater in the study). At one point I said that I hoped their work could “help reframe the conversation about social value and about what it means to be a leading organization.” I asked Clay:

Can we somehow use these new metrics to help us see the world [differently]? … Who’s at the top? Who’s at the bottom? Who’s considered leading? These are rankings that were established decades ago and it’s nearly impossible for even an incredibly worthy and high-performing entrant to displace one of the ‘pioneering’ incumbent organizations at the top of the pyramid. We need data that can help us see the field differently.

Well, it would appear the Irvine Foundation has collected it. Moreover, armed with data and having gained a new understanding of the culture sector in its region, Irvine appears to be attempting to invert (or flatten?) the cultural hierarchy. (That’s my read, at any rate.) Its new strategy is to fund organizations/programs that use hands-on participation to engage nontraditional audiences ahead of (or alongside?) organizations/programs designed primarily to provide passive entertainment for those already inclined to participate. (It’s hard to tell from what’s been written whether the new strategy is intended to complement or displace the old one.)

Understandably, this shift has been a bit of a jolt to the cultural sector of the region. As Nina Simon reported on her blog, the move has been characterized as being “ahead of the field” and has not been embraced by as many arts organizations as Irvine hoped or expected. Throughout its process Irvine has welcomed input and has responded graciously to questions and critiques.

The critical response to Irvine’s new program is telling. Irvine’s new strategy is backed by solid research. As I’ve noted elsewhere, it’s not a capricious move. This strategy is more thoughtfully conceived than many funding strategies to hit the arts sector in the past several years.

So, what’s the problem?

Irvine is disrupting the status quo.

The reason it’s difficult for even incredibly worthy newcomers to rise in our sector is because incumbents continue to be privileged by the system. Over and over again we see rewards (fame, status, economic advantage) accruing to a small number of already established leading organizations—what Robert Merton in 1968 coined the Matthew effect, a term taken from a verse in the bible:

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.

Even when foundations attempt to support diversity somehow old, large, and largely white, professional institutions seem to benefit. When philanthropists give money to flagship resident theaters to do black plays instead of giving money to small black theaters to simply stay in business they may do so in a sincere attempt to encourage diversity in largely white theaters but what they legitimize is not “diversity” but rather “white theaters.”

And legitimacy cuts both ways. It’s hard to legitimize professionals without making amateurs illegitimate. It’s hard to legitimize large resident theaters without making every other kind of theater (e.g., ensemble theaters, ethnically specific theaters, community-based theaters, grassroots theaters) seem less legitimate.

Let’s stop talking about diversity and talk instead about equality … and policy

Of the many posts contributing to the Irvine/Diversity Funding discussion over the past month, I found myself returning to one by Linda Essig. Inspired by having heard urban theorist and former mayor of Bogotá Enrique Peñalosa speak about his vision for more sustainable and egalitarian cities, Linda wrote a post asking whether it was time for us to stop talking about diversity in the arts and talk instead about equality.

She writes:

One of the basic concepts he [Peñalosa] espouses is that in an egalitarian society, because every bus rider is equal to every car driver, a bus with eighty passengers should be given eighty times the road space of car with a single driver.  Further, bicycles in motion should be given higher priority than cars that are parked. In Bogotá, this meant dedicated bus lanes; it meant bike lanes protected from automobile traffic by a median for parked cars; it meant bike lanes and sidewalks were paved before parking lanes.

Linda then extends the metaphor to a discussion of diversity in the arts asking, for instance, whether we are giving equal attention, space, and opportunity to non-Greco-Euro-Anglo art forms. Reframing this diversity discussion in terms of equality resonates for me.

Awhile back I wrote a post on the extraordinarily high quality of the school system in Finland, which differs from the US education system in several ways, one of which is its focus on social equity rather than excellence.  The policy of Finland: “Every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location.” Education is seen not as way to produce star performers but as a way to achieve social equity.

Likewise the revered Venezuelan social program, El Sistema, which puts instruments in the hands of hundreds of thousands of children. Both programs demonstrate that excellence and equity need not be at odds. Finland has a far superior education system to the US public education system. El Sistema created Dudamel and many other talented musicians.

