It was a cold February afternoon in Washington, D.C., as American University’s Katzen Arts Center auditorium brimmed with academics and artists. It’s not often that a colloquium on arts management attracts such anticipation, but this promised to be different. Onstage, the evening’s rhetorical combatants sat across from each other: Michael “Turnaround King” Kaiser, former Kennedy Center president and current chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management, and Zannie Giraud Voss, director of the National Center for Arts Research (NCAR). Though they shared the stage with Donna Walker-Kuhne of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Malik Robinson of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, and the evening’s moderator, arts consultant Baraka Sele, the main event was Kaiser versus Voss. Both had recently penned studies on the financial health of arts organizations of color. To many observers (yours truly included), this confrontation was emblematic of a larger philosophical struggle over the future of the diversity/equity question in the arts.
To set the stage: In September 2015, DeVos released a report comparing the nation’s largest black and Latino arts groups to a control group of the largest mainstream arts institutions. The report concluded that these organizations were less financially secure, as they had on operating budgets on average of one tenth the size of their mainstream counterparts and relied heavily on institutional funding; individual giving, the report showed, accounted for just 5 percent of their contributed income, compared with 60 percent in the control group. The report’s recommendations to improve the health of theatres of color included the controversial advice that arts funders should consolidate funding, donating to fewer black and Latino organizations but at higher levels, in effect buoying already successful organizations and allowing weaker ones to wither, thereby purportedly strengthening the entire cohort.
These recommendations drew sharp criticisms from groups like Grantmakers in the Arts, whose president and CEO, Janet Brown, wrote, “This report does not take a systemic look at these issues, and so it lacks the real understanding of the barriers faced by many of these organizations…We recommend more grants for longer periods of time…to more ALAANA [African, Latino(a), Asian, Arab, and Native American] organizations, not fewer grants in larger amounts.”
In January 2016, NCAR issued its own white paper on the subject. One difference: Voss included Asian/Pacific Islander organizations (though Native American and Arab groups still remained notably absent). The study’s main finding was that organizations of color tended to be younger and more likely to fall into smaller-budget sectors—e.g. arts education, community-based arts, multidisciplinary. Voss showed that if you controlled for sector and age, the budgets and physical facilities were of similar size to those of mainstream equivalents. While she did find that organizations of color exhibited some differences in resource allocation and funding, such as low marketing expense and subscription revenue, these differences were largely to be expected of younger organizations trying to attain legitimacy. The paper also went out of its way to dispute DeVos’s recommendation to fund fewer organizations of color, calling the notion “detrimental to the field.”
But despite theses studies’ stark differences, the Kaiser/Voss matchup was unexpectedly dispassionate; organizers evidently opted for Kaiser and Voss to present their divergent findings to the audience, scarcely addressing each other, in a decidedly less Socratic manner than many had hoped for. But it didn’t take long for robust responses to emerge from organizations of color at the center of this polite academic disagreement. Two weeks after the event in Washington, D.C., the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI), in partnership with New York University’s Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, hosted its own colloquy in New York City on the topic of race, arts funding, and the survival of community-based arts, called “The Art of Justice 2: Articulating an Ethos and Aesthetic of the Movement.”
Speakers at the event put the battle between DeVos and NCAR in the context of the decades-long movement of arts organizations of color. CCCADI founder and former director of El Museo del Barrio Marta Moreno Vega underscored the importance of arts organizations of color, stating, “In a society that has narrow vision and sees whiteness as preferred, the institutions that reflect ‘history’ do not reflect our history.” Vega pointed out that the very organizations the DeVos study recommends defunding are the same organizations whose genesis was necessitated by the centuries-long legacy of active divestment and exclusion of communities of color by mainstream arts institutions and funders.
Roadside Theater artistic director Dudley Cocke spoke out as a white arts leader on how his theatre, based in Norton, Va., approaches their programming and activities from an intersectional perspective that aims to transcend class and race. This has allowed Roadside, an organization founded to subvert stereotypes of the mostly white Appalachian community, to link issues of class and location to issues of race. As a result their audience is now one third people of color, which is roughly comparable to the national demographic of 38 percent people of color.
Arts researcher and Helicon Collaborative president Holly Sidford updated the data in her widely cited 2011 study for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, “Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change.” Sidford found that people of color marginalized from decision-making roles in the culture sector, revealing that in foundations supporting the arts, 87 percent of board members, 92 percent of presidents, and 64 percent of program officers are white. “There’s not enough diversity in the people making the decisions,” Sidford concluded. “What can we do to incentivize people with means to do more for the organizations [of color] that are such an enormous part of this ecology?” This disproportionate white representation in philanthropic positions of power led to Sidford’s other sobering statistic: Only around 10 percent of arts and culture grant dollars go to benefit “vulnerable communities,” which includes communities of color.
As the “Art of Justice 2” event continued, it was striking to note its stark difference from the prior gathering in D.C. While the first was formal, reserved, and widely attended — making use of a large auditorium and live-streaming video — CCCADI’s event was passionate, political, and crammed into the small fourth-floor lobby of an academic department. While this debate is larger than two diverging reports and two unevenly attended convenings, the disparities they highlight point to a deeper fissure in the discourse — both in the conversation the arts establishment has about artists of color, and vice versa.
