The plays of a real Negro theatre must be: One: About us. That is, they must have plots which reveal Negro life as it is. Two: By us. That is, they must be written by Negro authors who understand from birth and continual association just what it means to be a Negro today. Three: For us. That is, the theatre must cater primarily to Negro audiences and be supported and sustained by their entertainment and approval. Four: Near us. The theatre must be in a Negro neighborhood near the mass of ordinary Negro people.

–W.E.B. Du Bois, from the program for the Krigwa Players Little Negro Theater in 1925, reprinted in Crisis magazine (published by the NAACP) in 1926

About us. By us. For us. Near us. It has been almost a century since the great W.E.B. Du Bois–one of the co-founders of the NAACP–offered this stirring call for what, today, we would call “cultural equity.” To say much has happened in those ninety years would be to oversimplify. Significant progress has been made. And yet for many, and on many levels, it is not enough. In a speech given just last year, Jeff Chang, executive director of Stanford’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts, exclaimed: “at a moment when…our images depict us as one happy rainbow nation, and yet the structures of power, including the national culture complex…is still overwhelmingly white, we begin to recognize that we have not yet achieved cultural equity.”

It is certainly not for lack of effort–a deep, ongoing, heroic effort by dedicated activists, institutions, artists, funders, and even the government. And yet, read Chang–and below, Campbell, Lowry, Rosen, Erickson, Kourlas, Sonntag, Vega, and Grams–and one thing soon becomes clear: “cultural equity” means different things to different people. Over the course of some ninety years, distinct, and sometimes competing, visions of success have jostled for attention, complicating a complex conversation, and creating tensions that often go unresolved. Diverse goals and desired outcomes–over time and between different groups–have made change a juggling act; meanwhile, efforts to add on fixes to a system that was not built with equity in mind have met with mixed results.

Just as we cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it, we cannot achieve cultural democracy or equity with the same tools, strategies, and structures that built and have maintained our current inequitable systems. To move forward, we must look, think, and act widely.

Figuring the Plural, a research report about ethnocultural organizations published in 2014

The past few years have been deeply trying for race relations in the United States. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to widely publicized violence against unarmed black people at the hands of private citizens and the police, along with an increasing anti-immigration rhetoric on the political stage, have given new urgency to initiatives focusing on decreasing racial inequality and combating racial bias. The relevance of cultural equity in the nonprofit arts world is all the more immediate against this backdrop. As borne out by the results of our reader poll earlier this year, along with our own observations, perhaps no other issue is more present for arts professionals in 2016 than this.

Many of the core issues in today’s debate around cultural equity harken back to the beginning of arts in America. As outlined in our earlier article on growth and change in the nonprofit arts sector, the “beginning” here can be traced to the 19th century, when, in the aftermath of the Civil War and amid an influx of immigration, a new class of urban white commercial elites established institutions–such as Metropolitan Museum of Art and Metropolitan Opera, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra–to preserve and present art in the classical European canon. While these well-heeled individuals–America’s early philanthropists–sought to promote civic pride and validate America’s position as a “civilized” world power, they also used these institutions to establish and protect their own class status. It was not until the 1960s that private philanthropy began to focus on broader cultural expressions. By then, however, this structural disparity, which showered the lion’s share of philanthropic funding and policy attention on art forms originating in Western European traditions and wealthy organizations upholding those traditions, had thoroughly defined the very word “arts” as well as nearly all of the infrastructure associated with it.

Institutional efforts to bring equity to the arts have a long history. The African American theater tradition envisioned by DuBois at the opening of this article, for example, was developed in part thanks to New Deal programs in the 1930s. Since then, the federal and some state governments have stepped in for periods of time to create dedicated funding streams for organizations rooted in communities of color. In 1968, the New York State Council on the Arts launched its Ghetto Arts Program (later wisely renamed the Special Arts Services Program), which provided opportunities for black artists to work in their communities, and three years later, the nascent National Endowment for the Arts launched the Expansion Arts Program, designed to support “community-based arts activities.”

The NEA has succeeded in encouraging programmatic diversity in terms of the projects offered by a wide range of institutions. What it now requires is structural diversity that is within the boards, staffs, and patronage systems of institutions.

– Mary Schmidt Campbell, former executive director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and NYC Cultural Affairs Commissioner [From her 1998 A New Mission for the NEA]

Many of these policy interventions, however, ultimately proved fleeting in the face of shifting political winds, especially at the federal level. Undeterred, several generations of artists and activists worked in the latter half of the 20th century to support participation in and expression of cultural heritage, sometimes with the help of private philanthropy and sometimes without any outside help at all. The fruits of those efforts today include a number of prominent institutions presenting works by artists of color, several national service organizations such as the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures and Association of African American Museums, and thousands of ethnocultural organizations providing important services within their communities.

In my own experience I have found that ethnic origin is not a bar to artistic response if there is equal access. I cannot believe that persons of color do not respond to good art.

