Fighting on the Frontlines for Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts on behalf of the Native American Community: A Conversation with John Haworth

John Haworth recently retired after many years as the Senior Executive for the National Museum of the American Indian. In addition to managing public programs, exhibitions, and outreach projects, John collaborated with Native communities on a broad range of public programs and special projects to ensure that the museum addressed their diverse needs. He is a member of the Cherokee Nation.

 John has been a friend for many years and has lectured to my classes at NYU and has given presentations to Arts Administrators from Australia who travel to NY to participate in the week-long Bite the Big Apple Arts Management Tour. I am inspired by the depth and breadth of John’s work; his commitment to diversity and inclusion and what he accomplished during his tenure at the NMAI. This conversation, with a spotlight on the Native American community, provides further insights into the impact of cultural differences in funding and philanthropy first discussed in last week’s blog.

 Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did you begin your work focusing on Diversity and Inclusion?

John Haworth: I came to the arts field through the study of classical music—I was a trained pianist. But an internship with the National Endowment for the Arts in Oklahoma provided the gift of a new direction. I was assigned to work in an outreach program based at Oklahoma State Penitentiary. At that time, I did not have the empathy, understanding or social background to work with incarcerated folks.  But when I got to that prison, I witnessed and worked for an incredibly committed teacher—the late Bradley Place, the father of actress Mary Kay Place. Bradley, who was the longtime chairman of the Tulsa University School of Art, set up classes and workshops for the prisoners. A painter, artist, writer and creative thinker, he demonstrated to the inmates (and to all of us) the pathway for a life committed to the arts. He told a roomful of incarcerated people that art could be a liberating force for all, regardless of one’s station in life. He developed a statewide, traveling exhibition of their work. I got to witness a transformation in the lives of the prisoners participating in that program. Since that time, I have whole-heartedly believed in the arts as a bridge for both communication and human development.

After leaving Oklahoma, I worked in both urban and rural communities in Arizona; I went into the reservation and began to form a real commitment to doing grassroots work. So, the philosophy behind my work is community-based and I experienced the challenge of bringing multicultural work to white audiences.

This brought to the forefront the realization of not only how divided and isolated from each other the diverse cultures were (and still are), but I also saw that economic issues were the common denominator for all the arts organizations. In other words, they all had to figure out how to balance earned revenue while addressing the needs and interests of communities who may not have the discretionary income to support them.  How is that done? How do these organizations ensure standards of work, diverse programmatic choices, and hospitality? Those were questions I had to confront and answer in the early days of my work.

Prior to working at the National Museum of the American Indian, I received additional “training” from arts and community leaders through my work with both the New York State Council of the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. The economics of arts funding continued to be the challenge. There was a diverse array of arts organizations, such as El Museo del Barrio, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater,  and the work being produced in Eastern European communities that were not receiving funding, the philanthropic respect, or warranted support. The community pushed back and diverse arts organizations began asking for equitable funding. Their organizations were addressing the needs of underserved/underrepresented communities while providing significant cultural enrichment for the community at-large.

Close to 50 years later, this remains an ongoing conversation in the field. And given today’s political climate, it is clear that we are back again to asking the question, “What does it mean to have a cultural voice? And, “Whose voices are significant?” It’s so important that we find ways to be respectful of all segments of the vast ecology of cultural traditions, enrich the dialogue and expand what’s available to audiences throughout the country.

DW-K: How would you describe your mission and the work you did for diversity and inclusion at the National Museum of the American Indian?

JH: The National Museum of the American Indian had a complicated history. When it was located in Washington Heights on West 155th and Broadway, there were some ethical and financial issues, along with challenges conserving and protecting the work, that stemmed from the establishment of the museum. However, as a collecting institution it was the most significant cultural asset of Native American culture and history in the United States. That’s why preserving it was of tantamount importance.

NMAI expanded in 1989 to become part of the Smithsonian, with branches in Washington, D.C.; Suitland, Maryland, and New York. In the early stages of the museum, founding director Rick West consulted with Native leaders and asked for their input. He wanted to ensure that the foundation of this organization was created in the most inclusive and respectful way. For years, natural history museums and those doing anthropological research in tribal history and culture were based on an “outsider’s perspective;” the tribes and the community were not involved.  Some decent work did come out of this, but it was always from an external perspective.

So, Rick started the process of changing that paradigm, consulting with tribal leaders and Native American artists for planning the museums opening and all of our major exhibitions. We wanted to ensure that this trio of facilities fully represented the perspective and served the interests of both the tribal and reservation communities. Consequently, the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., was attended by the largest gathering of Native Americans in history; thousands of tribal folks came in respect and honor of the opening. Today, the NMAI in NY has one of the highest attendance rates of any museum in the city—more than 600,000 people annually.

The NMAI in DC, the Cultural Resource Center in Maryland and NMAI in NY, all serve a broad-based audience, which includes tourists whose perspective about Native Americans is based on Hollywood-influenced, cultural biases and stereotypes. We realized that these issues also needed to be tackled head-on. In recognition of our visitors’ sometimes-distorted understanding of Native American culture and traditions, our initial efforts included the development of educational programs that fully confronted stereotypes.

However, we soon realized that we needed to go further. After studying some textbooks about Native Americans, we were all shocked to see the misrepresentation of our history. In consultation with Native cultural leaders from throughout the country, the museum has launched a national initiative to inspire and promote the improved and accurate teaching of American Indian history, traditions and culture. It’s called  Native Knowledge 360. It’s a vast and tremendous resource for educators and students, which is available online at no charge.

We now know that we can’t do all of the work, but we can be a field leader. We can foster professional development, train archivists and preservationists; support tribal community engagement, and continue to ensure that our programs accurately represent multi generational, cultural traditions, such as the current exhibition in New York, Native Fashion Now.

We also must continue to plan for the future. It’s essential that all cultural institutions create opportunities at the neighborhood level. Does this mean that the major cultural institutions are somehow incentivized to do more and do better in terms of diversity and inclusion? If so, what does that look like? And what about diversity and inclusion as it relates to staff recruitment and employment opportunities? How do these organizations develop relationships with all the diverse communities they need to serve, especially given the changing demographics of our city or our nation? There are many viable options—partnerships with neighboring companies or diverse cultural institutions; targeted media buys or publications of materials; diverse vendor contracts so that inclusion includes economic support of the communities that are potential patrons.

As our nation continues to diversify, this issue will continue to be an ongoing and necessary dialogue that requires arts institutions to proactively engage with the communities they hope to serve.