December 19, 2021—I am inspired by the significant efforts of several people and organizations this past year that have advanced Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Access (EDI&A) in the arts, despite the ongoing pandemics of COVID-19, racial injustice, and political divide. As we close out another tumultuous year, I have chosen to highlight three individuals and three organizations whose laudable efforts personify the work of Champions of the Arts.
I define Champions of the Arts in my forthcoming book:
“Champions of the Arts are changemakers who create spaces or open their existing spaces to celebrate our diversity while recognizing our common humanity. They lead by example, supporting and advocating for EDI&A, making the resources available to leverage the arts to challenge all forms of inequality, especially racial, ethnic, gender, age, and differing abilities. They model excellence and celebrate local heroes and arts organizations, recognizing that the more they can forge partnerships, the more they are able to engage.”
The 2021 Champions of the Arts are Brenda Williams-Butts; Aaron Dworkin, Ph.D.; Mackenzie Scott; Black Theatre United, The Wallace Foundation, and the blog CultureType.com.
Brenda is the Senior Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for one of the nation’s leading cultural institutions—New York Public Radio. She has worked at NYPR for more than 25 years. The media and cultural powerhouse owns and operates WNYC AM and FM; WQXR; the four stations of New Jersey Public Radio; The Greene Space; WNYC Studios, and the Gothamist. It impacts and influences the lives of more than 24-million people each month.
Brenda has created several audience development initiatives and innovative programs at NYPR, including galvanizing influencers to help build audiences for The Greene Space. I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with her for many years, including on projects to expand support and community outreach for HARLEM WEEK.
I think the announcement of Brenda’s promotion to SVP, by her boss Goli Sheikholeslami, Chief Executive Officer at NYPR, explains best why I think Brenda is a 2021 Champion of the Arts:
“…Our communities are in desperate need of bold, passionate champions for dialogue, representation, and justice.(Brenda) has been a brilliant partner and a critical leader in our efforts to weave Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion into NYPR’s DNA….Over the course of her career at NYPR (and first WNYC), Brenda has taken on increasing responsibility, working at the intersection of community engagement, recruitment, and audience development. She has worked to expand our reach among the city’s many diverse populations, recruited some of our brightest lights, built enduring partnerships with cultural institutions and community organizations, and spearheaded many pivotal initiatives…. She is a trusted leader, a tireless advocate and a cherished colleague, whose work has improved the lives and advanced the careers of so many.
Aaron P. Dworkin, Ph.D.
Aaron is a social entrepreneur; performing artist; filmmaker; philanthropist, author, and Professor of Arts Leadership & Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. He also is a recipient of a 2005 MacArthur Fellowship,
Aaron personifies Champion of the Arts—he tirelessly promotes EDI&A in every facet of his work.
The former dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD), he currently is a tenured full professor of arts leadership and entrepreneurship, where he instructs students about all facets of the arts through the lens of an entrepreneur. Aaron also is the founder of The Sphinx Organization, which works to increase representation of Black and Latinx artists in classical music and seeks to transform lives through the power of diversity in the arts.
In addition, Aaron has developed and hosts two very successful arts-related television programs—Arts Engine and Artful Science. Both programs have a list of prestigious partnerships and distribution networks. Arts Engine has more than 2 million viewers each week, and it enables Aaron to showcase numerous arts leaders who are advancing EDI&A in a variety of artforms.
The author of The Entrepreneurial Artist: Lessons from Highly Successful Creatives published by Rowman & Littlefield, Aaron also has published a memoir, a poetry collection and a children’s book.
According to her profile on Medium.com, Mackenzie Scott, is “a writer, mom and advocate.” However, she’s also a philanthropist who is turning the world of giving upside down due to her determination to give away at least half of her wealth to charitable causes to “affect real change.” Mackenzie holds 25-percent ownership of amazon.com.
In two years, Mackenzie has given more than $8-billion to 780 organizations making generous and unrestricted donations to arts, cultural and educational institutions. Working without the tax shelter of a foundation or the direction of a board of directors, her philanthropic model of giving also allows the recipients to use the funds as they see fit—a process she described in a Medium.com post as empowering “receivers by making them feel valued and by unlocking their best solutions.”
During the summer of 2021, she announced the latest recipients of her philanthropy. They included the Apollo Theater; the Dance Theatre of Harlem; the Studio Museum in Harlem; El Museo del Barrio; Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; Jazz at Lincoln Center, and Hostos Community College.
Mackenzie Scott is a Champion of the Arts because of her practiced belief that “people struggling against inequities deserve center stage in stories about change they are creating,” and her efforts to use her wealth to support those center stages in historically underfunded and overlooked communities. I also appreciate that Mackenzie has made the process of receiving grants relatively simple—there is no application required and no final report. Most important, there is trust that the recipient knows what to do and holds themselves accountable. What a great model to use in funding!
