Cultural Equity: In Search of an Equal Playing Field in Arts Funding, Open Thread
A difference of opinion on whether that practice is appropriate is playing itself out in New York City at the moment, as reported by the New York Times:
[A] coalition of arts organizations in New York City called the Cultural Equity Group [proposed] to city officials [that] $15 million in the city budget ... go to so-called culturally specific organizations, serving blacks, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and American Indians. The money — to be used for things like programs and administrative support — would be separate from financing awarded by city agencies, like the Cultural Affairs Department.
That agency’s grant panels do not use culturally specific criteria when awarding money. For fiscal year 2009, which began July 1, the panels awarded 862 program grants, a total of $26.5 million. According to the department, organizations that said in their mission statements that they explicitly served “a community of color” accounted for 22 percent of the applicant pool and received 22 percent of the dollars.
“The competition for funding does not take into account the issues of the communities we serve — the soaring high school dropout rate, the foster care kids, the people facing re-entry from prison,” said Laurie A. Cumbo, another Cultural Equity Group leader.
Still, the Cultural Equity Group’s quest has reignited a lively debate in the arts world about just what cultural equity means.
Kate D. Levin, the cultural affairs commissioner, said that in her agency’s experience a group’s mission statement — as opposed to leaders, staff and board — most reliably captures what it does and who it serves.“Our new funding process supports 25 percent more groups with significantly more dollars than in the past,” she said. “We’ve opened up a system that was previously unresponsive to need or demand, and we’re more equitable and transparent than ever before. Naturally anytime there’s change, there’s a debate."
As I had noted in the previous post, I feel that the notion that some sunny day everyone will like or accept (or even appreciate) the differences of everyone else is an unrealistic goal. The most practical thing you can work toward is equal opportunity.Still, I understand that all else being equal, some arts organizations will go under. And I understand that some arts organizations are still truly at a disadvantage socially:
At a recent meeting [Cultural Equity Group] members spoke of the difficulty of luring minority board members from elite organizations, securing bank loans in struggling neighborhoods and encouraging poor people to donate money to support the arts. Even success can hurt these centers, as the artists they have helped start go to bigger, wealthier places. At times, group members said, they had to cut back on programming or hours of operation, and staff members often do without things like health insurance.I'll admit to thinking sometimes that Darwin was right. The strongest survive. That's just how it is. And that's perhaps not fair, but what's fairness got to do with it? Then I stop to think that the arts are supposed to reflect our best selves. Not our most Machiavellian selves. Not our most Darwinian selves. But the very best that we can be.
Perhaps that's too romantic a notion. Perhaps even in the arts, only the strongest should survive. Some seem to suggest that's the case:
Government and foundation support dries up in tough times, [Michael M. Kaiser, the president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington] said, so turning to the city is not as useful a long-term strategy as gaining development expertise.It's hard to argue with that. But even the examples of success in doing so that one could point to had a bit of fortune on their side:
“I am talking about good marketing skills, getting people excited about your work, a disciplined fund-raising,” he said.
What is a level playing field?” asked Patricia Cruz, executive director of Harlem Stage. “All arts organizations are in trouble now. This issue needs to be quantified: How many organizations run by or serving people of color are out there and how many have perished? We feel it in terms of the organizations that are struggling so intensely, but if a fact-based analysis finds what people know intuitively, then you can address this.”Indeed, in the case of the Studio Museum in Harlem and El Museo del Barrio, I assume the fortune that helped them become the stellar institutions they are today includes a good deal of hard, smart work, but also the fact that they represent minorities with large populations in New York and that they were able to remain in operation long enough to see their hard work eventually coincide with economic prosperity. For some other arts organizations, with smaller pools of potential supporters and the misfortune of existing in tougher times, even those organizations' paths to success may not be probable. Do we just let Darwinism run its course in such cases?
Ms. Cruz said she thought the Cultural Affairs Department had done a good job in reaching out to all kinds of groups and making its financing process more transparent.
“The Cultural Equity Group is doing exactly what we did 30 years ago,” said Mary Schmidt Campbell, chairwoman of the New York State Council on the Arts. Ms. Campbell was the executive director of the Studio Museum in Harlem from 1977 to 1987 and served as the New York City cultural affairs commissioner from 1987 to 1991. She recalled how demands for more diversity led to city governments, foundations and corporations providing dollars and technical assistance for nonwhite cultural organizations.
That support helped establish places like the Studio Museum in Harlem and El Museo del Barrio, now two examples of elite, robust institutions, Ms. Campbell said.
For now, the clock is ticking in places like Brownsville, East New York and Crown Heights in Brooklyn, [Laurie A.] Cumbo, of the African Diasporan arts museum, said.Consider this an open thread on arts funding and equal opportunity.
“There’s no cultural outlet or release for the young people in these communities,” she said. “Get off the corners and go where? Get off the corners and do what?”