At the end of the post on Finland’s education system, I asked:

In ten or twenty more years does the nonprofit arts and culture sector want to be the US education system: excellent art for rich people and mediocrity, lack of resources, and lack of opportunity for everyone else? Or do we want to be Finland’s: high quality artistic experiences (or ‘an expressive life’ as Bill Ivey might say) for every man, woman, and child?

We always say that the US has no cultural policy, but is this true? Or is our implicit policy the one that was set by elites at the turn of the last century and served their social goals at the time? Moreover, is it possible that our resistance to creating a national cultural policy has become a method for maintaining those goals?

Late-19th-century policies and practices transformed the US cultural sphere and resulted in the loss of a shared public culture and the disproportional privileging of certain art forms, institutions, and people over others.

Shall this history continue to distort the way we see (and fail to see) our world?

Or shall we make an amendment to our default culture policy?


Photo: Philadelphia Orchestra, 1916


*** (Leslie Houts Picca and Joe Feagin. 2007. Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage. New York, NY: Routledge)

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  1. says

    Diane: I’m glad to know that my comments resonated with you. I think what it comes down to is that “diversity” is a concept that the majority believes to be beneificial. That is, it comes from *inside* what Roberto calls the “White racial frame.” It is not merely coincidental that he is delivering the opening remarks at our third Pave biennial symposium: “Entrepreneurship, the Arts, and Creative Placemaking” in two weeks. ( )
    All best wishes, Linda

  2. earobb says

    How wonderful to see you open up this important, thorny, distressing, sticky, messy, uncomfortable, delicious, timely, thrilling and exciting topic.
    Bravo Irvine, disruptive funder, early adopter of a new lens to bring into sharp and detailed focus that achingly large distance between the diverse arts landscape and a diverse peoplescape.
    The Irvine’s Inland Arts Participation Study some years back (= an obvious catalyst for this wonderful new initiative) was a BIG winner as it honored joe and jane q public and their little janes and joes enjoyment and participation in the arts – though the art forms and activities were most often outside those taking place in walled high art garden with its expensive tolls to get through the door in the wall (= “low” arts lovers).
    Coming out of photography and community art centers, that study was validating. It is what I had I had seen every day in my work life finally counted, measured and graphed into “studies show….” truisms. As for studies, The Bay Area Theater study cited in this post is a stunner.
    California is, of course, the logical place for this all to begin and please let it not end there. A recent meeting of the New York City chapter of Grantmakers in the Arts on Social Justice and the Arts was jammed with hungry minds, good intentions and a lot of curiosity – another hopeful sign of a new “art whirled”.
    Back to Cali – all those people, all those new Americans and all those children make it the great incubator of this new way of thinking about spreading the joy juice of the arts holistically and widely and in the end it will strengthen participation in the creaky, kinda broken down democracy at play in 21st c. America. Okay, okay – I am an idealist when it comes to the arts and cultural understanding as manna from the heavens.
    It is all those children and developing their understanding and experiences with skill based learning in and observation of many art forms that is a key element to bridge the gulf between the haves and the have nots related to access and participation in art activities and opportunities. Getting to the adults is good too but it those hungry young minds and hearts that will, over a long term, start the systemic change that is needed.
    Interesting that at the same time this white hot conversation has been ignited due to this one action of this one foundation (and thankfully it is a “big cheese” funder too = $$$$ and time), the California state arts council under the new, quiet, intense, and visionary leadership of Craig Watson, is tackling arts education in partnership with the state education system. Californians get that Arts license plate to help the cause!
    It could be the makings of a perfect California storm to start to shower and clean the landscape of the muck and mire of old school art elitisms….. the arts reigning over us. Over and out from NY.

