The 2013 Americans for the Arts Convention was held in Pittsburgh earlier this month. I went, with my newly minted Twitter account, intent on communicating about what happened as it happened. Then I discovered I have a learning disability. I simply cannot tweet and process what’s happening at the same time–not just the same instant, but the same time frame! (For those of you who have already abandoned Twitter, yes I know I’m way late to the “party.”)
Nevertheless, there were many things about those days in the (formerly) Steel City that were worthy of note. My most significant “takeaway” was the fact that there seemed to be more serious discussion and concern about cultural diversity and funding equity than I had heard before. This is, no doubt, in part a result of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change:High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy report that has been causing a stir in the arts community since its publication in 2011. (For those of you who may have missed it, it’s “shocking” finding was that arts funding goes primarily to major, Eurocentric arts organizations: the “richest” 2% of arts organizations receive 55% of all contributions, gifts and grants made for arts and culture. The “Duh!” heard ’round the world.)
Holly Sidford, the report’s author, was on one panel I heard and, while much good was spoken, I came away depressed. There was an acknowledgement that the legacy of power, privilege, and money in the arts industry mitigates against much change. We were reminded of Frederick Douglass’s observation that “Power cedes nothing without a demand.” But what actually depressed me was a new insight. The focus on serving art rather than people creates an additional mission-based (“moral”) argument for the status quo. Artcentricity forms an even deeper foundation for opposition to change in funding strategies than the “mere” interests of established power. Talk about a multiple whammy! This is why many communities see the arts as the poster child for white privilege. No wonder we have difficulties connecting with new communities.
At the final session, a truly subversive thought crystallized for me. The featured performing ensemble was the Balafon West African Dance Ensemble, an ensemble resident in Pittsburgh and Washington, DC. Featuring instrumental music, dance, and song they appeared to me (as someone from outside that culture) to be truly excellent. And then I thought, why is it that we view them as a brilliant once-a-year moment of exoticism and not as a war horse “go to” group to be supported and attended like the symphony, the ballet, or the opera? The question, while for now a rhetorical one, bears within it paths to many important conversations. The seed of discussions of funding equity sprouted rapidly for me that morning.
At the same time, the openness of conversations around these issues was a bit of a breath of fresh air. (I was particularly grateful for having been invited to a discussion of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts’ Preserving Diverse Cultures program.) The acknowledgement that work must be done, that demands must be made, that change must happen (if for no other reason than the realities of demographic shifts) was heartening. AftA should be congratulated for opening the window on this topic a bit further.
I’ll move on to other AftA 2013 reflections in subsequent posts.