In the weeks following George Floyd’s murder—when people all over the country were taking to the streets in force, in anger, and in desperation for change; when an acrid cloud of tear gas was hanging over downtown Portland every night—my beloved art institutions were quiet. At first, I hoped it might be a productive silence, during which they were starting to take a hard look at themselves to determine what part they had played in upholding white supremacy, the force that put its knee on George Floyd’s neck, that shot Breonna Taylor and Atatiana Jefferson in their own homes, that lynched Ahmaud Arbery while he was out for a jog.
I waited for the statements to come, the ones announcing each organization’s plans to meet this moment. After weeks, the silence became deafening, embarrassing.
Then, all at once, my inbox was choked with anemic statements in support of Black Lives Matter. The majority of these messages were shoehorned into press releases announcing other things: You can now visit our virtual galleries from the comfort of your home! Now is a great time to become a member! Pre-register for our Zoom lecture series! Really?!?! I thought. This didn’t even merit a separate email? This wasn’t important enough to stand alone?
I sent an email to the head of one of Oregon’s most important cultural institutions. I said: We need more from you. We need to hear your goals and plans. We need to know how you’re going to fight for a different future. I asked specific questions like: How will you diversify your boards, councils, and committees? How will you diversify your director-level positions to change the power structure of your institution?
To my surprise, this person wrote a reply, thanking me for caring enough to hold their organization accountable. It contained an answer to each of my questions. Or so I thought. I had to read through it twice to realize that it said absolutely nothing. It may as well have said: IN RESPONSE TO CALLS FROM THE COMMUNITY, WE PLAN TO DO MORE OF THE SAME.
At the time, I was doing equity work for Fortune 500 companies—creating trainings, workshops, and online learning for everyone from interns to the C-Suite. I saw what the range of commitment to equity work looks like in the corporate world: Some clients are happy to spend 18 months and hundreds of thousands of dollars watering down an idea through so many different stakeholders that they end up with a five-minute animation about the dangers of in-groups and out-groups, like some terrible version of an 80s After School Special. Other clients care deeply about not only influencing the individual behavior of their employees and leaders but also evaluating the corrosiveness of their policies and the way that their power systems function. The latter group wasn’t spending money so that they could report to their shareholders that they’d completed some perfunctory diversity and inclusion training. They wanted to challenge themselves, and they weren’t concerned about who would be made uncomfortable in the process. I loved these clients. And because I saw that this type of work was possible in the corporate sphere—the seat of extractive capitalism—I was disturbed, but not surprised, that it wasn’t even being attempted in what should be (but isn’t) the forward-thinking, disruptive, revolutionary world of the arts.
White supremacy, overt racism, patriarchy, misogyny, ableism, and classism have always pervaded and powered the art world. There was a small part of me, though—the part that feeds on hope—that thought if there was ever going to be a moment for the art world to pick up a mirror and decide it didn’t like everything it saw, this might be it.
Spoiler: it wasn’t.
The world of visual and performing arts is still focused on the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) model, which can never solve the problem it purports to solve because it works at cross purposes with itself. The equity part is good but, as you’ll see, the other two branches effectively cancel it out. The good news is that, despite the shortcomings of the DEI model, there are other more effective models to replace it, which I’ll lay out later in this essay.
The notion of increasing the diversity of an organization sounds great until we take the time to look at how diversity initiatives are most often applied. The leaders of art spaces often diversify the low-paying (or non-paying) positions, like the security staff, assistants, community outreach coordinators, volunteers, etc. This does nothing to shift the balance of power of the organization and places undue financial burden on marginalized people who are doing the very real physical and creative labor necessary to keep the organization going. In addition, diversity initiatives are often used as a means of checking boxes—one person from this community: check! One person with this identity: check!—as proof that the organization has fulfilled its diversity requirement. Often, these tokenized employees and volunteers are given public-facing roles to prove to the larger community that the organization couldn’t possibly be: racist, ableist, ageist, homophobic, transphobic…you get the idea.
Another, often overlooked, facet of diversity is that it is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. The board and leadership of an arts organization, for example, that operates in a community with a large Vietnamese population, should look different from the board and leadership of an arts organization that operates in a community with a large Black population. Cultural institutions have a responsibility to represent and reflect the communities they serve while actively working to dismantle white supremacy and other systems of oppression.