  3. Don McKee says

    I believe this problem will take care of itself as a matter of course, through the attrition of an exponentially changing world. General globalization in all pursuits is occurring just as inevitably as did our current condition of cultural hierarchy based on Euro centrist (white) values. We can see this taking place now in the political arena with the new phenomenon of the “angry white man” reacting bitterly to the changing demographics that mark his political decline. Is our case here so different? Do we, for the same reasons, have an “angry classical culture”? Will not the current cultural bias with regard to the arts evolve into, either another bias, or into a condition of cultural democratization? I suggest that any efforts to stem or to facilitate such changes will be inconsequential beside the sheer inevitability of them occurring anyway. This is ultimately a matter of cultural Darwinism and historical inevitability. It is the principle that Napoleon (arguably) did not make history; history made Napoleon. Euro centrism is waning. If it helps you evaluate my post, I am a white male, though not an angry one.

  4. says

    The “cultural gulf” suggested by Levine didn’t happen because the masses were “told” i.e, instructed, that “art was serious and sacred and required education and civilized behavior to be appreciated.” This gulf evolved because much of our best cultural production was, in fact, seriously important, was sacredly special, and did require some type of appreciative knowledge or at the very least some level of effort on the part of those who wanted to attend or view or practice. Our best cultural production has always come from the individual, the unique, the visionary, the lone voice, the talented, the special and to suggest that this identity isn’t available to anyone, that it is somehow “finite and fixed” by an elite, is a overly narrow interpretation.

    The predominate white cultural system is both criticized for it’s circumstance and plays the role of a white savior. In our guilt, which is rightly deserved, we then construct the parameters of how we will fix the problem.
    Is the Irvine Foundation “disrupting the status quo” or creating a new status? Or is it possible that what is really taking place in this disruption is a reinforcing of the problem of social inequality?
    The philosopher Slavoj Žižek suggests that our involvement in our cultural capitalism contains a semantic over-investment or burden which we too often attempt to solve with a charitable mind that avoids the real solution.

    See an RSA Animate video of Zizek’s idea.

    Zizek might suggest that If the goal is an equitable society then we should be working to revolutionize and create a equitable society at the root.

  5. rafaeldeacha says

    I understand many of the comments made by the different people cited, including Roberto Bedoya’s very compelling arguments, I merely want to point out that a great deal can be accomplished by people who decide to stop knocking on closed doors and create change by becoming self-starters. Often grassroots organizations grow into mid-size companies – I know, I helmed one for twenty years.I suggest the reverse of “If you can’t beat them, join them” by proposing “If you can’t join them, start your own thing.” Mario Ernesto Sanchez did, when he began the International Hispanic Theatre Festival in Miami. I name but one. There are many other arts groups all over the map founded and led by Hispanics and African Americans, many as successful as their “White” counterparts. I live in a large city in the Midwest where the vast majority of the arts audience is “White.” Since my arrival here I have been involved as board member and consultant with several arts groups, none specifically minority-led or oriented towards a minority audience, but all involving a multi-cultural constituency, where Blacks, Asian-Americans , Latinos and Whitesare equal participants and beneficiaries. The times are good. The times are difficult. We’re all in the same boat, working on the development of an audience for the 21st century – one audience. We all have a shot at creating that.

  6. Bill Ivey says

    Changing demographics and rethought philanthropy (Irvine) are disruptive especially in their direct challenge to the cultural authority and hegemony of traditional, grey-stone-box Eurocentric arts organizations. However, funding strategies that respond to changing social realities do not equal cultural policy. I have argued for years that the US needs, for the first time, to craft a consensus cultural policy that addresses the broad for-profit/nonprofit system within which art is created, distributed, consumed, and preserved as that system functions in the context of our market-oriented democracy. Such a policy will of course address the value and needs of cultural nonprofits, but it must also take in trade in cultural goods, intellectual property, media regulation, and access to and preservation of cultural heritage. If we’re going to advance and then secure expressive life as a public good nurtured by a range of policies and practices our cultural community needs to step out and engage a series of issues and questions far wider than how the arts are relevant and how we reach minority audiences.

  7. says

    Fantastic, important post.

    This especially resonated for me: “When philanthropists give money to flagship resident theaters to do black plays instead of giving money to small black theaters to simply stay in business they may do so in a sincere attempt to encourage diversity in largely white theaters but what they legitimize is not ‘diversity’ but rather ‘white theaters.’”

    Well put.

