Pulse Report

A Summary of Why Are the Arts So White?: A Think Tank on Racial Equity in the Arts

Portland Emerging Arts Leaders

Wednesday, March 30, 2016, 6pm | Portland Playhouse

 

Photo Credit: Helen Veyna

Roughly fifty emerging and established leaders gathered on March 30 to discuss the role of race and ethnicity in the non-profit arts field. This session was designed to be a “temperature check” to assess current perceptions around racial and ethnic equity in the arts, with the goal of launching long-term conversations on the topic. Event organizers also hoped to gather feedback to use in the design of a follow-up event in early summer 2016.

 

After introducing the planning committee, setting group guidelines, and explaining the purpose of the event, attendees broke out into small discussion groups. These groups, comprised of 7-8 people, answered the questions: “Why are you here?,” “Why are the arts so white?,” and “Why aren’t there more people of color in the arts?” Responses to these questions were recorded on sticky notes and posted on a wall. The small group sessions concluded with a free write for participants to express feelings or ideas that were not discussed within the small group. The Think Tank ended with a full-group activity where individuals were asked to finish the sentence: “I want to talk more about…”, while responses were tracked, in real-time, on poster paper. This summary reflects the data collected by the planning committee through the small and large group discussions, as well as written feedback provided by Think Tank participants.

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Key takeaways:

  • Event attendees agreed that there is a lack of racial and ethnic equity in the arts establishment, yet not everyone in the arts community at large sees this issue as a priority.
  • People are at different stages of this work. Some are eager to continue having conversations, while others are ready to move past discussion and into action.
  • Staff at local arts institutions are looking for connections and resources to address equity head-on.
  • There is a need for white people and people of color (POC) to talk and work in racially- and ethnically-specific cohorts, as well as in mixed groups.
  • Artists and arts administrators of color are already here and doing excellent work. We need better channels to empower and connect them to new and existing resources in the community.
  • Equity is not just about white institutions embracing or including POC voices. We need to reexamine our existing systems and power structures from top to bottom. We need a system in which the white perspective is not the standard from which all else is measured.
  • We need to also examine the role of non racially- or ethnically-based oppressions faced by underrepresented communities in the arts, such as gender and class (otherwise known as intersectionality).
  • We will not change the system until we see arts organizations as more than arbiters of taste, bastions of “excellence,” or culture-making authorities. Rather, they serve critical roles as  connectors, conversation starters, and community resources.
  • Arts funding plays a key role in determining who holds and retains power.
  • Addressing equity among various groups within the arts sector with distinct needs and interests--such as administrators, artists, funders, audiences, etc.--is a challenge, as organizational practices impact these groups in different ways.

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Possible resources PEAL can provide:

  • Space and time for administrators at various orgs to gather in safe spaces to talk, share, and problem solve together
  • Space and time for individuals to gather in focus groups to tackle specific equity issues
  • Space and time for administrators and artists to articulate needs and barriers
  • Space for white people and POCs to talk together in affinity groups and speak from specific experiences
  • Local audit of demographics at arts organizations (staffing, board, contractors)
  • Examples of equity-based organizational models and toolkits for individuals seeking to strengthen or introduce equitable practices within their organizations
  • Structured conversation about solutions and next steps
  • Developing a paid internship program for college students of color interested in pursuing careers in the arts

 

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Concerns and issues raised:

 

Challenging the System

  • Change requires white people to give up power. How much are they willing to give?
  • Arts institutions need not just POC voices, but POC systems and modes of operation.
  • How does funding factor into equity, particularly public funding? Why do organizations only take this issue seriously when funders demand it?
  • We are all complicit in perpetuating this system.

Recognizing and Supporting POCs

  • White-led arts organizations need more people of color on staff in positions of leadership, and they need to learn how to retain them.
  • How can the arts sector better support existing POC-led arts organizations?
  • Tokenism and appropriation are a problem.
  • Do arts presenters see a financial risk in investing in artists of color? How do we avoid relying on institutions to present existing POC artwork?
  • People of color want space to talk as a cohort.
  • The current system does not feel like a safe place for strong artists of color.
  • Barriers to access need to be addressed from a young age. There is a direct correlation between the lack of equity in arts education/youth arts engagement and the lack of adult POC arts administrators. This is not the only problem, but it’s a contributing factor. Arts exposure/engagement for youth of color needs to be prioritized over the long term and tied to mentorship opportunities.