Katie Ingersoll and her colleagues at Createquity, a research-backed arts blog/think tank, have been documenting various points of view on diversity-and-equity questions in the culture sector. Ingersoll lays out four broad and sometimes competing “visions of success” that Createquity has observed and culled from the field through a survey of literature and interviews with arts leaders:
- Diversity. Mainstream organizations need to become more diverse, thus increasing their ability to serve diverse communities.
- Prosperity. Organizations run by artists of color achieve sustainability by becoming “successful” nonprofits in the mold of other mainstream organizations.
- Redistribution. Resources within the sector are redistributed so that a greater portion of them go to people of color.
- Self-Determination. People of color are able to dictate the form, content, and value of their art on their own terms.
These categories help sort the thinking behind various arguments, Ingersoll points out. The DeVos study, she says, “really sits in this ‘prosperity’ vision — which I don’t think is one particularly articulated within communities of color — and tries to double down on it.” Ingersoll notes that organizations like New Jersey’s Crossroads Theatre Company or Cleveland’s Karamu House— this last being the nation’s oldest black theatre, which lost its nonprofit status earlier this year — were created in part to address a lack of opportunity. They adopted the prevailing nonprofit model of mainstream peers, allowing them to access major foundation support. “Those organizations’ successes are important, but their existence doesn’t mean the systemic inequalities that led people to create those organizations have changed,” Ingersoll adds.
Ingersoll also notes that, while the NCAR study never purports to represent the entirety of the equity discussion, “because it specifically looks at the data on the sector, it doesn’t really engage directly with the idea of structural inequalities that are bigger than the sector itself — though it opens the door to that conversation. I see the NCAR study as beginning to take on the ‘prosperity vision’ and question it. It shifted the conversation that DeVos started, as a way to counter it.”
When asked what the DeVos/NCAR conversation was missing, Mina Matlon, arts researcher and cofounder of the advocacy organization Plural, comments, “What distinguishes those two reports from greater developments in the [cultural equity] field is both conversations struck me as very deficit-based, and looked at metrics that were developed to gauge the performance of large Anglo-American organizations.” Matlon cited a study on California arts organizations of color, which found that though they typically spent little to nothing on marketing expenses, they reached more people per philanthropic dollar invested due to close community relationships. Matlon adds, “Neither report really presents information that is particularly new. We’ve generally known this [information about] arts organizations of color since at least the early ’90s. Many of us have moved on past these conversations.”
Matlon pointed to The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, an anthology of writing by activists and scholars deconstructing the “nonprofit industrial complex,” defined as the system of relationships between the state, owning classes, foundations, and nonprofit organizations that results in the surveillance and control of political and cultural movements. Many organizations cited in the anthology operate in non-hierarchical, communal, and non-institutionalized ways that, by the metrics used in both the DeVos and NCAR studies, would signify weakness and/or poor management, but in actuality reflect intentional, operation-based implementations of missions. What’s more, the focus on individual giving as a panacea for dwindling institutional arts funding fails to recognize the vastly unequal consolidation of wealth in white communities. Consider:
- Forbes reported last year that white households held more than 15 times the median wealth of black households and more than 13 times that of Latina/o households;
- TheGrio reported back in 2011 that 96 percent of the top 1 percent of households by net worth were white;
- A Public Religion Research Institute study found that 75 percent of whites have “entirely white social networks, without any minority presence.”
As CCCADI’s director of development, Nicole Reiner, told me, “I think that the social silo-ing of ethnic or racial groups among themselves is definitely a factor. That certainly impacts the amount that an organization of color can really do to attract the interest and ultimately the contributions of white arts supporters, without relying on the kinds of appeals based on need and inferiority — which frankly is very demeaning and degrading.” If funders, both institutional and individual, primarily give to people they know, how organizations of color can ever be competitive for these funds as long as white communities are self-segregated remains an open question.
And whether or not increased attention to racial equity among arts philanthropists will result in a measurable increase in funds directed to artists of color remains to be seen. Sidford noted in her data update that since her landmark 2011 study, the proportion of arts funding to “vulnerable communities” actually fell over the period. Additionally, while several prominent arts funders, like the Ford Foundation, have made highly visible commitments to focusing on equity in their grantmaking, theatres of color often find themselves competing with highly resourced mainstream organizations for these funds. In a bitter irony, equity-focused funds often benefit mainstream theatres’ attempts to diversify their audiences rather than theatres of color. In April 2016, for instance, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater a grant of $1 million to expand its facilities and pursue more equity-focused artistic programming and partnerships. Meanwhile, in that same granting cycle, St. Paul, Minn.’s Penumbra Theatre, one of the nation’s leading black theatre companies, was granted an award roughly half that sum to run an equity and diversity training program—not for its artistic programming.
When asked what she thought could help move these disparate conversations toward true racial equity in the field, Matlon advised “resisting the urge to find a one-solution fix. What we’re struggling with is not taking place in a vacuum, and many of the issues that we’re experiencing in regards to equity go beyond a single individual, a single institution, but are system-wide — and in many regards extend beyond the arts sector.”
Jason Tseng is a playwright, illustrator, comic artist, and organizer in the queer Asian/Pacific Islander community. He also works at Fractured Atlas as a community engagement specialist.
A version of this story appears in the September 2016 issue.