  8. says

    Hear-hear, Bill Ivey, and also Diane Ragsdale. Equality! That’s the word. Diversity sometimes takes us more in a direction of separatism than equality, IMHO. Contrary to what is said here about supporting a white theatre doing minority material instead of a minority company itself, my company has faced being turned down for grants because I am white — even though I run a multicultural company, nearly all our projects are about minorities of every description and all are nontraditionally cast (gender, age, size, sexual preference, ethnicity, economic levels, challenges — mental, emotional, physical, etc.) and even though my board consists entirely of minorities, save for me, it is my status as Artistic Director that prevents us from getting support from some mid-sized and major funders. I would say my company and our audiences focus on equality more than diversity, although of course both are made up of diverse groups. I find it most disturbing to go to meetings of organizations that are fighting for the rights of those that are underrepresented. I am all for more representation of anyone qualified for any position, but I think there is a big, hairy monster out there threatening the entire arts & culture area. It has nothing or little to do with any one group being represented adequately; rather, it has to do with whether arts & culture will SURVIVE AT ALL. And, I think it takes ALL of us working together to figure out how to make that happen for ALL OF US. I have finally stopped running, crying from meetings that address underrepresentation or meetings that seem to address only the big grey cement institutions, but I do often remove myself to try to work on the Big Picture. I am only one little white woman, but I am passionate about the arts and also passionate about representing and reaching the underrepresented. Yet, I am poorer than I have ever been and have no funding to take free professional theatre to under-served audiences. And, the organizations & schools we have served have had all their programs cut that booked our services. As to the Euro-centric comments, I am reminded that I sat at a table of artistic leaders from 20 different countries right after Obama was elected. One woman from Ireland (kind of a tough cookie) piped up and said, Say what you will about America, I don’t see that happening in our country anytime soon! And, everyone at the table agreed. So, to me, I think America has more diversity happening than in the European world and also we continue to address the amount of representation. I am not against that, I applaud it in fact. But, I do think we all have to get together and figure out how to save the arts in general. I have been crying inside for 3 years now, watching this monster grow and seeing the audiences and the artists we are losing, especially the young who should be carrying on the importance and value of the arts to our society. How are we representing them? Bringing them in? Teaching them what the arts can do for people in ALL ways? How are we incorporating technology, which is their main means of communication? How are we addressing their problems? They are the people of tomorrow, who will be guiding this planet, but they are being forgotten. Talk about underrepresentation.

  9. Nick Rabkin says

    Glad you’ve brought Levine’s work into this conversation, Diane. Among the many points Levine makes that illuminate the racial dimension of US cultural policy is the astute observation that the very terms ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ were coined to support the claim of white racial superiority by the pseudo-science phrenology, which was developed, in large measure to justify slavery. The arts are now the only domain in which those terms continue to be widely used.

    Levine’s essential argument, though, is not simply racial. It is that the emergence of cultural hierarchy was a part of a strategic effort to justify the authority of the urban commercial/financial/industrial elite that emerged after the Civil War–a way to demonstrate that their claim on power and wealth was associated with their capacities to appreciate the highest achievements of civilization.

    Making the arts an emblem of superiority made the arts appealing–to striving working class and middle class Americans eager to move up the social ladder–contributing a great deal to the long-term development of our nonprofit arts system. It also made the arts an object of resentment–to those who were who realized that the hierarchy itself was a flimsy fabrication or that that social mobility was more myth than reality. I might suggest that the declining fortunes of much of the nonprofit arts sector can be traced to the eroding conceptual power of cultural hierarchy over the last four or five decades. That erosion had many sources, but it was partly driven by the critique of whiteness in the cultural sphere by cultural activists.

    Irvine’s new program is a bold departure from conventional cultural policy. It suggests that the ‘high’ ‘professional’ standards of ‘excellence’ that have structured so much arts philanthropy are not the only standards we might apply to the arts and opens the door to a wide range of participatory and engaging practices that provoke anxiety for many in the nonprofit arts. What remains to be seen–and what is the gamble in the Irvine experiment–is whether the nonprofit arts organization is really the best vehicle opening those doors. Time will tell.

