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Attendees at the "The Art of Justice 2" symposium at NYU last February, including Jason Tseng (in bowtie). The event was produced by NYU and the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCADI). (Photo by Amun Ankhra)

Letters to the Editor: Data Smackdown, Chi-Town Dramaturgs

Readers wrote in to quibble about facts surrounding a recent convening on funding for the arts, as well as a lack of representation from the Windy City.

Illuminating Concerns

I am writing with some concern about the Jason Tseng article in the September 2016 issue of American Theatre (“A Tale of Two Reports”).

There is no question that Tseng is an astute writer and respected leader in our field. As the moderator for the panel discussion in February 2016 at the American University Arts Management Program Spring Colloquium and a moderator for one of the panels for the March 2016 “The Art of Justice 2” symposium, I would like to clarify:

  1. Tseng neglected to mention he was a participant and panelist in the Art of Justice 2 panel at NYU, which may to some extent account for his more favorable assessment of that “robust” panel discussion.
  2. He neglected to mention the “dispassionate” panel discussion at American University was never designed, described, or promoted to be a “matchup” between the DeVos Institute and the National Center for Arts Research (NCAR). The panel discussion was not focused on theatres per se, but on the funding (or lack thereof) of community-based/culturally grounded organizations of various artistic disciplines.
  3. Finally, I believe that Tseng’s cartoon/caricature of Michael Kaiser (“The Kaiser Games: A Comic Response to the DeVos Institute Study”) in the October 2015 Nonprofit Quarterly, which characterized Michael Kaiser as a racist, may have tinted (tainted?) Jason’s reporting lens and his expectations of what was going to occur at the American University Colloquium. It seems to me that Tseng was expecting a cultural “smackdown” at the expense of the DeVos Institute, when in fact the general intent of both discussions was to illuminate the concerns, differences of opinions, various positions, and essential research so that actual and virtual attendees, faculty, students, funders, the cultural community, and others could use the information to inform their own conclusions and decisions. And, as wisely stated by Marta Moreno Vega, who teaches at NYU and is the founder of CCCADI, hopefully the information will “influence the thought process and actions of those in the audience and all of our work.”

Baraka Sele, independent consultant
Montclair, N.J.

Jason Tseng responds:

I hold Baraka Sele’s work in advocating for racial equity in the arts sector in the utmost respect. I, however, would like to address her concerns with my piece.

  1. I disclosed to American Theatre’s editors that I had been asked to participate as one of 12 speakers at the Art of ­Justice 2 event. My participation was last-minute and very minimal, and as such I do not believe that this impaired my abili­ty to cover the event fairly.
  2. Authorial intent and reader response are two different things.
  3. I am proud of my editorial cartoon that satirized Michael Kaiser’s wrongheaded findings. I, along with many other leaders in the arts field, felt that Kaiser’s proposal that black and Latino organizations should compete against each other for limited funding, and that the weaker ones should be allowed to die off, was misguided—and, as I maintain, racist.

Building from the last point: I want to clearly state that I do not characterize Kaiser himself as “a racist” but named the things he said as racist. I don’t believe that anyone’s beliefs are immutable or inborn, and as such I don’t believe that one can be “a racist,” rather that people hold racist beliefs and do racist things. We all are, in some degree, racist by the mere fact of living in a racist society. But in the same way, we all have the capability to undo and unlearn the racism we have been taught and reproduced.

To fight this racism, we must name it when we see it. By attempting to preserve a veil of neutrality, we set up a false equivalence where the racist belief and the anti-racist belief are equally valid and moral. I don’t believe these two ideas are of equal merit. Politeness in the face of oppression is ineffectual, and I’m not interested in being polite.

A Play Development Town, Chicago Is

I was riffling through my October copy of American Theatre and skimmed the feature “The New Play’s the Thing,” which gathered comments from dozens of dramaturgs and literary managers about what they’re anticipating this season. I went through the feature several times looking for comments from a Chicago theatre and found none. Apparently the Chicago theatre scene has been discounted by American Theatre as a presence in the development of new theatre. I’ve been reviewing the Chicagoland scene for decades and one thing I thought we had was a real dedication to new work, both at flagship theatres like Steppenwolf and Goodman and especially Victory Gardens, but also the countless small theatres constantly providing a platform for new plays and musicals. A pity their comments were excluded from your extensive feature, for whatever reason.

Dan Zeff


From the editors:
Mr. Zeff raises an important issue. We’re also disappointed that the feature didn’t include survey respondents from Chicago. We did contact several Windy City literary managers and dramaturgs who weren’t able to get back to us by deadline; one dramaturg quoted in the piece, Martine Kei Green-Rogers, frequently works in Chicago. Even without locals’ input, however, several Chicago theatres did come up in the recommendations of others, including Victory Gardens, Steppenwolf, Goodman, Lookingglass, the American Theater Company, Northlight, and the Gift. We believe that says a lot about the strength of new-play development in that area.

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