Artists Transforming Local Government: Creative Strategies Toward Racial Justice

A few years ago, the City of Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative Team started looking more closely at how the individualist, perfectionist, paternalistic, and compartmentalizing culture of white supremacy within ourselves and across the institution got in the way of the progress toward racial equity that we were making with trainings, policy tools, and interdepartmental organizing structures. We began to develop a strategy to shift that culture. We adopted the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond Anti-Racist Principles as our guideposts. We developed trainings to begin to understand and heal from the dehumanizing impacts of internalized racial inferiority and superiority. And we began working to de-center ego and lift up spirit, collective action and the belief that no one is disposable. We started getting real about practicing grace for ourselves and for each other. Cultivating creativity in our work has become a central piece of this strategy.

Who Are the Naturally Occurring Artists in Your Municipal Agency?

The first time I tried to get a job as an artist in government, I failed. I was recruited for a position focused on community engagement, visioning, and imagination. The hiring agency was excited by my artwork, and sought me out for the skills I’d honed through social practice. But as we negotiated the terms of my position and I asked that my title be “artist,” I quickly got shot down. To call this work “art” would somehow make it harder for it to be taken seriously by other stakeholders. Plus, my colleagues feared, they were already seen as “soft” for their focus on community engagement, and would be further ostracized from the real decision-making work of the agency. I could do the work however I wanted, they said, but I couldn’t call it art. The second time I tried to get a job as an artist in government, I kept my artist identity to myself. 

Creative Strategist Initiative: Embedding Artist in the Bureaucracy

This summer the LA County Arts Commission (LACAC) kicked off the artist-in-residence Creative Strategist Initiative. One of seven recommendations from the Cultural Equity & Inclusion Initiative that were funded by the LA County Board of Supervisors in 2017, the AIR Creative Strategist Initiative places individuals with artistic expertise in County departments to assist in the implementation of special County projects. Creative Strategists are placed as artists in residence (CS-AIR) for a minimum of 12 months, and work alongside department staff. Together, the department and CS-AIR collaborate with project partners and community stakeholders to effect change and impact a specific project or initiative. The Arts Commission implemented extensive field research and months of conversations with these departments to prepare for artist placement, uncovering critical lessons through the process.

Visionary Artist + Judge + Local Arts Agency = Partnership for Restorative Justice

The purpose of the Restorative Justice + the Arts program is to enable artists and arts organizations to provide dynamic program opportunities for youth and families who have interacted with the criminal justice system. Our aim is to equip teaching artists with the tools they need to bolster their practice in ways that lead youth toward productivity, resiliency, and well-being. In FY 2018, the artists have been able to serve 424 youth who have been incarcerated, had other involvement with the court, or who are deemed at-risk due to poverty, school attendance, neighborhood crime, poor school performance, or living in an area where fresh food is scarce. Through this program, Metro Arts is able to live more fully into its theory of change and recently adopted cultural equity statement: that the arts are a tool to create opportunities for citizens to deepen their arts participation, foster vibrant neighborhoods, and cultivate a strong creative workforce. 

Relevance, Diversity, and Progress in the Arts

When you look at the arts sector more broadly, it is clear women have gradually come into more leadership positions. Although art history departments and museums were male-dominated for centuries, recent data show that we’re finally turning a corner. Nevertheless, there is a stubborn gender imbalance at the helms of the largest museums. And barriers for women of color—or men of color for that matter—are even higher. Having seen as much change in my field as I have since 2000, I am both heartened and worried. As a society we have made progress on the recognition and remediation of gender inequality, and the persistence of racism as a driver of inequality has come into clearer view. In philanthropy we are becoming better at rewarding leadership in these arenas—often belatedly. But we also see that social progress can engender apathy and even resistance. There is far more to do for the arts and museum sector to become truly representative, equitable, and inclusive, and thus the most excellent it can be for our country. For all of us in the practice, study, and philanthropy of the arts, this is a great calling.