    • says

      Nick, I like your cultural historic insight but feel it’s important to remember who instigated the terms used to describe cultural production. For example, the arts themselves are not the domain in which those terms are used, rather they still may be used by a segment of those who interpret or attempt to define what goes on in the arts. I don’t know a single painter who thinks of their work as highbrow nor do I know a single craftsperson who thinks of their work as lowbrow.
      What will the new language be if Irvine’s standards will no longer aspire to “high professional standards of (white elite) excellence.” Non-professional standards of multi-cultural lowbrow?

      • says

        “High professional standards of…excellence” is a term that serves to mask an ideology. Ask anyone who gives money or serves as a gatekeeper in the arts, including members of the NEA, to define “excellence” — none can, and they get really testy when one pushes them about it. Because what it really means is “work that costs a lot of money and that my friends and I appreciate.” With a big emphasis on the latter clause. The labeling of “highbrow” and “lowbrow” (or “professional” and “amateur,” for that matter) isn’t done by artists, but by an institutionalized system of gatekeepers, thought leaders, and media flacks. I wrote about this two years ago on my blog: In other words, if you can’t explicitly define excellence, then quit pretending that it has a meaning, and quit using the terms as a mask for your personal taste.

        • says

          Scott, Then on what grounds do you ask people to buy a ticket or attended an exhibition? Looking to the NEA for a concise definition of ‘excellence’ is like asking a politician why they support sequestration. Our museums are filled with excellent examples of humans best artistic results.

          • says

            A unwillingness to define “excellence” is proof that it is a smokescreen used by the privileged to mask their agenda. Yes, our museums are filled with excellent works of art. That doesn’t mean there aren’t just as many, if not more, excellent works of art that have fallen outside what the dominant culture has deemed “excellent” and are being ignored, and their creators unsupported. You’re arguing in circles: we can’t define excellence, but there are excellent things in museums (“There is no God and Jesus is His son.”) The tacit definition of excellence changes from generation, culture to culture — it is not a stable or universal concept. It is time for arts organizations to either be explicit about their definition, or stop using the word.

          • Nick Rabkin says

            It strikes me that the only reasonable grounds on which to ask people to buy a ticket is that we hope the experience will be meaningful to them–pleasurable, stimulating, entertaining, generative, funny, you name it–in some way. That others have dubbed an art work ‘excellent’ will attract some to it, and there are doubtless lots of folks who will find that art meaningful just because those others represent something they wish to identify with. But what has that got to do with excellence?

            It’s not that I think the term ‘excellence’ is meaningless: But there are all kinds of excellence. What people find meaningful in the arts is generally a matter of taste–there are things that they ‘get’, that ‘connect’, that ‘reach’ them, and things that don’t. Those things are often associated with their social status–class, race, educational background, income, region, etc. But there is surely excellence within every taste culture. Does affluence and education make the art you prefer excellent? Does it make you a better judge of what is likely to ‘reach’ or ‘move’ or ‘connect’ with people who are unlike you? ‘Excellence’ in the arts has generally been assigned to classical, modernist, and European art forms only. Excellence in other forms has been recognized belatedly, reluctantly, and on the margins–usually only under pressure from cultural activists. Was Elvis ‘excellent.’ You bet he was (except, of course, when he wasn’t.) Was Louis Armstrong? Were the Beatles? Is the Simpsons? How about Seinfeld? Why or why not? Were all of Shakespeare’s plays ‘excellent’ or were some better than others? Is the Chicago Symphony an excellent orchestra? Can they play excellent rock and roll? Is there excellent rock and roll?

            When you get down to particulars, the term really does lose its shape, doesn’t it?

          • says

            Excellence is another name for something of the highest quality. Quality or the highest caliber of performance or skill or ability doesn’t change simply on the basis of personal taste. Everyone has a right to their personal taste but there is a difference between taste that is knowledgeable and taste based only on personal opinion. A group of highly skill operatic singers, or mariachi players, or abstract painters, or potters can speak the same language and recognize who in their particular group is the most excellent. A layperson on the outside may make a completely different assessment but that should be taken as an example that excellence doesn’t exist and isn’t real.
            Unlike what Scott Walker says you certainly can define excellence. Professionals in their fields do it everyday.