Inclusion is another idea that sounds wonderful on its face; I’ve spoken to many leaders of organizations who tell me how much they want everyone to feel welcomed and included in their spaces and by their programming. The only problem is—this is going to sound wildly counterintuitive for a minute, so bear with me—inclusion initiatives are not the way to make people feel included or welcomed. In fact, they often have the opposite effect. If we scratch the surface a bit, we can better understand what inclusion means and how it functions. From the dictionary:
include | inˈklo͞od | allow (someone) to share in an activity or privilege
By its definition, inclusion is the act of one group—necessarily a group in power (read: white, cis, abled, men)—allowing another group access to something. So, not only does inclusion have white supremacy, patriarchy, and ableism baked in, but it requires the perpetuation of the status quo: we, the dominant group, will continue to allow you, the marginalized group, access.
La Tanya S. Autry—curator, art historian, and co-founder of the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral movement—recently wrote on Twitter:
Inclusion pertains to including more people into existing systems. Typically there is no acknowledgment of the violence of those systems. Formerly excluded persons become subjected to the systems, the violence. Many people who value ‘inclusion’ are fine with oppression. They just want to add more people to systems. Inclusion proponents typically assume that the system is beneficial to everyone. Ex. If more people [have] access to it, they would be better, the system would be better. But that’s faulty. If the system is inherently violent, including more groups into it doesn’t ‘fix’ the system.
Equity work is the cornerstone of the DEI model, but it so rarely gets implemented because organizations are looking for fast, easy, surface-level fixes, which this is not. For our cultural organizations to be vital and relevant in the future, they would do well to ditch the DEI model in order to work towards justice, equity, and transparency (JET). This is not the only option, but is a model that works well and addresses the shortcomings of the DEI approach.
The equity work of the JET model (as opposed to the lipservice equity that most often accompanies DEI initiatives) requires an organization to take a long hard look at itself and to honestly interrogate the systems that undergird it. When I work with an organization to do an equity audit, we look at the organizational structure and what feeds it: Where is the money coming from? Who generates in-kind support? Who makes up the paid membership base? Who has sway over budget, exhibitions, programming, outreach, and general decision-making? Equity work requires a willingness to lay hands on and potentially modify every part of the organization, which could result in anything from slight tweaks to a significant restructuring.
If, for example, the money is coming from wealthy, white (most often male) donors who have an outsized control over the organization, we look to diversify sources of funding and support. If the demographic data suggests that there isn’t adequate representation across boards, councils, or committees, for example, the first question is whether the organization has the ability to add members to these decision-making bodies without a financial barrier for entry. Most boards come with a minimum expectation for financial donation or fundraising. So, for the honor of volunteering your time to the institution, you also have to pay what, in the case of a major institution, can be upwards of tens of thousand of dollars per year. This, as you can imagine, self-selects people of privilege and puts them in decision-making roles, thereby perpetuating the status quo. Sometimes the answer is yes.
If they tell me it’s not possible, the follow up question is: Why not? For a nonprofit organization, the explanation can often be found somewhere in the bylaws, which may include language that a decision-making body can only have “x” number of seats and must generate “x” amount of money. But here’s something beautiful that I recently discovered: when I asked the Executive Director of an arts organization with which I’m consulting if the bylaws could be changed to accommodate equity recommendations, she thought hard about it for a moment and simply said, “Yes.”
When an organization is willing to engage the work on a systems level like that, diversity flows out of equity, not the other way around. And if an organization is equitable, there is no longer a need to “include” specific groups because those groups are already an essential part of the organization, with influence over its operations.
I don’t want to paint a picture of any of this that makes it sound like something an organization can accomplish with the snap of a finger. The truth is that equity work is extremely complicated and fairly straightforward in equal measure. The complicated part is the emotional labor. Most arts organizations are led by members of the dominant culture who may carry guilt or shame about their privilege, resistance to change, fear of having to concede power, and/or concern about being seen as bad or evil. I understand all of these impulses because I’ve experienced many of them, myself, while doing this work over the years. But that is the work. That’s why it’s called emotional labor: it’s hard and can be uncomfortable. In fact, it should be uncomfortable. Members of the dominant culture have been fed a worldview and a history that isn’t true, which can become inextricably tied to one’s sense of self and identity in a way that creates invisible privilege and entitlement. The discomfort of picking those things apart is an important and informative experience to move through—not as a punishment but as a reckoning.
It should be noted, though, that you don’t move through these things to get to the other side. There is no other side. There is no destination of wokedom. There is simply a commitment to moving through discomfort throughout one’s life, which becomes slightly easier over time just by virtue of it feeling familiar. The status quo deliberately protects us from this discomfort.