Civic Practice: Coupling Government Purpose and Artists’ Imagination in the City of Philadelphia

From 2015 to 2017, the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) planned and implemented Civic Practice, a program exploring government-initiated artist-led work in the community. Civic Practice was co-led by myself and Art in City Hall Program Manager Tu Huynh. Working with then Creative Time Artistic Director Nato Thompson, Civic Practice began with the formation of a National Task Force that would come together with local government leaders, artists, and community leaders to learn about best practices and experiences regarding how government can be proactive in civic dialogue through the arts. In many ways, simply gathering this group of creatives and civic leaders in this type of facilitated discussion was a major breakthrough. Innovation and input came equally from artists and bureaucrats and led to many unexpected, but needed and wanted, conversations. 

Inside Artist-Municipal Partnerships

Whether it is a City’s commitment to redress systemic racial inequities, a juvenile court system shifting from penalizing youth to a restorative justice approach, or a local arts agency advancing the power of art as civic change agent, more municipalities are engaging artists to bring new capacities and strategies to government agencies and, in doing so, increasing their effectiveness in achieving civic goals. More artists, too, are moved to contribute their creative assets to the public good by gaining access to and working as partners with municipal agencies and systems. This week, Animating Democracy’s blog salon, Inside Artist-Municipal Partnerships, explores the question: What does it take to make partnerships between municipal agencies and artists work? Leading-edge local arts agency leaders and arts practitioners who are serving as instigators, facilitators, intermediaries, and advancers of these partnerships share principles and practices they’ve tested and lessons they’ve learned that can help guide peer agencies and peer artists toward effective partnerships.

Learning that Asserting Oneself is a Good Thing

My title is President and CEO of the Staten Island Museum. I will admit when I first began introducing myself in this role, I felt somewhat awkward and uncomfortable with this title. In museums, the title of Executive Director is much more common, so in some way I felt like my title seemed overblown. I’m not someone who typically draws attention to myself, so at first I rather timidly stated my title, or even said “I’m the director of the Staten Island Museum” instead—downplaying the title, because that felt more comfortable. But then I thought about it. Why wouldn’t I say President and CEO proudly? There is no reason that I shouldn’t. Except for the nagging notion that women shouldn’t brag, or maybe that at some level I’m internalizing that there aren’t too many women President and CEOs and that it seems like that title doesn’t belong to me. But the reality is I’ve earned it.

A Voice, and a Choice

I’ve always spent a lot of time thinking about issues related to gender, identity and culture. As the first-born daughter of a Mexican mother and a Bulgarian father, I spent much of my childhood in a state of cultural confusion as I tried to navigate both of the cultures that I had inherited, and assimilate to the one that I was born into as an American. I grew up listening to opera with my dad, eating taquitos with my mom, and learning to speak English as my third language. In addition to this, I soon saw the differences between myself and my brothers in all of the cultures that we were navigating. These differences deeply affected me as a young girl. Music was my safe space: a place where identity didn’t matter. People often refer to music as the universal language, but I have come to a different conclusion. I believe that emotion is our universal, and the arts offer us a safe place to investigate what it means to be human.

Can public art be used equitably?

The benefits of public art are plentiful: inspiration, engagement, revitalization, economic development, beauty. Public art has all too often been directly associated with the displacement of families and individuals when used as an economic development tool in historically low-income communities without proper protections in place against displacement. With a well-thought-out anti-displacement strategy in place, public art can be transformative for historically low-income neighborhoods everywhere. The Punto Urban Art Museum, a public art initiative founded by North Shore Community Development Corporation in Salem, Massachusetts, is addressing this head on as we enter a third year of programming. After seeing increased levels of engagement when utilizing arts and creativity in our community organizing work and in a temporary pilot mural project, NSCDC began to take art and placemaking more seriously as a strategy to address the community priority of reducing stigma in the predominantly low-income, majority-minority Point neighborhood.