          • says

            “Excellence is another name for something of the highest quality.” That is circular reasoning. “Orange is another name for the highest mixture of red and yellow.” Nothing has been said yet. Unfortunately, it is what usually passes for critical thinking in this discussion. If anything, as Nick says, excellence is an INTERACTION between art and spectator — it does not live WITHIN the performance or the work of art. It is true, as Richard says, that “A layperson on the outside may make a completely different assessment but that should be taken as an example that excellence doesn’t exist and isn’t real.” Indeed, professionals within the art form can disagree about what is or is not excellent. It doesn’t mean excellence doesn’t exist; what it MEANS is that it is not OBJECTIVE. As such, it can’t be used as a means of determining, for instance, who should receive an NEA grant.

          • says

            Major Typo…I meant to say “A layperson on the outside may make a completely different assessment but that should NOT be taken as an example that excellence doesn’t exist and isn’t real.”

            Scott you seem to be wanting to throw out any type of criticality about Art because it doesn’t follow the same measurability means as science. Thankfully art is not science.

            Reams of descriptive explanations on quality are constantly being written and discussed in every segment of the arts. ArtForum magazine is filled every month with writers, critics, curators describing why something is important or why something else might have failed. Trade journals abound in every art form. I recently read more information I could possibly discern on what effects the quality of sound in a violinists bow. Is there one bow that science can measure as being the best bow in the world? Of course not. But that fact doesn’t eliminate the reality that there are some bows that have certain describable qualities that make them excellent bows and there are other bows which have qualities that make them inferior.
            The NEA at one time had a functioning system to award artists grants. Peers and professionals gathered to access, as professionals, who should receive grants. Was it a prefect system? No. But even science isn’t perfect.
            Why am I harping on this point? Because if art policy makers and organizational directors buy into the notion that excellence in the arts doesn’t exist or is something which is no longer important, that in turn has the potential to move the field, in the publics eyes at least, from something with a serious nature to something that is simply entertainment.

          • says

            Richard — What we’re dealing with is known as “reification,” the fallacy of treating an abstraction as if it were a real thing. What makes this problematic is when we then treat that reified abstraction as if it was not only real, but objective — as if it doesn’t reflect the values of a dominant group, and instead is something that is “universal” that stands over and above social power. Of course, the fallacy of this is easily seen whenever we tell the story of some hapless artist (let’s say one of the Impressionists) whose work when it si created is dismissed as amateurish, ugly, repulsive or whatever by the established art critics, only to be hailed as masterpieces by later generations. Surely if “excellence” were real and universal, obvious to everyone, excellent work would be instantaneously recognized and appreciated. It isn’t. Here’s the problem for those of us in the performing arts: these mistakes are permanent. Unlike the work of a painter or a novelist, the work of an actor, dancer, or director does not survive for appreciation by future generations — it is gone as it is delivered. The negative judgment of a dominant group claiming access to a universal, objective quality called “excellence” can and does privilege some and destroy others. As importantly, it creates a hierarchy that has nothing to do with the effects of the work on human beings. Let me give an example that I am certain that you will reject, but that illustrates what I am speaking of: a high school musical. From the viewpoint of a commodity, the likelihood is that there is very little “excellence” in the production; however, from the point of view of the audience that is filled with people who have a connection to the performers they are watching, the experience may be transformative and inspirational — far more powerful than watching professionals. The spectators have added something to the experience — the excellence exists in the interaction. “Waiting for Godot,” when performed for the inmates at San Quentin back in the 60s, made a powerful connection; the same production performed in front of a group of tired executives might be a total flop. Excellence doesn’t reside in the work of art, it resides in the intersection between work and spectator. In other words, in engagement — which I believe brings us back to the Irvine Foundation.