The Executive Director, whom I mentioned above, who was willing to look at and challenge the structure of her organization, is the exception to the rule. Something I have observed again and again over the years, when talking to people in positions of power in the art world, is that they often say to me, “I just wish I had the ability to change things.” I always think to myself “If not you, then who?” I’ve learned that many people—even those who appear from the outside as having enormous influence—don’t see themselves as being able to change the system. They think the system is more powerful than they are. (Meghan Markle’s recent interview with Oprah Winfrey is a good example of a powerful system that people feel powerless to change. Markle recounted that she went to the higher ups in the institution of the British monarchy to ask for help with mental healthcare, at a time when she was actively suicidal, and they told her that because she wasn’t a paid employee they couldn’t do anything for her. This is a perfect example of how systems make people—even those toward the top of the pyramid who could have made exceptions or suggestions for change—feel powerless, like cogs in a machine over which they have little control. Combine that with entrenched racism, and there is no incentive to upend the status quo.)
The straightforward part of equity work—this, too, may sound counterintuitive—is systems change. When I say that systems change is straightforward, I don’t mean that it’s easy. What I mean is that people made these systems of oppression, so people are capable of remaking them in ways that lead to the liberation of others.
I’m still seeing statements from organizations that say, “We’re listening. We will do better.” That was an understandable placeholder in the weeks or months following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd—when powerful white organizations were being forced for the first time to reconcile the violence that results from longstanding and widespread imbalances/abuses of power—but it’s been almost a year. Listening is no longer enough. Tell us what actions you’ve decided to take after having listened all this time.
An essential piece of the JET model is for our cultural institutions to adopt a practice of radical transparency, both in the way that they communicate with people inside their organization and with the larger community. This involves sharing the institution’s mission, values, and vision statements and describing how equity fits into each (in some cases, this may require reenvisioning these documents). Institutions need to be forthcoming about the current state of their systems, where they have fallen short, as well as when and how they plan to remedy systemic inequity. No one expects an organization to change overnight. Future members, board members, employees, and donors are more likely to invest in and engage with an organization that is actively pursuing solutions, which requires that it present both a clear understanding of where it has not lived up to the goals it has set for itself and—this is especially important—a specific plan for how it intends to do so. And, as hard as it may be, the organization needs to keep the community abreast of its progress working toward those goals, even in times when less progress has been made than was hoped. Radical transparency must always accompany radical accountability.
I’ve been thinking about the phrase “Nothing about us without us,” which originated from Eastern European labor organizers. It was later adopted by South African, and then U.S., disability rights activists in the 1980s to explain that no policy or system should be created without the full participation of the people who are directly affected by that policy or system. It is a profound rallying cry that can be used as a lens to discuss equity in the arts, particularly given the art world’s track record for ableism and inaccessibility.
No thing about us without us. The “thing” we are concerning ourselves with here, now, is art. So, the first questions that we must all ask ourselves is: What is art? What purpose does it serve? Who is it for and about?
I would argue that art is the fundamental expression of our humanity that expands our empathy and understanding of one another by highlighting the similarities and differences between us. By that logic, art belongs to all of us. In the JET model, working toward justice means keeping this essential truth in mind, regardless of what specific community an institution may serve. Justice lays out a clear mandate for ongoing solidarity and advocacy. This last week, I watched as cultural organizations that do not specifically serve the AAPI community issued calls to action about how to support, advocate for, and meaningfully show solidarity to this community in the wake of anti-Asian terror. If a cultural institution cares about art (including the people who make it and consume it), it must necessarily care about the social justice movements that aim to bring liberation to all people. We can’t—and mustn’t—separate the magic that happens in galleries or performance spaces from the day-to-day lives of everyone who helps bring that magic to us.
Until those in positions of power are willing to give up the entrenched belief that art and culture are the purview of the white, male, upper-class, cis, abled world, the art establishment will continue to lose relevancy and value because it will not be serving its purpose or its people.
Whether or not individual arts organizations choose to answer the call for justice, equity, and transparency is an open question. I hope they do, because they stand to be a powerful force for social justice. I also hope that more of us insist on it, asking for change and accountability.. In the meantime, systems of creation, distribution, and consumption of art have become more decentralized and democratized, which is the way we’ve taken power away from these institutions and moved art and culture toward equity ourselves. In an ideal future, both of these systems will work simultaneously to create a broader, fuller cultural conversation to which more people will feel inclined to contribute.