A Woman of Substance

When I first read Katharine Graham’s autobiography, which later became the basis for The Post, I don’t remember experiencing any moments of recognition. Awe, yes. Admiration, absolutely. That a woman with so little self-confidence had found the capacity to topple a president by discovering some previously hidden strength—now that was an inspiring story. But it wasn’t until I watched Meryl Streep navigate Katharine Graham’s route from society maven to newspaper publisher with a backbone of steel that something struck me, and I recognized that her trajectory and my own career development bore some commonality. I was certainly not a pioneer of the generation of theater managers that included Nina Vance, Iris Siff, and Zelda Fichandler, or even that second wave that included Sara O’Connor and Alison Harris, Jessica Andrews and Mary Bill. Nonetheless, as an early career manager when few women were in the field, it was hard to have my voice be heard, to be able to command a room so that my thoughts could be presented.

Bring it on.

I have learned what is important for me through the arts: whether it is a hobby or a profession, the arts allow us to tap into our own voice and find what is meaningful. It is an extension of who we are, and it is reified in the world through words, music, paintings, and movement. The arts tune us into the thing that makes us tick. It gives us the power to listen to our own selves, to truly go in and feel. In a world where everything is external, the arts are a reprieve—a moment to lean in and go deeper. The arts give you a confidence to listen and to chart your direction. With a better understanding of my own self, I can make connections and lead this organization more effectively. I see myself as the Jackson Pollock of arts administration—at first glance, one might think it’s chaotic, but there is intentionality behind every stroke.

On Women in Leadership in the Arts

Today, in these seemingly unenlightened times, it is easy to worry that the very people we have elevated to leadership can neither identify nor light the way. This isn’t just a concern about who might run for office or be appointed to the Supreme Court. It’s a worry about the critical and threatened role of inspiration, integrity, generosity, and compassion in public life. As a leader of a nonprofit arts organization in this context, I think the most important thing we can do is urgently and carefully consider the current and potential role our organizations can play in reimagining and reigniting our struggling democracy. As a female leader and a mom, it is natural for me to think about how and why an organization was born, and how and why it exists today. I have often reflected that institutions were made by people in order to deliver on the promise of democracy. We know they are not doing that, so we have to change them. The purpose of leadership, in many ways, is not to hold an organization in place but to constantly nurture it toward what it can and should be.

One of the Boys

With three brothers and no sisters, I grew up thinking I was one of the boys. My 4th grade claim to fame was being the arm wrestling champion of my class, and it was a source of pride that I could out-run one of my older brothers when we played tag football. The boy next door was altar boy to my priest when we played Mass. If you really wanted to get me mad, you’d tell me I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. I share this background as a way of explaining that I don’t often think of myself in terms of my gender. My many role models are as likely to be women as men. The times when I have encountered career hurdles, I’ve attributed them to other factors—e.g., someone else was more qualified, I was too timid, etc.—not to the fact that I’m female. The times when I have faced blatant gender discrimination I have called it out as directly and respectfully as I knew how, and with humor when possible. When someone is stepping on your toe, say “ouch.” I resist the idea that my potential is attenuated by a largely immutable characteristic.

40 Years Young: The Evolving Practice of Cultural Planning

Research released this week by Americans for the Arts sheds light on the aspirations, accomplishments, shortcomings, and methods used in cultural planning over the past decade and compares findings with Craig Dreeszen’s similar—although more extensive—study from 1994. The data reveal that expectations of cultural planning have increased significantly over these 20-plus years, and that the greatest change is in the emphasis on serving community interests rather than a focus on the arts and cultural sector’s own needs. While community-wide cultural planning helps formulate aspirations and action strategies, it doesn’t ensure results. Where cultural plans also set their sights, but where outcomes fell short, is in the area of cultural equity—expanding resources for under-represented groups including immigrant populations, removing barriers to participation, and bolstering education and youth development. Fewer than half of cultural plans included specific actions to address diversity, equity, and inclusion—a surprising finding in 2017.