          • says

            Here’s a little test for you. Next time you put on a theatrical performance or are amongst a group of performers who come off stage knowing they nailed it, knowing that they were on, in the groove, knowing they felt the magic, the mystery that was alive in the work and in their performance and felt the audience pick up on that vibe and that they felt the audience be moved by what they were doing on stage, the emotion, the excellence…….tell them they had nothing really to do with it. Tell them that excellence doesn’t reside either in the script they worked from or in the acting job they performed. Tell them excellence resides in the audience and that the audience alone gets to determine when and if they reached any level or magic or quality. Tell them it’s not about them but about giving the audience what they want or what they expected when they walk in the door.
            Let us know how that all works out for you.

          • says

            Richard — You wrote: “Tell them that excellence doesn’t reside either in the script they worked from or in the acting job they performed. Tell them excellence resides in the audience and that the audience alone gets to determine when and if they reached any level or magic or quality.”
            Actually, what I said was that excellence resides in the INTERACTION BETWEEN the performance and the audience. My experience is that, when actors come offstage after a good performance, they are most likely to say, “What a great audience,” not “I nailed it.” It’s called humility, and it is a recognition that success depends on others. It is something that I teach my students all the time — and it works fine, thank you very much.
            Perhaps if artists could let go of seeing the arts as a means of “self-expression” for their “genius” and instead looked at their work as serving the greater good of our culture, the arts might stop wheezing into irrelevance.

          • says

            Scott, I don’t disagree with that at all. But talking about interaction and success and humility is separate from defining the qualities of excellence in the work or the thing itself, which is what began this little side thread.
            But maybe you have hit upon something. Maybe those in arts administration and policy making just have a different idea than artists, what the “greater good of our cultural” is.

  10. says

    This week I introduce my Theatre History students to the August Wilson/Robert Brustein “debates.” I feel the substance of that sometimes raucous colloquy is germane to this post.

    Here is the text of Wilson’s legendary TCG keynote address, which is the starting place for my classroom discussion.

    I would love to hear the points of view of this distinguished collection of passionate thinkers.

    • says

      I just taught this, too, and I wrote my dissertation about Robert Brustein. Short answer: Wilson was right, Brustein was wrong. Wilson was especially right about the effects of color-blind casting and its use as a way of seeming to acknowledge diversity without actually CHANGING anything. Diane gets it right: that’s why the Irvine Foundation is taking so much heat. Look at the Placemaking movement — as with everything else, something that COULD change the emphasis actually ends up supporting the status quo. When Steppenwolf got a placemaking grant, I wanted to stick a pencil in my eye.

  11. says

    Hi Diane,
    Thanks for launching this policy discussion. The historical context for ingrained elitism is very interesting, so it’s relevant to talk about what sounds like affirmative action for the arts. But I’m not sure that’s what Irvine is doing. I remember working on a paper about building social capital through the arts, and I came to the same conclusions as Irvine: the best way to build social capital through the arts is to increase the participatory aspects. Irvine’s policy seems less about diversity and leveling the hi-lo playing field, than about fostering ongoing forms of community engagement through the arts, whether at highbrow or fringe venues. They say that participation yields more powerful transformative experiences that people will want to repeat, thereby shoring up future audiences. Makes sense.

  12. says

    Thanks for another deeply compelling, juicy piece, Diane. And then such thoughtful, articulate responses all week long! I was especially intrigued by the question you (re-)posed about what we want for the future of our field. The future we envision at Irvine is quality arts engagement for everyone, similar to what you noted about Finland. Our strategy is intended to build the field’s capacity to become the kind of arts providers that are embraced by and reflective of the people of California. Although we don’t expect every organization to be ready or willing to take on the commitment it takes to become more adaptive and relevant, we know that more than a few are really up for the challenge.

  13. John Geoffrion says

    Since I run my fledgling theatre company in the time between my full-time non-arts day job and various acting gigs, I’m obligated to find a simple – perhaps over-simple – solution to this issue.

    In my opinion, this is more of a socioeconomic issue than racial, and that ticket price a principal barrier to building a broad audience of working class, students, young adults, middle class, young professionals, and well-heeled patrons of all races and cultures. We aim too high, we alienate the people – myself included! – who (shock! horror!) can’t afford $100 tickets; too low, we can’t attract the attention of people who can help underwrite our efforts.

