In Createquity’s vision of a healthy arts ecosystem, each human being today and in the future has an opportunity to participate in the arts at a level suited to that person’s interest and skill. Accordingly, it’s important for us to understand the ways in which the current arts ecosystem falls short of this ideal, in particular by failing to include everyone equally or give everyone a fair shot at the opportunities they deserve.
Why We Care
In the United States, a long history of cultural equity activism has drawn attention to ways in which the essential infrastructure of the arts sector – in particular, the nonprofit arts funding system – was originally shaped by and for wealthy, white patrons. The lingering effects of this history are evident today in the disproportionate incidence of organizations celebrating European art forms among the largest-budget institutions in most metropolitan areas.
Createquity’s informed hypothesis is that wealthy donors, who are disproportionately white, continue to influence the art that organizations produce/present, prompting those organizations to cater to donors’ personal preferences and tastes rather than those of the broader community. These patrons also influence the decisions of numerous public and private funders, resulting in ongoing disproportionate subsidies to large institutions founded by people of European descent. The cascading effects of this imbalance are many, potentially decreasing access to meaningful arts experiences and opportunities to make living as an artist for people of color and other marginalized groups.
What We Know
In the United States, a wealth of data supports the notion that the nonprofit arts sector suffers from a lack of racial and other forms of diversity, particularly among larger-budget institutions working in European art forms. Approximately 84% of curatorial, educational, and leadership jobs at art museums are occupied by white people, while 92% of board members at orchestras are white. According to the Foundation Center’s 2015 Foundation Giving Forecast Survey, more than 92% of arts foundation presidents and 87% of arts foundation board members are white. This lack of diversity extends to top leadership in commercial arts industries as well, and acting, directing, and other opportunities in Hollywood disproportionately favor white men.
Meanwhile, giving to nonprofit arts organizations appears to be highly stratified, with just 2% of arts organizations in the United States receiving more than half of total contributed income. In addition, there are clear signs that current funding patterns disfavor people of color, rural communities, and low-income neighborhoods.
Knowledge of this nature can establish the existence of a problem, but in order to use research and evidence to help our sector move forward, we must have a clear, and shared, understanding of what cultural equity 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.
- Diversity: The one thing that everyone in the cultural equity conversation seems to agree on is that so-called “mainstream” institutions 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. Conversations about diversity have tended to focus first on audiences, then on programming, and finally on leadership.
- Prosperity: 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, with an eye toward long-term sustainability. 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.
- Redistribution: Redistribution favors a larger pool of recipients for contributed income, focusing on the full ecosystem of individuals and institutions that comprise a community; by contrast, the Diversity and Prosperity both embrace an institution-centric frame and the standard market dynamics of the nonprofit arts sector, in which a small number of high-profile institutions dominate.
- Self-Determination: The Self-Determination theory of cultural equity is the most radical departure from the status quo. It calls for full participation in and expression of cultural life for marginalized communities through models that are organic to those communities, and that look beyond established nonprofit arts funding and advocacy tactics.
What We Don’t Know
The existing research leaves several key questions unexplored, the answers to which would help the field direct future efforts to advance cultural equity more strategically.
- How does the level of exposure to and/or interest in arts careers and arts administration jobs differ across race and other demographics (e.g. income, education)?
- 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? What is the role of the arts in helping oppressed peoples cope, survive, and thrive?
What You Can Do With This Information
We hope this information can be helpful to organizations and agencies of all sizes seeking to define, measure, and achieve equity goals. Honest conversations about cultural equity are critical for all arts organizations, but particularly those that serve a leadership function in the sector – e.g., local arts councils, government agencies, foundations, etc. – who work with a cohort of organizations that may have varying ideas about what equity means in practice. We recommend discussing with your board/stakeholders and colleagues your collective vision of cultural equity going forward; which archetype best fits your goals, organizational structure, and institutional identity?
The four visions of cultural equity that Createquity outlined are not mutually exclusive, nor are their advocates. Yet in practice, the tensions between these ideas can be a source of great confusion if they are not called out explicitly. We recommend consideration of the following questions:
What is the Value (and Cost) of Integration?
The Diversity vision is strongly centered on the idea of people coming together to understand and celebrate their differences. Yet for some activists, this expectation to share and share alike ignores oppressed groups’ right to meaningful control of resources, traditions, and spaces that they can call their own.
How Central are Institutions?
Diversity and Prosperity see institutions as vital infrastructure with enormous potential for community benefit. Nevertheless, it’s worth questioning at what point most institutions tend to prioritize their own preservation over the health of the entire arts ecosystem.
How Influential are Cultural Norms?
One of the most important American cultural norms involves using an individual rather than group lens to talk about benefits and harm. What are some other norms that often go unexamined? How do they impact the work of your institution?
What about the Money?
For funders specifically, if you want to support communities of color out of a desire for economic and/or racial justice, how can you ensure that you are transferring not just resources but meaningful control/ownership of those resources?
What is the Role of Race?
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. How important is racial justice to your institutional mission?
What does/can equity look like within a healthy arts ecosystem?
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. How do we measure and evaluate wellbeing in the context of self-determination? Who decides what’s good for you?
On the Cultural Specificity of Symphony Orchestras (2017)
What is the role of white-led arts institutions in a race-conscious world?
As longstanding concerns about cultural equity find voice in policy initiatives, leaders at arts organizations that celebrate European cultural heritage may have to ask whether their loyalty is more to their art form or their local community.
Making Sense of Cultural Equity (2016)
When visions of a better future diverge, how do we choose a path forward?
Cultural equity is increasingly a topic of concern for the arts ecosystem, but not everyone agrees on what it means in practice. This article examines four overlapping but distinct visions of success advanced by cultural equity advocates over the past half century, the assumptions underlying each of these visions, and the fault lines running between them.
Notes to “Making Sense of Cultural Equity” (2016)
Full bibliography and endnotes, along with a set of definitions related to common terms in the discussion of cultural equity.
Who Will Be the Next Arts Revolutionary? (2016)
The story of how the nonprofit arts sector got started offers would-be changemakers some clues.
This article looks into how the non-profit organization became the dominant model for the sector, reaching a boom during the mid-20th century.
Notes to “Who Will Be the Next Arts Revolutionary?” (2016)
Full bibliography and endnotes, especially point 5.
Who Can Afford to Be A Starving Artist? (2016)
The key to success may be risk tolerance, not talent.
This feature article examines whether there is evidence that risk dissuades individuals from economically disadvantaged backgrounds from pursuing arts careers.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Race (2013)
What can we do to create an open environment for talking honestly about race relations in all of their kaleidoscopic, maddening, shame-inducing complexity?
Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change (2013)
A report published by NCRP argues that arts philanthropy, as currently structured, perpetuates inequality across the arts and culture sector by disproportionately funding large institutions that focus on Western European traditions.
- “Createquity Podcast Series 4: Approaching Cultural Equity” (2016)
Different visions of cultural equity, and how pursuing those visions has played out in practice.
- “Createquity Podcast Series 1: Watch Where You’re Giving” (2016)
Effective altruism and the arts.
Cover image: Negro Ensemble Company National Tour, 1968, by Philip Mallory Jones