May 23, 2021—In two days, the world will mark the first anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, an incident that created a global tsunami of demonstrations and demands for racial equity and social justice that also rocked the arts world. All of this unfolded while our nation coped with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which not only claimed more than a half-million American lives, but also shuttered the doors of all of our nation’s arts organizations and cultural institutions.
During this past year, artists, and arts administrators of color in every facet of our industry—theater, museums, dance, music and film—have been raising their voices about the need for equal access to opportunities and to be treated with respect. Their efforts have led to several “flashpoints of reckoning,” many of which I have written about over the past year to inform the readers of Arts & Culture Connections.
As the George Floyd Global Memorial plans a day-long celebration to commemorate the impact of his life on the community, American society, and the global movement for justice, I believe it’s time for all of us to renew our commitment and determination to continue the momentum for equity, diversity, inclusion and access in all facets of the arts.
How do we ensure, as my colleague Dee C. Marshall described, that the pledges made in 2020 extend beyond the moment that “corporate America woke up…to the systemic racism that this country was built on?” What would that entail?
These are three of my recommendations:
First and foremost, I believe it’s important that members of the arts and cultural institution C-Suites publicly reaffirm their commitment to creating anti-racist arts and cultural organizations. I urge you to not only share this commitment with your board of directors and staff of arts administrators, but also with everyone who works or volunteers for your arts organization, including artists, audiences, contractors and vendors. Even better, put it in writing and display it on your websites and walls.
Commit to training and dialogue. Combatting systemic racism and unconscious bias takes time and effort to examine the barriers that make it difficult for staff, volunteers and/or your audience to participate in or access your arts organization. Find consultants who have experience with your business model and employ their services so that your boards, staffs, representative artists, as well as the members of the community you serve, can together make a plan of action. That plan should include a budget and assigned accountability.
I am an adjunct, university professor devoted to training the next generation of arts administrators who are committed to ensuring that their institutions embody equity, diversity, inclusion and access. I urge you to commit to offering mentorship programs and paid internships so that these future arts leaders have the solid, hands-on training they need for professional development and growth, and can create value for the institutions or organizations where they work.
I also want to lend my support to the call for the establishment of a modern-day cultural workers program, akin to the 1935 Federal Writers Project created by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help the nation recover from the Great Depression. FWP served as a jobs program for 6,000 writers and created a national archive of oral histories, including first-person slave narratives.
Some of the hundreds of millions of dollars pledged and/or donated to organizations committed to fighting for racial justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, or to address unconscious bias should be shared with arts organizations to help fund this program to employ cultural workers at the local level. This would allow every community to document their experiences which, in turn, would help foster and facilitate the social changes necessary for transforming this era of health disparities, violence, white supremacy, and racial injustice into an era of respect for the dignity of all people.
Despite the conviction of the police officer who murdered George Floyd and the lifting of mask mandates in this current phase of the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, there is still a lot of work to be done. For example, it remains essential for our white colleagues, who are current arts and cultural leaders, to speak out, stand on the frontlines and take action to help end institutional racism, inequality, and the dehumanization of all bodies of color and other marginalized people. I also believe that part of our nation’s healing must be the U.S. Senate’s passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021.
Our nation continues to need the arts—stories, plays, poetry, music, films, paintings and photographs—to give voice, in the spirit of renowned theater artist Anna Deveare Smith, to all the diverse parties struggling during this time. And instead of looking for moral authority from our political, cultural and spiritual leaders, we each have to take responsibility to continue to reach out to one another and work together to find and enact solutions.
I urge you, in honor of the memory of George Floyd, to renew your commitment to become a proactive agent of change by expanding your capacity for empathy, compassion and thoughtful action to support the rebuilding of our communities utilizing the arts.
As always, I would like to know what you think. What are you determined to change in your community by May 25, 2022, and what is the first step you will take?