–W. McNeil Lowry, former Vice President of the Ford Foundation who launched the foundation’s arts funding program, in a 1991 article in response to the
Arts and Government report from the American Assembly

In recent years, cultural equity has once again risen to the top of the national arts agenda in the United States. From coast to coast, foundations, arts councils, advocacy organizations, universities and others have doubled down on their commitment to diversity and equity in the arts. Though many factors have led to that shift, a clearly pivotal moment was the 2011 publication of Holly Sidford’s “Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change.” A monograph completed as part of the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy’s review of social justice grantmaking practices in various fields, “Fusing” reported figures suggesting that the majority of arts funding in the United States does not benefit communities of color, and called decisively for change. Grantmakers in the Arts gave substantial visibility to the report and its ideas within the arts funding community over a period of several years, which culminated in the organization releasing a statement of purpose detailing its commitment to racial equity in arts philanthropy in April of 2015.

[S]ocial inequities continue to be reflected in the funding practices of private philanthropy and governmental funders in the arts. Therefore, in order to more equitably support ALAANA [African, Latino(a), Asian, Arab, and Native American] communities, arts organizations, and artists, funders should take explicit actions to structurally change funding behaviors and norms.

–Grantmakers in the Arts, Racial Equity in Arts Philanthropy Statement of Purpose

Sidford’s and GIA’s calls for equity have reverberated with increasing volume among other national service organizations, local arts agencies, and foundations across the land. In 2014, following in the footsteps of a Mellon Foundation program to increase the diversity of curatorial staff at encyclopedic museums, the American Alliance of Museums released a diversity and inclusion policy statement. In the past two years, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the Los Angeles County Arts Commission have engaged in something of a bicoastal dance, with the former conducting a study of the diversity of the arts organizations it funds and the latter undertaking a Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative to improve “diversity in cultural organizations, in the areas of their leadership, staffing, programming and audience composition.” Americans for the Arts, the national service organization that represents these and other local arts councils, released its own widely circulated and discussed Statement on Cultural Equity in May of this year.

I heartily support the NCRP report’s recommendation that philanthropic investment in the arts should benefit underserved communities and promote greater equity, opportunity, and justice. But I take issue with the suggestion that foundation support to large-budget organizations and those that perform the Western canon is, by definition, at odds with these goals.

–Jesse Rosen, League of American Orchestras, 2011

Our goal here is not to present a detailed history of the movement for cultural equity. Folks far more qualified than us have done so already. Instead, we are more interested in looking forward: what is the change we collectively want to create, and what will it take to make that change happen?

At Createquity, we are on a long-term mission to investigate the most important issues in the arts and what we can do about them. Yet in order to use research and evidence to help our sector move forward, we must have a clear, and shared, understanding of what success looks like. And therein lies the rub: the further we delved into the literature around cultural equity, and the more we consulted experts and connected with some of the activists who precede us, the more we came to realize that shared understanding simply doesn’t exist.

That there are different visions for cultural equity is clear. Where exactly the lines are drawn, however, is somewhat less so. There is an inherent difficulty in examining positions forged through dialogue via documents authored by a few, and any attempt to develop a taxonomy will have its flaws. But in our own conversations, we found it helpful to divide the visions for success we were reading and hearing from advocates into four archetypes: Diversity, Prosperity, Redistribution, and Self-Determination. In the rest of this article, we present the differences between these visions, and consider the implications for a healthy arts ecosystem.


Let’s take a closer look.

Vision One: Diversity

There is another argument for inclusion, one that is at least as powerful as inequity in employment, and that is what it means for the audience to see a fully inclusive world on our stages….

Brad Erickson, Executive Director of Theatre Bay Area, March 2016

The one thing that everyone in the cultural equity conversation seems to agree on is that so-called “mainstream” institutions–a community’s big-budget nonprofit symphonies, art museums, presenters, etc–are far too homogeneous. The “Diversity” vision for cultural equity seeks to rectify this, calling for these institutions to become more reflective of the communities they serve.

What does that actually mean in practice? Over the course of the past half-century, conversations about diversity have tended to focus first on audiences, then on programming, and finally on leadership. Diversity’s core concern is about who is ultimately benefiting from the work; if diverse audiences are taking advantage, then that is the surest sign of success. Many early efforts thus adopted the theme of “access” to the arts, on the assumption that underrepresented audiences wanted to participate but could not because of barriers like cost or convenience. Gradually, however, as organizations discovered that simply offering free events and pursuing more targeted marketing wasn’t enough, the focus shifted to artists themselves–who was on stage, on the page, on the walls, on screen, or coming out of the speakers–and the cultural narratives they represented. In recent years, attention has turned more and more to the staffs and boards of arts organizations as advocates have sought to diversify the decision-makers behind the scenes. Thus, whereas the Diversity vision began as a simple push for more diverse audiences, today it calls for change at the infrastructural level in addition to the programmatic level.