Encouraging Women to Think Big

As a nonprofit arts leader, I am inspired every day by the growth in our sector, as well as the undeniable positive effect that artists and arts organizations have in their communities. At Theatre Communications Group, we say “A better world for theatre, a better world because of theatre.” We understand that theatres need knowledge, networks, and resources, and TCG has a role to play in supporting those needs. But theatres also have unique capabilities and responsibilities in their communities. If they choose to, they can help bring about justice and social change through the work on and off stage. I am rewarded every day by the ways in which people of all ages can engage with the artistry on its own terms, as well as the conversations and awareness that theatre evokes. And yet, while there is so much to be celebrated, the nonprofit arts sector has also replicated some of the structural inequities of the larger economic system. 

A Latinx Woman’s Journey: I Did Not Get Here Alone

When I was asked to write about my leadership, I thought of writing about my path as one of the leaders of the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC); however, I did not want to write this from the perspective of a linear trajectory as the figurehead of the nation’s only Latinx arts service organization. My life is not defined by a position I hold but rather by how I choose to live my life in service to others. My strong sense of love and commitment to family, humanity and community is what drives me.

The Creative Power of Women in Leadership

Although we’d like to believe that the arts and culture sector does better than other fields, sexism remains pervasive—but not unconquerable. Throughout my career in the nonprofit and arts sector, I have been told that: I should describe myself as aspirational, not ambitious; women in their twenties weren’t good hires because they are only fully formed after they married; I wouldn’t be promoted into a permanent position because having just had a child would make me less committed to my work; and other comments of a nature too personal. Small, demoralizing comments meaning, “You just don’t measure up to your male colleagues.” While the arts sector has not been a leader in breaking this cycle, it should be. Judging from current trends, emerging female leaders inspire me to believe that we can get ahead of the curve. 

At pivotal moments, key women believed in me!

I wasn’t destined for a career “in the arts.” Despite being a cellist since 4th grade (courtesy of when public schools invested more heavily in the arts) and immersed in the world of classical music all of my life, I was headed to a world of science—either botanist, or field ecologist, or environmental educator. I was part of a hiking, camping, and backpacking family—wedded to the out of doors—and I graduated with a degree in biology. I wanted to channel my love of science, teaching, and museums, hence my choice over 30 years ago to pursue a master’s degree in museum education with a goal of developing and teaching science curricula (and, in particular, to work at the Museum of Science in Boston). And then at three pivotal moments in my life, three key women entered my professional world and offered me new opportunities that would change the trajectory of my work.

Women Becoming Leaders Starts with Empowering Themselves to be Leaders

I still find that women have difficulty being heard—the old story: a woman makes a key point in a group meeting, nobody reacts; a man follows with the same point and everyone thinks it’s a good idea. I’ve seen savvy women handle that one by circling back and thanking the man for reiterating her point. Women often get rolled over by men in discussions because they are bigger, louder, more aggressive where women tend to be more deferential. Faced with such an instance, I stopped talking, held up my hand to visually stop the grandstanding, looked at the director in the eye, and asked him to refrain from talking over me so that I could finish my point—he did. Women often start statements by apologizing—and continue to do so throughout their commentary. STOP THAT. Julia Child once said, “Never apologize, and carry on.” The first step in women becoming leaders is empowering themselves to be leaders.

Leadership from the Sidelines

Twenty-five years ago, I left my job as the Managing Director of a regional theatre and started WomenArts. I deliberately moved from the center track to the sidelines because I wanted to work with women artists. They were the ones I loved the most—especially women artists of color and lesbian artists. They were the reason I had originally gone into the arts, and I had felt their absence during my 20 years in mainstream arts organizations. WomenArts mainly serves independent and community-based artists, and it puzzles me that they are so often ignored in discussions about gender parity or cultural policy. I am thrilled that more women are moving into leadership roles in major arts organizations, and I am sure they will have a positive impact. But we need to face the fact that there are not enough jobs to go around at those institutions. Even if we had women leading every major arts organization in the U.S., there would still be thousands of unemployed or under-employed women artists.