Black Theatre United
The summer of 2021 also was a breakthrough year for Black Theatre United. In August, BTU released “A New Deal for Broadway,” outlining a series of reforms that promote Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Accessibility and Belonging (EDIAB) throughout the Broadway industry.
The “New Deal for Broadway” resulted from a summit the organization hosted in collaboration with the Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at NYU’s School of Law, which was attended by leaders from various sectors of the Broadway industry. There are now more than 100 organizational signatories to the agreement, including Actors’ Equity Association, Disney Theatrical Group, John Gore Organization, Jujamcyn Theaters, Lincoln Center Theatre, IATSE Local 798, Manhattan Theatre Club, Nederlander Organization, Roundabout Theatre Company, Second Stage, Tara Rubin Casting, The Broadway League, The Shubert Organization, Inc., and The Telsey Office.
The “New Deal” commitments include short-term action and policy changes, as well as long-term reforms in the areas of artistic culture; policies and cultural training; pipeline initiatives; audience development, and community engagement.
BTU’s founding group of actors, directors, musicians, writers, technicians, producers and stage management include Lisa Dawn Cave, Darius de Haas, Carin Ford, Capathia Jenkins, LaChanze, Kenny Leon, Norm Lewis, Audra McDonald, Michael McElroy, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Wendell Pierce, Billy Porter, Anna Deavere Smith, Allyson Tucker, Tamara Tunie, Lillias White, NaTasha Yvette Williams, Schele Williams, and Vanessa Williams.
The Wallace Foundation
The heart of the work of The Wallace Foundation is guided by the belief of its co-founder, Lila Wallace, “The arts belong to everyone.” That principle has steered the foundation’s work for more than two decades and is at the center of its mission: “…to foster equity and improvements in learning and enrichment for young people, and in the arts for everyone.”
In July of 2021, The Wallace Foundation announced a five-year, $53-million initiative focusing on arts organizations of color, and extended an invitation to them to apply. It also invited researchers to submit proposals for the first of several studies associated with the initiative. The effort seeks to foster equitable improvements in the arts, recognizing that many leaders of arts organizations of color report their contributions are often overlooked and underfunded.
When it comes to planning for community engagement or audience development, having access to research and data are critical to making smart, relevant decisions. I firmly believe the arts administration field is quite fortunate to have the work of researchers like Zannie Giraud Voss, Ph.D. and her team at SMU DataArts. Their report, “The Alchemy of High Performing Arts Institutions,” was funded by The Wallace Foundation and released earlier this year. It offers insightful and analytic research focused on helping arts organizations identify the programmatic and financial areas where they can grow their results and expand their impact.
I believe The Wallace Foundation is a 2021 Champion of the Arts because of its recognition that building diverse audiences is a pressing challenge for arts leaders and developing the research to back it up. The size of the organization run the gamut, which provides equal opportunity to all arts organizations. Consequently, the foundation has become the leader in helping arts organizations to truly understand how they function, recognize challenges, and develop and test new ideas to expand access to diverse audiences.
The Wallace Foundation also has made critical resources available on its website and codified essential standards, such as the “Nine Effective Practices for Building Audiences for the Arts,” and its report on successful principles for afterschool arts education programs, which includes input from urban youth.
Founder and editor Victoria L. Valentine established her award-winning blog Culture Type in 2013 as the result of her lifelong love and arts and books. It has since become an invaluable resource for information about the Black visual arts community—up-and-coming, established, as well as historic visual artists; arts management promotions; exhibition reviews; book reviews; art news; critical achievements, and auction results.
I believe the blog is smart, insightful, as well as informative. For example, ahead of most major news organizations, Culture Type reported nearly two weeks ago that the board of directors of the renowned Rhode Island School of Design chose Crystal Williams as its 18th President. Ms. Williams is an African-American woman, professor, poet, and social justice advocate.
I also appreciate the special annual reports compiled by Culture Type, including a global list of curatorial appointments; a list of the Best Black Art Books, and a chronicle of the Year in Black Art.
Culture Type is a 2021 Champion of the Arts for its ongoing efforts to maintain a comprehensive record of Black visual arts achievements and for showcasing the visual arts management talent that is working behind the scenes at some of the world’s great arts institutions.
Thank you, Brenda Williams-Butts; Aaron Dworkin, Ph.D.; Mackenzie Scott; Black Theatre United, The Wallace Foundation, and the blog CultureType.com, for your tenacious and fierce examples of being a Champion of the Arts!
As always, I want to know what you think. Who are your 2021 Champions of the Arts and why? I invite you to share your thoughts and comments below.