Misty Copeland, American Ballet Theatre, Gong, November 1, 2013 by flickr user Kent G Becker

“Misty Copeland, American Ballet Theatre” by flickr user Kent G Becker

More than equality is at stake when Ms. Copeland—the first African-American principal female dancer in the [American Ballet Theater’s] 75-year history—dances. When a company is diverse, the audience becomes more diverse, too, and for those faced with aging, dwindling audiences, that is priceless.

– Gia Kourlas, New York Times, 2015

Why do mainstream institutions and their stakeholders care about diversity? Much of the interest springs from a recognition of the changing demographics of America. Non-Hispanic whites have made up a smaller proportion of the US population in every Census since 1940, and the Census Bureau projects that people of color will become the majority nationwide by 2044. Meanwhile, figures from the National Endowment for the Arts show a long-term decline in rates of participation in so-called “benchmark” art forms (a definition that includes classical music, jazz, opera, plays, ballet, and visits to an art museum or gallery), as well as relatively lower engagement from non-white, young, poorer, and less-educated audiences. These statistics pose a strong threat to the narrative of universal relevance that many mainstream organizations actively promote, particularly when such institutions are located in heavily diversified downtown urban cores. The more an individual feels reflected within the culture of a mainstream institution, it is assumed, the more comfortable that individual will be engaging with the institution’s programming. If that reflection is not taking place, a significant proportion of the population is being left out in systematic ways.

While many proponents see Diversity as morally righteous on the strength of these arguments alone, there is a solid business case for relevance too. If the assumption above is true, mainstream institutions have a better chance of making out in the long run if they can successfully engage more members of their ever-shifting communities through diversification strategies.

Vision Two: Prosperity

It’s an incredibly appealing product. Ailey is an admirable company that has capitalized on its artistic strengths to ensure its financial future.

–Douglas C. Sonntag, director of dance at the National Endowment for the Arts, referring to Ailey’s artistic product, staff, and board, quoted in a 2004 article for the Washington Post

Though Diversity is unmistakably a call for change, its supporters share early American philanthropists’ faith that the institutions they founded can and must play a central, unifying role in the cultural life of their communities. Not everyone agrees.

The Prosperity vision takes Diversity’s belief in the power of organizational scale and applies it to institutions started and led by artists of color. These institutions follow the standard model of nonprofit growth–cultivating a wide audience, a fundraising board, diversified streams of income, and professional staff–all with an eye toward long-term sustainability. Though rarely stated outright, an underlying assumption of Prosperity is that large, established institutions of color will last longer, and thus provide more benefit to society over many generations, than an ecosystem of smaller organizations that may be more transitory in nature.

What we are calling the Prosperity vision evolved out of the success of a cohort of pioneering artists who created their own organizations in the late 1950s through the1970s in response to a lack of existing opportunities for pursuing their creative work. Many of these artists adopted the nonprofit model that was gaining ground during that period in order to improve their access to philanthropic resources. The seminal organizations they founded–like the Free Southern Theater, El Teatro Campesino, Studio Museum in Harlem, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the Negro Ensemble Company, among others–received sustained support from private foundations early in their history, and the legacies of those organizations play an important role today both in the cultural life of their communities and more broadly.

Negro Ensemble Company National Tour, 1968 (source)

Negro Ensemble Company National Tour, 1968 (source)

The Prosperity vision lives on in several more recent institutions, including the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh and the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture, set to open this September in Washington, DC. It is worth noting that, like many of their predecessors, both of these institutions came to be thanks to a collaboration between one or more artists or advocates of color and a white champion or champions. The August Wilson Center materialized when Pittsburgh mayor Thomas J. Murphy, Jr. accepted a challenge from the local NAACP president, Tim Stevens, to organize a funding drive for the new institution that Stevens had dreamed up. Representative John Lewis (D-GA) introduced legislation for an African American Smithsonian museum and tried for many years to get it through Congress; it finally passed because of support from a new Smithsonian head, Lawrence M. Small. This pattern of community leaders of different races forming alliances to celebrate artists of color is highly characteristic of the Prosperity vision.

Vision Three: Redistribution

Eurocentric aesthetic products continue to be viewed as superior to those of people of color and poor white communities. Funders from both the public and private agencies have historically invested in institutions and art forms that reflect their assumed superiority; they have consistently under resourced and underfunded the art forms that they consider marginal, ethnic, folk, etc.

–Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, president and founder of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, in a 2016 online conversation posted to the Center’s website.

Diversity and Prosperity both embrace the standard market dynamics of the nonprofit arts sector, in which a small number of high-profile institutions dominate. By contrast, the Redistribution vision favors a larger pool of recipients for contributed income, particularly from grantmakers. Advocates of Redistribution argue that people of color, rural communities, LGBT communities, and others are socially and economically marginalized by our society and therefore have less access to wealth to support their work in the arts. The cultural contributions of these communities have likewise been devalued by arts funders historically. An equitable distribution–a redistribution–of funds towards organizations originating in and serving marginalized communities is the best way to address this imbalance. For advocates of Redistribution, therefore, a shift in the funding paradigm is what’s most urgently needed to achieve cultural equity.

The Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute was founded in New York City in 1976 by Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, pictured here third from the left. (Source)

The Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute was founded in New York City in 1976 by Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, pictured here third from the left. (Source)

Unlike Prosperity’s institution-centric frame, Redistribution focuses on the full ecosystem of individuals and institutions that comprise a community. A core belief of Redistribution is that all participants–from large institutions to one-person operations–should be afforded the opportunity to succeed. (Advocates of Redistribution don’t have a problem with large institutions that celebrate artists of color, as long as smaller organizations are able to share in the wealth.) Beyond the inherent justice in giving funds to oppressed groups, advocates point to the country’s changing demographics as additional justification for Redistribution. For advocates of Redistribution, it is more efficient to accomplish the goals of cultural equity by redirecting resources to organizations with already diverse staff and audiences rather than to put effort into diversifying mainstream organizations.

Redistribution gained a significant boost of attention from the publication of Sidford’s “Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change,” which is perhaps best known for a much-cited statistic that just 2% of arts organizations in the United States receive more than half of total contributed income. Many of the most difficult conversations about arts policy in America in the past several years have centered on the future of longstanding public and private funding streams supporting those institutions in the proverbial 2%. That’s because many of those streams were set up following the logic that the size of an organization’s budget is its own justification for the amount of funding it receives.

For example, in the Denver region, small arts groups make up 90% of the organizations funded by the local Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, but share only 16% of the pie. These so-called “Tier III” organizations demanded a more equitable distribution of resources last year, arguing the current distribution was unfair and biased toward Denver’s big cultural institutions. (Redistribution advocates mostly lost that particular battle.) Another conflagration erupted in San Francisco in 2014, after the city released a damning study on the allocations to organizations serving communities of color through its Grants for the Arts (GFTA) agency. Cultural equity activists asked that resources be redirected from GFTA to the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Cultural Equity Grants program, eventually winning a commitment of more than $2 million in new funds from Mayor Ed Lee. Major sources of operating support to arts organizations in New York City, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and beyond operate in a similar tiered or graduated system.

Vision Four: Self-Determination

We finally determined that self-sustainability is not how many memberships or season subscriptions you have or any of those things. It’s if we lost our funding, if there was a global downturn, if the ferry stopped running, if any of these things happened, who’s going to keep the doors to the Debaj Creation Centre open? Who’s going to be standing there with us when the funding is gone? Oh, our neighbors, our friends, our families, the people around us, that’s who this matters to, that’s who our sustainability is linked to. No one else… It’s right here, it’s the people right around us. So our absolute priority has got to be the relationships with those closest to us…

–Figuring the Plural, The Debajehmujig Creation Centre case study, published in 2014

You may have noticed that each successive vision on this list represents a further rejection of the status quo. Self-Determination, in many ways, is the most radical departure of all. The Self-Determination theory of cultural equity calls for full participation in and expression of cultural life for communities of color through models that are organic to those communities, and that look beyond established nonprofit arts funding and advocacy tactics.

At its zenith, Self-Determination seeks nothing less than wholesale societal and cultural transformation. With Self-Determination, ownership of cultural decisions is located within the community: it’s the community members themselves who get to shape cultural life. Advocates of Self-Determination view the current nonprofit and funding system in the United States with heavy skepticism. To them, its legacy of racism and class hegemony is still very much alive today, and will remain so as long as it continues to be largely controlled by the same wealthy, white elite class that founded it.

Because of this history, Self-Determination questions the notion that people of color could ever feel truly welcome engaging with mainstream nonprofit organizations, regardless of changes to programming or diversification of staff, as imagined in Diversity. Furthermore, working within the system to grow nonprofits led by artists of color, as imagined in Prosperity, validates and perpetuates white capitalist models of success, and often takes decision-making power out of the hands of the community. Finally, as these disparities of access are the direct result of global white supremacy, resolving them will require moving beyond Redistribution to dismantling the inherently racist elements of the system and/or creating alternative elements outside of it. This thinking naturally leads to an emphasis on the application of art towards social justice goals, and a de-emphasis of the traditional nonprofit model — though advocates do agree that subsidy for arts projects and organizations remains important.

"Protest" by flickr user S Pakhrin

“Protest” by flickr user S Pakhrin

Self-Determination sees the battleground for cultural equity extending well beyond the nonprofit arts sector as conventionally conceived. For many, devaluing of non-European culture starts in the education system. Communities of color have unequal access to quality public education in general, including arts education. What arts education they do receive tends to emphasize European art forms and works by white artists. Advocates argue that the valuable contributions that members of oppressed communities have made to society should be validated by the prestigious label of “art” in curricula.

Advocates of this vision also note that a large portion of opportunities to participate in the arts exist outside of the nonprofit sector, and argue this is especially true for people of color. Many organizations outside of the professional nonprofit arts sector play an important role in the cultural life of communities of color: churches, social service agencies, businesses, small volunteer nonprofits, and unincorporated community groups. Self-Determination argues that these organizations should also be eligible for arts subsidy, and that distribution of that subsidy should honor the goals and approaches of those organizations rather than prescribing measures of success or activities that are not generated by the community.

