I would say based on the thousands of stories we sift through every day at ArtsJournal, diversity and cultural equity (along with funding) are right now probably the biggest issues being talked about in the arts community. And rightly so.
It’s astonishing to see article after article documenting inequalities in gender, race, sexual orientation and age in our cultural industries. The numbers are stark in a sector that has preached inclusivity over many decades but has clearly failed to become equitable. In this context, Americans for the Arts has released a “Statement on Cultural Equity” after an extensive year-long organization-wide process. You can read it here.
If I’m being honest though, this obviously well-meaning, painstakingly-crafted, and very earnest Americans for the Arts statement is disappointing. Not because I disagree with it, but for all the intentions – perhaps because of them, even – this product of a year of debate and study seems, in the end, an exercise in missed opportunity.
I’d be inclined to read it and move on. But Americans for the Arts asked a number of people, including me, to respond, and in the couple of weeks since its release, there have been a number of thoughtful blog posts. Rather than strap on my best Canadian Polite and offer vague approval for the good intentions, I’d like to show respect by judging this effort more rigorously (or at least my version of it).
Of course the usual caveats. As an older white male who has been extraordinarily lucky to be able to pursue the things that interest me, I speak from a position of privilege. So take my response in that context.
My main problem is that for all the effort I don’t think this adds something new or helpful. For example:
“To support a full creative life for all, Americans for the Arts commits to championing policies and practices of cultural equity that empower a just, inclusive, equitable nation.”
Of course. No one’s going to argue with that. But okay, a place to start.
Cultural equity embodies the values, policies, and practices that ensure that all people—including but not limited to those who have been historically underrepresented based on race/ethnicity, age, ability, sexual orientation, gender, socioeconomic status, geography, citizenship status, or religion—are represented in the development of arts policy; the support of artists; the nurturing of accessible, thriving venues for expression; and the fair distribution of programmatic, financial, and informational resources.
Again, nothing to argue with here as a statement of principle. But here’s where cracks start to appear: if resources for supporting the arts were unlimited, then ensuring that “all people” are represented and have access to the fair distribution of resources would mean something. But because resources are scarce and decisions are hard, the issue is how you devise a system that is more fair, more equitable. Recognizing that it should be fair and equitable is by now a platitude. Explaining how it should be different or at least a pathway for how you believe will make it so is where it starts to get meaningful.
And here, it seems to me, the statement gets into trouble:
In the United States, there are systems of power that grant privilege and access unequally such that inequity and injustice result, and that must be continuously addressed and changed.
Of course, and not just in the United States. But in any system of allocation of attention and resources (what gets privileged) there will be winners and losers. To observe that a system is unequal and unjust is easy. It’s not meaningful unless you suggest how to get to a more equitable system and what that system might look like.
We must all hold ourselves accountable, because acknowledging and challenging our inequities and working in partnership is how we will make change happen.
So if my version of culture and your version are different, how are the inequities going to be adjudicated and by whom? If we all hold ourselves accountable but my accountable is different from yours, how are we going to reconcile the judgment of others over something we might deeply believe in? Isn’t diversity the very essence of difference? Moreover – if we’re all supposed to hold ourselves accountable, shouldn’t this be the place that Americans for the Arts holds itself accountable if it’s going to address the issue?
Everyone deserves equal access to a full, vibrant creative life, which is essential to a healthy and democratic society.
Again hard to argue with the sentiment. But does everyone really deserve access? Equal access? If my participation will impinge on yours do I still deserve access? If my “full, vibrant creative life” conflicts with yours do I deserve equal access? And this might be heresy, but isn’t it possible we devalue what we do when we don’t don’t ask people to earn our attention in some way? Or they ours?
The prominent presence of artists challenges inequities and encourages alternatives
Not always. What about boring artists with little to say or work that affirms stereotypes? Sooo much art supports the status quo and not alternatives.
At this point the statement moves on to talk about what Americans for the Arts will do to pursue equity:
To provide informed, authentic leadership for cultural equity, we strive to…
Pursue cultural competency throughout our organization through substantive learning and formal, transparent policies.
Good. But here’s a place where this exercise could have been a lot more meaningful. Formal transparent policies? Again, applaud the sentiment, but transparent can mean whatever you want it to mean. What transparency are you choosing, and what do those choices mean? And if you’re going to make a statement about equity and if you’re going to say you’re going to be transparent, don’t you pretty much have to be transparent about your own equity record? How? Here’s a great post by Vox Media about its own diversity and what it’s trying accomplish. The post includes a scorecard that details their progress and articulates real goals.
Acknowledge and dismantle any inequities within our policies, systems, programs, and services, and report organization progress.
At the risk of being annoying, what does “acknowledge and dismantle any inequities” mean? Everyone gets to be CEO and get paid the same? Like any organization, Americans for the Arts has hierarchies and these aren’t necessarily bad. There are inequities in programs, policies, systems and services for all sorts of reasons, good and bad. Simply dismantling “any inequities” doesn’t mean much, and inequalities in equity (sorry) are not only inevitable but are not necessarily bad or wrong either. The challenge is of course fairness, and fairness means making decisions that are just. How you’re going to be just is the challenge.
Americans for the Arts is a heroic organization, working hard to further the cause of the arts. It employs smart people doing the kinds of nuts-and-bolts advocacy that the field really needs, and it could and should be a leader in championing equity, fairness and diversity. As such it seems odd to be criticizing this. But if you’re going to make a meaningful and important policy statement, shouldn’t it really say something bold and meaningful? Like Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s simple but powerful statement to North Carolina’s LGBT community a few weeks ago, which left no doubt as to the Justice Department’s support.
Far too many organizations are clueless or blind to the power of diversity. They don’t see it and they don’t understand it. Others perpetuate a power structure because it’s entrenched and keeps them in power. Still others are lazy or unwilling to make efforts to reach outside of their personal cultural experience. There are many reasons cultural institutions are inequitable. So what’s the Statement on Equity that helps change things?
It’s great that discussions about equity are happening, but we’ve been talking about multiculturalism and diversity for decades, and to what end, if you believe the statistics and demographic counts in our creative industries? Wasn’t acknowledging inequities supposed to be yesterday’s conversation? If “cultural equity is critical to the long-term viability of the arts sector” as this statement says, (and I absolutely believe that it is) then we’d best do a better job of articulating the whys and the hows rather than the should-be’s. Even more important than the “viability of the arts sector,” in the age of rising intolerance and nativism as personified by Donald Trump, the viability of the country is at stake. And herein maybe some opportunities?