White Norms

  • White people and white art continue to both visibly and invisibly set the standard. How can we ensure art created by people of color is equally valued? And how do we move past seeing it simply as culturally specific or service-oriented art?
  • Diversity and inclusion are inherently white notions.
  • Arts are seen as a luxury and a relic for the white elite. How do we make change when the conversation around the arts is about taste or quality, rather than the common good or the power of creative expression?
  • People at arts organizations continue to hire folks who are like themselves, keeping the pool of administrators homogenous.

 

White Organizations in Transition

  • This is long and hard work for white people.
  • White administrators are looking for a safe space to learn how to talk about race and ethnicity, how to identify their biases, and how to be an ally.
  • Staff at institutions feel isolated. They don’t have the knowledge or resources to do this work well.
  • How do staff push equity forward within an organization when it’s not a priority to the leadership?
  • How do administrators integrate an equity lens into their daily work in decisions both large and small?
  • Institutions want to show more work of POCs, but need better connections to find that work. How do we build trust between POCs and organizations that have historically ignored or exploited them?
  • How do white-led organizations reach out authentically to communities that they do not have an existing relationship with? How do white people get over the paralyzing fear of engaging with communities of color in the wrong way?
  • What incentives currently exist for POCs to engage with white-led arts organizations? How do we build exchange-based, mutually-beneficial relationships between historically-white organizations and communities of color that serve the interests of everyone involved?
  • Are organizations genuinely committed to diversity and equity? What are they willing to invest, and how are they willing to change?

 

Where Do We Go Now?

  • We need equitable (white & POC-recognized) definitions around this work – white privilege, diversity, etc.
  • Let’s continue to have conversations and share best practices across orgs.
  • Let’s move into action.
  • How do we make change, particularly when some of the key perpetrators aren’t part of this conversation? Many of our most powerful leaders aren’t doing enough. How do we inspire them to take action? Or, how do we do this work even if they won’t?
  • Early childhood education is key to making change.
  • White people and POCs need to talk and work together. How do we break down barriers between them?
  • Even if organizations start hiring POCs, how do they retain them? What does an equitable workplace culture look and feel like?
  • Who is not in the room for this conversation?
  • We need to create space to focus on racial and ethnic equity amongst arts administrators and managers, as a separate but related issue with equity for artists and audiences within arts institutions.

 

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People want to talk more about:

  • Moving into action
  • Solutions
  • Hiring and casting best practices
  • Other organizational policies
  • Building trust with a new community
  • Power structures
  • Risk-taking
  • Trust
  • White male privilege
  • Tokenism
  • Experiments
  • Values
  • Allyship
  • Intersectionality
  • Pay equity
  • Arts funding
  • How hard this is
  • Racial justice
  • Completely rebooting
  • Opening conversations
  • Intersection of race, ethnicity, and class
  • Dismantling institutional racism
  • Affinities
  • Action plan
  • Cronyism
  • Everything
  • Listening
  • Systems
  • Hope
  • Making an impact

People want to participate in:

  • Facilitated sessions
  • Small-group brainstorming
  • Focused conversations
  • Topical breakout groups that participants elect to join based on individual interest
  • Personal story sharing, scenarios-based activities
  • Panels and forums
  • Racial, ethnic, and cultural affinity groups
  • Weekend, daytime, and longer (2+ hour) sessions

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What’s Next?

PEAL is excited to look ahead and will continue this series with a subsequent session in early summer 2016 based on the above feedback. If you are interested in becoming involved in this series, please contact Candace Kita at candacekita@gmail.com. Stay tuned!

Why Are the Arts So White? Organizers:

Rebecca Burrell / The Right Brain Initiative Outreach Specialist, Regional Arts & Culture Council

Jenny Chu / Program Coordinator, Write Around Portland

Nick Fenster / Marketing and Development Director, Northwest Children’s Theater & School

Candace Kita / Advancement Assistant, Portland Art Museum

Toni Tabora-Roberts / Founder and Chief Esper, Esper House

Portland Emerging Arts Leaders / emergingartspdx.org