Fault Lines

The above list of visions represents a distillation, though we hope not too much an oversimplification, of the efforts, thinking and successes of many different advocates over many years. It’s important to acknowledge that these visions are not mutually exclusive, nor are their advocates. They exist in dialogue with each other, and it’s not unusual to hear a single person endorse aspects of different visions at different points in the same conversation. Yet that should not blind us to the reality that in practice, the tensions between these ideas can be a source of great confusion if they are not called out explicitly.

In particular, we perceive five key fault lines running across and through these visions as we’ve laid them out:

The Role of Race
Cultural equity is a conversation that is rooted in, but not exclusively about, race. While race is undeniably important to all four visions of success, they each incorporate other aspects of identity and community infrastructure in subtly distinct ways. Diversity often starts from a reference point of race, but advocates for Diversity frequently encounter pressure to include measures of social difference such as age, class, and disability status. Prosperity tends to be squarely focused on artists of color, but the Redistribution and Self-Determination visions are more directly aligned with the social justice movement, and thus consider LGBT, rural and other frames alongside race (albeit from an intersectional perspective). Because Redistribution and Self-Determination consider community to be defined by heritage, they often treat marginalized white ethnic communities as part of the same conversation as communities of color. Finally, Self-Determination is particularly sensitive to class considerations, given its skeptical orientation towards capitalism.

The Value (and Cost) of Integration
Echoing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream that “one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” the Diversity vision is in love with the idea of people coming together to understand and celebrate their differences. Yet for some activists, the expectation to share and share alike implied by this utopian, color-blind harmony ignores oppressed groups’ right to meaningful control of resources, traditions, and spaces that they can call their own. The Prosperity, Redistribution and especially Self-Determination visions all incorporate elements of ownership based on common heritage and identity, with no explicit obligation to be inclusive toward other cultures within those contexts.

The Centrality of Institutions
There are stark differences between the visions in how they value (or don’t value) institutions and the traditional ways of growing and running them. Diversity and Prosperity see institutions as vital infrastructure with enormous potential for community benefit. Redistribution sees value in institutions too, but is also keenly aware of how institutional values (e.g., prioritizing financial growth, sustainability, and formal structures) have historically been biased against communities of color. Self-Determination thinks institutional values are a corrupting influence and rejects the idea of institutions being the only model of health, questioning even bedrock institutions like the nonprofit sector itself.

Cultural Norms
Implicitly, Diversity and Prosperity embrace several core elements of dominant American culture that Redistribution and Self-Determination tend to be wary of. One of the most important of these norms involves using an individual rather than group lens to talk about benefits and harm. The difference can be seen in how Diversity and Prosperity very often celebrate or cultivate specific people of color, LGBT individuals, etc., whereas Redistribution and Self-Determination more frequently speak of impacts on, and seek to represent, whole communities. Redistribution and Self-Determination also tend to see culture as defined more by heritage than creativity, placing a relatively higher value on elders, ancestors, and tradition, and critiquing Diversity and Prosperity’s emphasis on originality and individual expression in the context of judging artistic merit. Finally, Redistribution and especially Self-Determination see social consciousness as an important element of artistic work, and are less excited about purely abstract expressions.

The Money
The Redistribution vision sees a lack of access to financial capital as the principal (or at least most immediate) source of problems and restored access to foundation and government funding as the solution. Like Diversity and Prosperity, Redistribution thus implicitly buys into a capitalist framework. The Self-Determination vision, on the other hand, sees capitalism as a white supremacist institution and is more interested in creating spaces and contexts for communities of color to have full control over their circumstances, even if that means leaving money on the table.

Examining real-life debates in the context of these fault lines can be instructive. We noted earlier that many cultural-equity-themed battles in recent years have involved Redistribution trying to chip away at funding streams that disproportionately favor mainstream institutions. Often in response, mainstream institutions will seek to highlight their Diversity bona fides. In a 2011 forum hosted by Grantmakers in the Arts inviting responses to Holly Sidford’s “Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change,” the president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, Jesse Rosen, pointed out that the majority of concerts presented by his organization’s membership “are specifically dedicated to education or community engagement,” highlighting efforts such as “the South Dakota Symphony’s recent tour of their state to perform on three Lakota reservations with a newly commissioned orchestral work by a Lakota composer.” But in a post in the same forum the next day (trenchantly titled “So What’s New?”), Marta Moreno Vega described efforts at diversification by organizations rooted in a Western European tradition as “patronizing.”

