Recognizing Inequities in the Arts and Working to Mitigate Them

This week, Arts & Culture Connections is reposting with permission a blog written by Gary Steuer, President and CEO of the Bonfil-Stanton Foundation. Mr. Steuer’s post advocates for proactive and continuous efforts to mitigate inequities in the arts. It provides a lot of food for thought—from promoting the term ALAANA as a replacement for the phrase “people of color,” and the need for all stakeholders to “think deeply” about how best to mitigate inequities in the arts, to the promotion of the idea that access to the arts are basic human rights.

I invite you to expand this dialogue by sharing your thoughts and comments with me via email:

Our Commitment to Equity by Gary Steuer

“Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” are not just buzzwords, but the subject of critically important conversations among funders, nonprofits, cultural organizations, artists and civic leaders. These conversations – which are often difficult and even messy – can and should lead to action.

I have served on the Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) board for the past few years, and they have been a leader in urging arts funders to apply a racial equity lens to their grantmaking and operations. In fact, they developed and disseminated a Racial Equity in Arts Philanthropy Statement of Purpose in 2015, and followed it up with dialogue and in-depth training through their conference, webinars and publications.

GIA has also been a leader in promoting the term ALAANA (African, Latinx, Asian, Arab and Native American) as a replacement for the more common “people of color.” No terminology is perfect, and it is easy to get paralyzed in this work by the fear of using the wrong term.

There is a good articulation of the rationale for choosing ALAANA over other imperfect options in a study of how “to nurture thriving institutions of color” in New York City, conducted by Yancey Consulting and commissioned by Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and The New York Community Trust. And as we know, diversity, equity and inclusion are three terms now often lumped together that mean three very different things.

Frankly, I think diversity and inclusion are often bundled with equity to make the conversation palatable to some who might be hostile to the implications of an equity conversation. Angelique Power, President of the Field Foundation and Board Chair of GIA, provides a great and succinct explanation of these three terms in this video.

In 2016, Americans for the Arts released a “Statement on Cultural Equity,” which I wrote about at the time in this blog post. This statement also came about after a long process, and took a different approach than the GIA statement, as it focused on “cultural equity” as opposed to exclusively racial equity, embracing the need to battle other forms of discrimination and disenfranchisement, such as LGBTQ, disability, and gender bias.`

This approach has its champions, as does the approach that says it is critical to call out racism as the core equity issue that overlays everything else. I believe with this divide, as with the language issue discussed earlier, it is easy to be dogmatic and feel there is only one right approach, or one right terminology. But, in fact, what matters is stepping in and beginning to do the work, with an openness to learn, a humility that you will never get it “right” and also a generosity toward others who choose a different strategy or language.

Last year the Helicon Collaborative—a consulting firm specializing in cultural issues—published Not Just Money, a new study supported by the Surdna Foundation that looked at equity issues in cultural philanthropy and was a follow-up to a similar study done in 2011. The findings? Not encouraging. Despite foundations getting much better at exploring and talking about this issue, the actual distribution of funding has, if anything, become more inequitable since 2011. Sixty percent of arts philanthropic dollars go to 2 percent of the organizations (those with budgets over $5 million), and this disparity is actually up 5 percent since 2011. The 90 percent of organizations that have budgets under $1 million have seen their share of dollars decline from 25 to 21 percent.

The vast majority of cultural organizations whose primary mission is to serve communities of color have budgets under $5 million. People of color represent 37 percent of the nation’s population, but just 4 percent of all foundation arts funding is allocated to groups whose primary mission is to serve these communities. (An additional 2 percent of funding goes to “mainstream” cultural groups specifically to serve communities of color.)

This is all background to say that like our colleagues in Colorado and around the country, Bonfil-Stanton Foundation has been thinking deeply for some time about how we incorporate a commitment to equity in our grantmaking and operations. To date this work has been happening, but organically.

We have made intentional changes in our Livingston Fellowship Program, first broadening our pool of nominators, then entirely opening up the nominating process. We have also rotated the selection panel members and ensured a higher proportion of ALAANA individuals on the panel. Finally, we have become more accepting of leaders of smaller organizations, given that a much higher percentage of these groups are primarily serving ALAANA communities and are led by ALAANA individuals. The result: over the past five years, ALAANA Fellows have gone from a historical level of 20 percent over the previous 10 years, to an average of 50 percent. The 2018 class happened to be 80 percent. We have also encouraged the Fellowship cohort to embrace discussions of equity and racism as a shared value and critical environmental factor among all their organizations.

In our grantmaking, over the past five years the percentage of our dollars going to organizations primarily serving ALAANA or other traditionally marginalized communities has gone from 2.4 percent to 13.1 percent, a 275 percent increase in grant dollars. Our Board of Trustees has gone from never having an ALAANA individual on the board since our incorporation in 1962, to now having three out of nine members.

In 2015, we commissioned Donna Walker-Kuhne, a nationally-recognized leader in building more diverse audiences in the arts, to study audience diversity efforts here in Denver. Her findings became a valuable tool for many cultural organizations and also led to the formation of an arts and diversity task force, which continues to meet regularly, and recently came to the Foundation to support a new effort to build a more diverse cultural workforce in Denver, which we have funded. A comparable task force has now been formed, also with the support and encouragement of the Foundation, to work on equity issues in the arts for people with disabilities.

Even with these significant efforts and accomplishments, we recognize we have far to go. After a preliminary board conversation around diversity, equity and inclusion in April 2017, we have continued to do research and craft ideas about how we could more formally embrace this work, and these values. We began educating staff and board members, sharing research like the studies cited earlier. We had a much deeper full-day board conversation in April 2018, leading to the formation of a DEI committee. And after several months of work, the committee and staff together crafted a new integrated governing document, with a linked Mission, Vision and Values/Equity statement. The full text of this statement follows (and is linked here), and I encourage you to read it, but I want to quote what I think is a key section:

 “We believe that access to the arts, as an appreciator, participant and/or creator, are basic human rights that should be enjoyed by all those who live in our community. We also believe that factors like racism, ableism, sexism, gender bias and lack of economic opportunity have prevented these cultural opportunities from being equally enjoyed by all. These factors have contributed to lack of equal access to leadership opportunities, within the arts and the entire nonprofit sector. We will ensure that we operate in a way that recognizes these inequities, and that we work to mitigate them.”

I am extremely proud of the board and staff of this Foundation for putting into writing what I think is a strong statement of our values that includes an acknowledgement of the structural barriers many in our community have faced. So how will we live these values? What will change? The Foundation is committed to ensuring that these are not just empty words but are reflected in our actions and operations. We are now in an internal process with board and staff determining next steps and will share more information in the coming months.