    So I’m evading the question entirely.

    All our tickets are Name-Your-Price; every seat, every performance, every production. Got five bucks? Come on in. Got $50? Right this way. No student or senior discounts, group rates, rush tickets, early purchase discounts, starving artist discounts, matinee specials, secret code words, Goldstar memberships, etc. Just pay what you can, what you want, what you’re able, etc.

    We open our first production tomorrow night; I’ll let you know how things go.

    John Geoffrion
    Artistic Director, Hub Theatre Company of Boston

  14. says

    In a pay-to-play economy like we have, new ideas to seed arts relevance in alienated communities DOES require a strong, even radical, social support mechanism. There’s no longer a SINGLE dominant culture in America. We need to honor the flip side of the arts coin to hasten a new balance. But I don’t think a formal policy will be necessary. Research, foundations and the market will help sort us out. Hopefully CutTime can be part of the solution.

    Keep in mind that alienated communities are not all of colour. Making the case for the power of Euro-genesis arts like classical music as I do, MOST whites are just as likely to be divested as blacks (like me). But by explaining in casual settings what it’s all about, and playing my own transformative adventures with Latin, R&B and other grooves, I’ve been proving how we can open curious minds. But we have to plant these seeds freely, which is why foundation support is required. Acceptance of things we cannot change is the key to BEING accepted.. So I include MANY ways to engage, if not all hands-on, then at least most relevant. If only I lived in California.

    • says

      As an aside, I just came across an article from 1993 outlining the controversy of an ASOL national task force report “Americanizing the American Orchestra”, which sums up where the industry was 20 years ago. Tellingly, the 1993 report cites projections that America’s combined minority population was expected to be one THIRD by 2013. Today we stand at one HALF as it turned out.

      This article also describes the vehement opposition to this report, led by former New York Times critic Edward Rothstein, to “diluting” the high standards of American orchestras with minority recruitment… of which I played a small role. Yet since 1995 i’ve independently realized several of the goals of the report to the point of leaving the orchestra to amplify my successes. All along and from both sides I’ve encountered mixed feelings about my success and came to believe that what everyone feared is a kind of cultural miscegenation. Some prefer their culture MIXED in interesting ways, while others, usually the gatekeepers, prefer to preserve “maximum authenticity”.

  15. Roberto Bedoya says

    Dear Diane

    I want to thank you for your response to my prompt. There is much to reflect upon in your rich commentary. Some brief comments to your post – In regard to the whiteness of the AJ bloggers it’s true. I’ve been asked to contribute to AJ but I don’t have the time given the demands of running a local arts council. I am sure that AJ understand this deficiency and will address it. Two blogs outside the AJ sphere I value that illuminate our nation’s multi-racial cultural landscape are the Arts in Changing America ( and Colorlines ( they rich and deeply informative sites. Writers that I watch out for their cultural commentaries are Jeff Chang, Maribel Alvarez, Dream Hampton, and Elizabeth Mendez Berry who offer insightful reflection of the ways of our cultural public sphere.

    The cultural hierarchies you speak about are changing and that create anxieties for some who see expressive life outside the “status quo” as threating. Where racial hierarchies interest and are complicit with cultural hierarchies that the rub we are being asked to addressed as a sector.

    I agree with your commentary about equity. In my post I spoke about the possessive nature of whiteness and it relationship to racialized hierarchies. My problem with the diversity discourses in our field is that so often it comes off as a whiteness attempt to possess diversity and manage it as part of a technocratic system that sustains the status quo. Equity, specifically cultural equity is tied to the ways we constitute cultural systems that support and validates multi-worldviews and their expressive life. My thoughts on cultural equity are informed in part by the writings of Chantal Mouffe and her articulation of democracy based on the idea of equivalences. US Cultural policy is a system of arrangements that is the high and low, the for-profit and the non-profit arts sector, the professional and amateur artist, the passive and active audience members and within this system hierarchies are in flux which a good thing as our involving cultural system of equivalences finds its form.

    Once again Diana deep thanks for responding to my prompt in a rich and invigorating manner.

    All the best



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