A conflict between Prosperity and Redistribution was at the root of reactions to a controversial report issued by the DeVos Institute of Arts Management in 2015. The report investigated the financial and management challenges facing higher-budget black and Latino arts organizations, and concluded the field would be better served if funders provided larger grants to a smaller pool of promising organizations, even if that meant cutting funding to smaller organizations within communities of color. “It’s not politically easy or palatable, but it’s a potential solution that does need to be considered,” suggested DeVos Institute chair Michael Kaiser in defense of the report’s recommendations. This argument provoked a firestorm of criticism: Grantmakers in the Arts released a statement charging that the report “lacks the real understanding of the barriers faced by many of these organizations to surviving and thriving in the nonprofit marketplace,” while Jason Tseng’s widely circulated editorial cartoon highlighted the absurdity of suggesting that black and Latino organizations duke it out Hunger Games-style. In many ways, reactions like these surfaced the reality that, although Prosperity was once considered a daring and progressive vision, it is now increasingly seen as retrograde absent the additional value of Redistribution.

Finally, an especially instructive case study is the institutional arc of El Museo del Barrio, in New York City, which surfaced tensions between the ideals of Prosperity and the goals of Self-Determination. Founded by Puerto Rican activists and educators in 1969 with funding from the New York State Board of Regents, the museum originally had the mission of increasing representation for Puerto Rican culture. After losing much of its funding in the 1970s, El Museo broadened its mission to encompass art by all Latin American artists, transitioned leadership on the board from community members to individuals with traditional gallery and art world experience, and eventually relocated to the Upper East Side’s Museum Mile. While these changes allowed the museum to increase revenue and attract new supporters, it also resulted in significant pushback from community members, who noted that the many changes had decreased opportunities for local Puerto Rican artists at the museum. Pressure to undertake mainstream model expansion resulted in a museum that, while successful by capitalist markers, failed to stay true to its original vision.

El Museo del Barrio's Three Kings Day Parade, 2016 (source)

El Museo del Barrio’s Three Kings Day Parade, 2016 (source)

We can also use the four visions to help us understand the ramifications of new policy ideas intended to advance cultural equity. One proposal that has come up from time to time is to tie funding levels directly to the diversity of organizations. While many private funders in the United States ask questions about staff and board diversity and incorporate such information into funding decisions informally, the most assertive stands on this front are currently being staked out by other countries. In December 2014, Arts Council England announced that it would hold organizations accountable for promoting and developing diversity throughout their work across leadership, workforce, programming and audiences–or risk the loss of critical ACE funding. Meanwhile, the Canada Council for the Arts will now reduce funding for organizations that do not share a “commitment to reflecting the diversity of [their] geographic community or region.”

What reactions could we expect if the National Endowment for the Arts proposed to weigh diversity equally against its current review criteria of artistic excellence and artistic merit? Certainly, the Prosperity and Redistribution visions would see much to celebrate in such a proposal, given the increased access to different forms of capital it would represent. Supporters of the status quo, naturally, would resist. Perhaps the most interesting question is how such a policy move would sit with Self-Determination. While ostensibly a step in the direction of justice and thus unlikely to be opposed, it could be seen as giving too much emphasis to the goals of Diversity at the expense of broader social change. To maintain funding levels, mainstream institutions could shake up the composition of their staffs and boards, but the arts activities that take place through small organizations, churches, and informal collectives outside of the NEA’s reach might not realize much benefit. Moreover, the move would still leave control of resources firmly within the dominant system–resources that could disappear as soon as priorities shift, as has happened historically with NEA and state government funding.

Cultural Equity in a Healthy Arts Ecosystem

“Change is not a uniform process…the goal of building participation in the arts requires that leaders and organizations rethink the meaning of success.”

– Diane Grams and Betty Farrell, writing in Entering Cultural Communities, 2008

Createquity’s own vision of success is that every opportunity is taken to make people’s lives better through the arts. Clearly, in order to understand how to do that, we need to make sense of cultural equity in the context of our own work. Although this project started out as an investigation of the history of cultural equity activism, we soon realized we would provide more value both to ourselves and the field if we made an attempt to untangle the unnamed assumptions that so often confuse or complicate conversations about cultural equity.

As a first step, we set ourselves the task of writing arguments in favor of each of the four visions articulated above in the context of Createquity’s definition of a healthy arts ecosystem, in which each individual (now and in the future) has the opportunity to participate in the arts at a level suited to that person’s interest and skill. Because Createquity has identified specific outcomes that we believe characterize a healthy arts ecosystem, many of these arguments diverge a bit from the language that activists use (e.g., “institutions rooted in communities of color will hire more artists of color than mainstream institutions would and pay them a market wage, thus distributing very scarce opportunities to participate in the arts more equitably”). However, we tried our best throughout the exercise to make an authentic translation between each of the visions and our own.

Next, we took the arguments for each of the visions and attempted to articulate the fact-based assumptions undergirding each of them, staying as close to the healthy arts ecosystem definition as possible. (You can see these assumptions in the same document linked above.) To establish a preliminary sense of where we were as an organization, we asked our editorial team to rate each of the resulting fifty-odd assumptions on a scale of one (“I am very confident this is not true”) to five (“I am very confident this is true.”) The assumptions were presented at face value, without the context of a vision, and in no particular order. Ten Createquity team members participated.

