3 Takeaways from the Debate about Equality

In October 2011, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy released Fusing Art, Culture and Social Change, a report by Holly Sidford, which presents evidence that only a handful of grant makers are supporting arts organizations with a focus on marginalized communities or social change. She argues that to make the arts more democratic, and support democracy overall, philanthropy in the arts must evolve to better reflect what is taking place in all communities.

Because the audience for the report was primarily arts funders, I thought the ArtsFwd blog would be a great forum to look at what the report means for arts organizations.  According to William Cleveland, Director of the Center for the Study of Arts & Community, the report was an invitation to arts funders take the time to “pause and scrutinize” many of their assumptions.  I believe the same holds true for arts organizations.  In order to truly democratize the arts sector, arts organizations must step back and rethink their fundamental assumptions about mission, planning, collaboration, and community relations.  In other words, they must innovate.

Children's artmaking at United Southend Settlement, a member of the National Guild for Arts Education

From my perspective, today’s rapidly changing conditions provide an opportune moment for arts organizations to engage an innovation process to develop new programs and capacities to fulfill their mission to serve diverse audiences.  I was encouraged to see this thread picked up in some of the online responses to Sidford’s report.  Nina Simon of Museum 2.0 asked her readers, “What can you do in your own organization to ensure that your programs, budgets, and priorities match your goals for demographic participation, civic engagement, and social justice? What do you think funders should be doing—and are you willing to hold yourself to the same standard?”

As I see it, the dialogue around Sidford’s report has opened some new possibilities for arts nonprofits.  The first is that arts organizations should consider partnering with service nonprofits.  As a part of the Grantmakers in the Arts online forum, which brought together executive staff member of arts nonprofits and funders to respond to Sidford’s report, Jonathan Herman, Executive Director of the National Guild for Community Arts Education, suggested that arts organizations might serve as resources to and collaborate with organizations that provide social and educational services or are focused on community or economic development.

Taking this idea further, I’d like to see what happens when arts organizations explore collaboration outside of the arts not just as a way to extend their mission, but to bring social change to the core of what they do. This requires rethinking the barriers that have been created about what is, and is not, appropriate in organizational collaboration and about the role of the arts organization in social change.  I believe this kind of shift is essential if arts organizations are going to aim serve diverse communities.

Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate in downtown Chicago

Another possible area for innovation is strategic planning between organizations.  What if arts organizations in a specific neighborhood, region or subsector of the cultural field took the time to scrutinize their missions, values, plans and goals as a group and then worked to develop an overall vision and plan that could support equity, access, and organizational sustainability in their sector? For example, the City of Chicago is undertaking a cultural plan that will serve as a strategic plan for arts in the city. Not only will it clarify the role of the public sector in supporting arts organizations, but support reflection and dialogue among the arts sector as a whole about an overall cultural vision for the city and what each organization can do to help achieve that vision.

Sidford’s report also lead me to think more deeply about how arts organizations, especially larger museums, could more fully engage and serve their local communities. To this end, Teresa Eyring suggested that funders look at larger arts organizations that “share the bandwidth” with community members, small organizations, and emerging artists. As an example she cited the La Jolla Playhouse’s “Resident Theater Program” that offers a local theater company a year-long residency and the opportunity to mount two performances.

Her example made me think about what organizations can do to be accessible to the residents of the neighborhoods in which their is located and my experience working at the Brooklyn Museum, an encyclopedic art museum. Community arts groups often requested space at the museum to hold meetings and inquired about exhibition possibilities, but the museum was not able to consistently honor these requests.  I often thought about how much stronger the museum’s ties to the community would be if it had a dedicated community space. What if a greater number of larger arts organizations and institutions created programs that enabled them to share space and provide opportunities to showcase the work of smaller community arts groups? Not only would this build good will, but provide a point of access to organizations that often directly come out of marginalized communities, to resources and exposure that are deeply necessary and often hard to come by.

These ideas and conversations are just the tip of the iceberg for thinking about how equity and access to the arts can be at the center of what arts organizations do. For some arts funders and arts organizations the Fusing Arts and Social Change study was a revelation, for others it confirmed hard questions they have been asking themselves and issues they have been committed to addressing for quite some time. The value of this study, and the resulting conversations, is that they keep questions about equity, access, diversity and democracy at the forefront. Especially in tough economic times, when many are focused on organizational survival, these questions can drive innovation within arts organizations.  I’d love to hear from readers, what does equity and access in the arts mean to you? How has your organization had to change in order make those a focus?

Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. She has also worked at the Rubin Museum of Art as the Coordinator of Educational Resources, the Brooklyn Museum as the Academic Programs Coordinator, and at POV/American Documentary as a development assistant. She is completing her Master of Public Administration degree at Baruch College and received her bachelor’s degree from Eugene Lang College in Cultural Studies and Education.