Equity in the Arts: Can Local Arts Councils Do Better?

Posted by Keya Crenshaw, Feb 12, 2019

“To whom much is given, much is required.” A stalwart in the Black creative community here in Columbus, Ohio said that to me when I started a job at a local arts council in 2015. It was a place I had always dreamed of working. Who wouldn’t want to support artists while simultaneously effecting change in their community? I was honored, and beyond excited. The support I received from my immediate creative community was immeasurable, and I carried with me their dreams, as well as my own. I could not let them down, lest I be seen as a failure.

That same excitement quickly turned to dread. It wasn’t the work—far from it; I absolutely loved my job and what it meant for me personally as well as the community. However, I soon realized I was one of only two Black arts administrators in the entire city. Let that sink in for a moment … I’ll wait … Two arts administrators of color in a major metropolitan city of approximately 880,000. A population that, by the way, makes Columbus the 15th largest city in the United States. A fact of which we are very proud. Regardless, that old adage, “Pride comes before a fall,” often holds true; and as far as I’m concerned—as an arts administrator with over 15 years in the sector—Columbus was failing its art communities.

While the past five years have seen a major influx of creatives and the development of grassroots and community-centered arts-based organizations, many of which were developed and run by Black and Brown artists, the only two arts councils in the city cannot seem to keep up. I continuously witnessed Black and Brown artists be passed up for funding or representation, while white creatives remained at the forefront. Yet, come every Black History Month, the council was sure to reach out to a Black creative or two. You know, just for appearance’s sake. Their ideas of support are outdated, and let’s not even begin to talk about the conflicts of interests that occur. In my office of 10 employees, six staff members resigned during my time there; that’s 60% of the staff, which is both an astounding and troubling percentage for employee retention for such a small organization.

I was the only non-white administrator, and with that came much backlash from my white supervisors. For example, having led a community centered workshop, I was approached by artists who were concerned with the lack of funding and representation for diverse groups of creatives. I wholeheartedly agreed. We could do better, and I would make sure “better” happened. However, when I took the news back to my office, the only reply I received was, “You’ll just have to let them know it can’t be about Black and white artists all the time.” Not convinced? Here’s another example. A statewide meeting for all arts administrators was held where we could talk about strategic plans for the coming years. Out of over 100 professionals, again, there were just two of us Black administrators, the same two, in the room. If your stomach didn’t drop when you read that as mine did, I’m afraid to say you are part of the problem. Add to that constantly being overlooked for promotion despite my years of experience, coupled with senior administration’s inability to associate with, understand, or care about peoples outside of their own ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or immediate community, and they’re guaranteed to fail eventually.

I became hyper-aware of my front facing role in the community and was ashamed to be part of the “ivory tower.” My time was mostly spent appeasing my peers whilst remaining loyal to my employers. No matter what I did, I could not make the other nine people in my office realize that the ways in which they were approaching arts funding and support were antiquated and ineffectual. I suppose that’s because out of 27 board members, a vast majority of them are city council members, one even being the daughter-in-law of the arts council president. Additionally, as if it couldn’t get any worse, the arts council does not officially report to any governing body apart from the board, making it impossible for me to bring about change.

If you do not happen to be a Black or Brown woman, you’ll never understand the strife we face in the workplace, and yes, that also includes arts-based jobs. Those of us in the creative sector have a tendency to pat ourselves on the back and think we’re not susceptible to the same prejudices and hiring shortcomings as the rest of the world. This is simply not true. Having been in the field for more than half of my career, and working with numerous national and international arts councils, I can say that the arts are severely lacking in diversity, which in and of itself seems to be a contradiction.

Inequity needs to cease being the status quo, but remaining ignorant to difference, diversity, and inclusion on all levels seems to have become industry standard. So, how do we change these practices? I task arts leaders to look at their hiring practices, including their human resources personnel; dismantle their state of privileged seclusion; abolish the wage gap; be more accessible; be purposeful in hiring and community outreach; hire experienced employees; and participate in annual implicit bias training. It’s 2019—at this point, there’s really no excuse to lack a diverse workforce; and for companies that still don’t understand, check out these 50+ Ideas for Cultivating Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace. I promise you’ll thank me later.