In developing these arguments and assumptions, we wanted to acknowledge that one reason why cultural equity initiatives fall short is because they often face resistance from parties who argue against any change to the status quo. As a thought exercise, we included “Status Quo” as a fifth vision for success, developing as many arguments in its favor as we could think of. While Status Quo arguments in practice often take an institution- or discipline-centric frame that is at odds with Createquity’s concern for the entire ecosystem, we did manage to come up with a few rationales that could be consistent with the idea of making people’s lives better through the arts. For example, one could argue that mainstream institutions are crucial to artistic professions where it is difficult, though possible, to make a living as an artist (such as ballet dancer or orchestra musician). Perhaps it is the case that the Eurocentric programming presented by mainstream institutions is inherently expensive to produce, and thus it is natural and expected for institutions that offer this programming to receive a disproportionate amount of subsidy. Status Quo advocates frequently seek to avoid setting up the choice between maintaining subsidy or supporting smaller organizations as an either/or; they argue that mainstream institutions deliver a lot of benefits to their communities by operating at scale, which allows them to serve many more people and–importantly–to bring in tourism dollars. They may also argue that most donors to mainstream arts organizations would not have considered contributing to smaller organizations anyway.

"Museum Mile" by flickr user MichelinStar

“Museum Mile” by flickr user MichelinStar

On the whole, our team did not find the assumptions underlying the pro-Status Quo arguments particularly compelling, with one exception: we agreed that mainstream institutions could likely serve as an anchor for tourism, regardless of efforts to diversify. The remaining ratings did not yield an unambiguous endorsement of any vision in particular. That said, the following assumptions received high ratings across the board, and we presently consider these to be our “working assumptions” in the context of our work on cultural equity:

  • At a basic level, we agree that mainstream institutions grew out of a white, racist system, and continue to disproportionately serve white people and certain other demographics.
  • There is further agreement that funding disproportionately flows to these mainstream institutions.
  • We agree that a lack of diverse cultural programming, either from mainstream institutions or those that receive some other form of validation from the broader culture, is problematic for the wellbeing of people of color.
  • There is a general trust that people of color, whether in the context of mainstream institutions or institutions of color, will be more likely to provide programming opportunities to artists of color.
  • And finally, there is agreement that many of the dominant organizing logics within the current nonprofit sector provide disproportionate control over individual institutions to those with wealth and influence.

It’s important to note that these are working assumptions, which means they could change in response to new information or data. But for now, the combination of these views means that Createquity sees the concentration of resources within mainstream institutions as likely problematic absent meaningful diversification of those institutions. It also offers an endorsement of involving more people of color in programming decisions, whether through mainstream institutions or some other means.

We are much less clear as a group on how resources should be optimally distributed than we are on the idea that the current arrangement is probably not for the best. That outcome is not terribly surprising; after all, little is known about many of the assumptions that distinguish the Diversity, Prosperity, Redistribution and Self-Determination visions from one another. We see this as a crucial opportunity for future research in the sector. In our own efforts, we plan to prioritize the following questions going forward:

What are the ingredients of a cultural experience that people find valuable? Are those ingredients consistent across demographics? Are the demographics of the staff (artistic, programming, and administrative) and board at arts and cultural organizations predictive of a) the demographics of their participants and b) the quality of experience that participants have?

What effect does the scale of an arts organization (or an organization with arts programming) have on its ability to create specific benefits for artists, audiences, and communities of color? How do networks of larger and smaller organizations perform relative to each other in facilitating these benefits? Does the influence of wealthy donors, funders, and customers tend to promote or harm an organization’s ability to deliver these benefits?

Are arts activities designed to combat racism and other forms of oppression effective in that goal? How do they compare to other anti-oppression strategies, and do they make those strategies more effective when used in combination?

In the United States, we have data showing the distribution of funding to different kinds of arts organizations, including those primarily serving communities of color. We have data on the demographics of arts audiences, of artists, and increasingly of the cultural workforce. And there’s more research on these topics being commissioned all the time. Isn’t that enough?

We would argue that it’s not. Knowledge of this nature can only ever establish that there might be a problem; it gives us very little insight on what we should do about it. We might each have intuitions about the right path forward, but as this article amply demonstrates, reasonable people are coming to different conclusions about where those paths lead. So long as that remains the case, we suspect the fight for cultural equity will continue to be a long, slow, uncertain slog.

At Createquity, we’ve embraced the framework of wellbeing–which groups the various components of individual and societal health under a single conceptual umbrella–as a way of binding together the outcomes of a healthy arts ecosystem holistically. While there are many ways of conceptualizing and measuring wellbeing, one of the most common involves simply asking people how satisfied they are with their lives–which sounds pretty self-determining to us. Pursuing future inquiry through a wellbeing or quality-of-life lens may be an effective tactic for building bridges between visions and the ideologies they represent, by enabling the relative value of components of each vision to be understood as part of an integrated whole. We can all agree, hopefully, that the goals of cultural equity are compatible with the goal of a happier and more meaningful life for all. We hope our work here can be one small step towards creating that better future.