ARTS Publishes “Capacity Building for Racial Equity in Public Art”

Thursday, October 18, 2018

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Public Art Bootcamp, the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture’s award program, is the subject of the publication Capacity Building for Racial Equity in Public Art, which illustrates how public art administrators can shift the field to be more inclusive and effect change by intentionally serving artists from under-represented and under-invested communities. 

Engaging the Deaf/disability community: A Marketer’s Exploration

My recent foray into professional arts marketing shows me that there’s much we can learn from each other on ways to link historically overlooked and disenfranchised communities with the mainstream theater communities who want to invite them in.

Challenging Teaching Norms: A New Art History Curriculum

In the rise of a socially-conscious zeitgeist, a spectrum of practices across the vast catalog of art institutions and programming have come into question, specifically around the issues of representation and equity. From hiring policies to curation, art audiences are demanding more inclusive narratives. Often our digital platforms provide the unfortunate circumstance of sustaining a highly contentious environment around these conversations. A common response across many institutions has been to remain steadfast and inflexible in questionable practice, as opposed to considering the validity of such cultural objections. But some institutions have found a way to respond to the current state of cultural criticism in more productive ways. 

What does it mean to be a woman leader in the arts world? Hmmm … I’m not sure how to answer that.

I can think of many questions with complicated or unknown answers: Does being a woman influence the way I lead? How much has my career path been influenced by my being a woman? Would I have done things differently if I was a man (no way to know that, of course!)? Of course, the world is different for today’s generation of woman leaders. My twenties were in a time when women were starting off in careers of importance in much greater numbers than my mother’s generation, but the influences of that previous generation were very present (at least in my world). Now, although there are still tangible and intangible systems in place that affect women, it is the norm that young women feel and know that they can lead in the arts or any other sector. Much of the time, I feel that young women are leading and we older women have to be available for counsel if needed, but mostly we have to get out of the way.

Business Roundtable: Leveraging the Arts to Advance Equity in Business

Friday, October 12, 2018

Business leaders convene to discuss how the arts can align diversity, equity, and inclusion activities to core business strategies and how businesses can creatively develop and retain diverse talent.

The Power of Storytelling for Women Leaders

Every woman has a story, and the world needs to see and hear your story and your perspective as a woman leader—and, more critically, as a woman of color. Storytelling is rooted in our cultures and has been proven to be one of the most effective ways to not only share with the world who you are, but open people’s minds in a way that simply telling a set of regurgitated data or facts cannot. Over the past few weeks we have seen the power of storytelling play out in one of the largest stages for women that we have ever seen. The Kavanagh hearing allowed each party to tell their story in a historical setting like no other, but the stories that captured our attention, the stories that had the most impact, the ones that moved and changed people’s hearts and minds in that hearing, across the country and perhaps the world, were told in an elevator.

Women Rising

My healing process occurred alongside my career in the arts—first as a student and volunteer; then as an artist and a teaching artist; and now as an arts administrator and leader. The transformation happened over the past 25 years. While the trauma is no longer debilitating, it is never forgotten. And, while the arts didn’t heal the trauma alone, theater was instrumental in helping me build the language and my own awareness of the trauma, and in seeking additional outside assistance. It is impossible for me to separate these narratives. I fervently believe that at its core, our work in the cultural sector is to build a more inclusive, empathetic, and humane society. As leaders we must recognize that many of the people we interact with on a daily basis have experienced some sort of trauma, bias, or oppression based on gender, sexual orientation, or race. It is not that hard to accomplish—just use the tools acquired through the arts themselves.

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