A full bibliography for this piece as well as several endnotes can be found here. Createquity would like to thank Plural (Mina Matlon, Ingrid van Haastrecht, and Kaitlyn Wittig Mengüç), Andrea Louie, and Marc Vogl for their invaluable feedback in the course of developing this article.

  • Antonio

    Perhaps my reading of this article is wrong, but you seem to view the four visions as competing and non-complimentary. Is it not possible to take the best ideas of all four visions and develop a robust path forward for realizing social justice in the cultural sector?

    • Hi Antonio, we definitely don’t see the visions as mutually exclusive in an absolute sense. However, there are some tensions between them that will need to be figured out. For example, the question of how we think about capitalism is a big one and the visions come to very different conclusions about the proper distribution of resources among different parties. So I agree that it is possible to take some combination of ideas and make a new hybrid, but it probably is not possible to take *all* of the ideas and make a hybrid, if that makes sense.

      • Antonio

        Hi, Ian. So, what do we take? And, how do we propose it in away that engages the entire cultural sector seems the next step?

        • That’s a simple question with a very complicated answer. No one can just declare what the consensus position should be, of course, and it would probably be a very bad thing if they could. It’s certainly possible that a broadly shared compromise vision will emerge through dialogue and the natural dynamics of social movements. That will probably take a long time, however (it’s taken us 90 years to get this far), and might not yield the best result. The alternative/complementary approach would be to invest in more knowledge along the lines of what is suggested at the end of the article. If we can collectively do a good job both conducting that research and communicating about it, it would hopefully accelerate the process of creating buy-in from various parties to the conversation, and quicken the pace of getting results.

  • Lisa Robb

    Great article on cultural equity. Thank you for this, it has prompted many thoughts, racing thoughts, etc. I will make this one comment from my arts education in public schools centric/advocacy perspective. There is only one lone place where there is law related to a group of people being required to learn about and participate in the arts ….. who are these lucky ducks? 50 million children enrolled in public school (this is about 16% of the US population – about 5 million kids are in private schools). All public school students, in all 50 states, require some type of arts learning at elementary, middle and hs levels (graduation requirements can include arts learning). Are all states and/or all local school districts in compliance? Nope. The reasons for that sad fact are many …… but the important point is that we can dismantle many of the structural cultural equity barriers created by racism, economic status, natal status, elitism, access, and high / low culture debates. How? By advancing efforts to ensure that all students in all public schools are receiving the arts education they are entitled to by law. The debate about the arts being a valuable part of a required education is over, the arts won. The states and local districts have already decided the arts are vital; that’s why arts education is required. We appreciate the decades of work by arts education advocates to get that work. Now the work is to get the education funding spent on the required arts learning. I hate to sound all pecan pie in the sky, but think of the cultural, societal, educational and personal benefits created by 13 sequential years of arts learning for 50 million residents of the US of A.

  • It makes sense in any debate to consider available DEGREES of remedy. From status quo to the least disruptive to the most disruptive (radical), effective remedy will likely never be agreed upon, except possibly by a committee acknowledging these dilemmas. Thank you for articulating this hot mess for us.

  • RoBow

    After 30 years in the arts, it’s hard not to see such articles as anything but perennial. They almost always seem to imply that there are hordes of folks with little disposable cash who would be attending the arts were it not for the fact the those in the arts are doing something nefarious to keep them out.

    With the cost to attend (not including ticket $) the arts being so high, and the cost to participate being so financially unrewarding, are you really sure that people of color want to be in the arts? Are you really sure it’s a good thing to coerce people into the arts when it’s such a tough road to hoe except for the very few? Maybe people of color would like to make a decent living and save their money, instead of putting it into the arts or getting so little $ out of the arts. I mean, instead of focusing on what we should be doing differently, did you ever consider asking them if they really want to be in our financially struggling community? Is our world really that desirable that others are losing out if they don’t want to play with us?

    My reading of theater history before the 19th c (not sure why you refused to go back that far) has set this conflict as more of a class issue than a race issue. From the days of the old Park Theatre (attended by all sorts of people, including prostitutes and johns, although perhaps at different times), performance venues moved up both Broadway and Bowery with various options for people of any and all colors. It’s just that, mainly, the upper classes went to Broadway and the working class went to Bowery. It was less about color and more about class. Only to converge again at Astor Place in a major riot where dozens of innocent people were killed by our own government due primarily to class, not race. But you barely mention class issues here.

    Are you really sure that working people with little income want to spend it on the arts, or worse, commit to a life of poverty in the arts? Most working class people I know want to rise above poverty, not revel in it. Are we doing them any favors by telling them that they are wrong for not desiring our company? And, if all we’re doing is luring upper class people of color into the arts from other areas like sports, did we really accomplish anything that they wouldn’t have done themselves?

    Instead of looking from the inside outward, should we be doing more to look at our arts communities from the outside in? Maybe we’re not as hot-stuff as we want to think… or want them to think.