“The work of our times”: A conversation about cultural equity with Roberto Bedoya, Rebecca Burrell and Brea Heidelberg

 

No one should expect to have easy, simple conversations about the need in the arts, both institutionally and individually, to confront and revitalize our understanding of cultural equity. Though difficult to have, few conversations are more necessary. The ability of many and varied aesthetics, artists and visions to flourish is a prerequisite for the future of the arts in our communities. How might these conversations lead to more than imagined communities or token enclaves? What is at stake for a sense of place, for education and for the future of a city in confronting racism, sexism and other forms of institutionalized violence in the arts?

In support of these necessary conversations, the Atlanta Regional Commission will host three leaders in arts advocacy, Roberto Bedoya, Brea Heidelberg and Rebecca Burrell, as they discuss cultural equity in their communities. Their forum on cultural equity will be held at the Fox Theatre on Wednesday, August 3, at 9:30 a.m.

ArtsATL: What are the challenges and opportunities posed by activating a shared vision of representation in arts policies? Can we balance hands-on advocacy with objective data and research? How can we apply conversations and programs related to cultural equity to other cities, like Atlanta?

Roberto Bedoya: The challenges are linked to power dynamics and how power is used to empower or limit our nation’s expressive life. One area of concern for me in the equity conversation is the overlay between cultural equity to racial equity and how it can be a muddled one. A commitment to cultural equity, e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation or disability is essential to a healthy society. However, an honest, deep and fearless examination of how racism operates in our nation and in the cultural sector is the work of our times. We need to unpack how the ideology of Whiteness operates in the sector and how it sets boundaries that create and regulate how we understand race in the cultural arena. The trauma of disenfranchisement by social systems that we encounter in the expressive life of our communities asks that our cultural work be deliberate and intentional in how one engages in systemic change. We must examine how our nation’s racial imaginary works in our cultural policies, public policies, governance, management systems and democracy.

As to advocacy work — you use data and story to make the case. Both empirical and experiential knowledge are needed in the work of advancing our humanity. It is not an either-or proposition.

Brea Heidelberg: There is currently a field-wide commitment to the idea of equity, but there is a laziness or aversion (depends on the situation) to doing the actual work. People often assume that for everyone to be represented that something has to be taken away from the people that are currently represented. This results in statements with no teeth or action attached. 

It’s always difficult for me to answer when people talk about the benefits of cultural equity. It always feels like people are asking people who are not currently invited to the table to justify why they should be invited to the table. It’s the right thing to do. Not the easy thing, but the right thing. The benefit of equity is it’s the right thing to do. The diversity of thoughts and skill sets and organizational capacities is a bonus.

The best way to work toward cultural equity in different places is to try and work toward equity in ways that are organic to the location and takes into account the history of the area. It won’t work if tactics from another city or country are copied and pasted on top of different histories, different traumas and different issues. 

Rebecca Burrell: Most American cities are facing the same issues: staff in the sector don’t reflect the demographics of the community at large (and the problem is particularly ripe when you look at the demographics of organization leaders), there is a bias toward funding classical Eurocentric art and audiences are disproportionately white. We absolutely need data to know where we stand and how we’re moving the needle: What arts organizations are getting funding? Who is being hired by these organizations? Who are our artistic works reaching and how are they being engaged? Arts agencies in cities like Seattle and New York are collecting important data and setting really interesting policies to ensure that arts organizations observe equitable operations in order to receive funding. I hope they will increasingly become a model for other cities.

Yet, it’s a challenge to create a shared vision of diversity and inclusion in the arts in general when we aren’t all on the same page about what is the role of the arts field at large. Is it to build gleaming, untouchable institutions that preserve and protect historic art forms? Or is it to use the arts as a tool to engage, excite and catalyze community change? The vision of equity looks very different, depending on which camp you’re in, and I would argue that it’s primarily the latter vision that lends itself to sincere inclusivity. It’s about turning the arts into a two-way conversation, rather than a didactic experience, delivered by an expert to students. 

In my eyes, what’s at stake in this work is a couple of things. First, the sustainability of the nonprofit arts field at large. As generations turn over, young people will need to know why the arts are relevant to them. If we work together, we can create a vibrant and relevant and constantly changing field. We can also build practices and policies that do no less than reverse centuries of institutional racism. That means that those of us who work in the arts have nothing less than the power to transform our communities through our organizations. But it will take all of us to get there. We have to believe fully in engaging all members of our communities in all manner of creative experiences, and we have to roll up our sleeves to make that change.

ArtsATL: How has your approach to issues of cultural equity been shaped by your work with the Tucson Pima Arts Council? What are the distinct needs that should be addressed at the civic level when it comes to generating more prosperous conversations about belonging in the arts? How does a sense of place affect those conversations?

Bedoya: During my tenure at the Tucson Pima Arts Council (TPAC) the equity conversation has been informed by our local conditions — the border social/political controversies and the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords produce a community call for arts practices that address community concerns, a community need to feel connected, which lead to the development of the PLACE (People, Land, Art, Cultural and Engagement) Initiative a civic engagement and placemaking platform. The 79 projects to date funded by the PLACE Initiative have shaped Tucson’s civic landscape, the civic “we.” Through art practices and activities, they engage with folks’ social concerns, personal memories, cultural histories, imagination, and feelings to enliven a sense of “belonging” within the participants and audiences they reach. A belonging that animates the “we,” a “we” that is grounded in process rather than product. A “we” as in the secular “We the people” that included people you don’t know which is different than the “we” of me and my friends. What I’ve witnessed in PLACE projects is that the narrative of “we” is tethered to ethics, aesthetics and the social contract between artists, arts organizations and audiences.

ArtsATL: What drew you to an advanced degree in arts administration and how does your institutional affiliation at Rider University affect your goals as an arts advocate? What are the most challenging questions facing educators in the arts? Do you feel students becoming more invested in issues of cultural equity?

Heidelberg: While receiving my M.A. in Arts Policy and Administration, I realized that I loved policy and teaching. So I worked on a thesis in one area and decided to earn my Ph.D. so that I could teach in arts management. The field was/is experiencing a shift in who teaches in arts management. It used to be that all you needed was a Master’s degree and a lot of executive-level experience — this usually translates to older white males. As the field continues to diversify and professionalize, there are younger and more diverse people (women and people of color) pursuing Ph.D.’s in related fields so that they can teach in the academic setting. 

My institutional affiliation hasn’t really impacted my work and research in arts advocacy — I attribute that to academic freedom. I hope that doesn’t go away anytime soon (fingers crossed).

The biggest challenge for arts management educators is the fact that the field is changing, but ever so slowly. There is not a unified language within the field, we are still figuring out our intellectual canon. Other fields have already gone through these growing pains. Specific to our place in the academy is the difficulty of what counts toward tenure. Many in the field fail to earn tenure because the professional-work nature of arts management does not always align directly with research-based tenure criteria. We lack unified standards as a field for promotion and tenure, so people have few places to turn for advocates. Arts management academics also suffer from less than optimal relationships with practitioners. There is fault on both sides — sometimes academics get stuck in their towers and can be removed from the field and the shifts that occur; sometimes practitioners can suffer from the “I learned by the seat of my pants, so people don’t need no school learnin’ to do this job.” Both sentiments erode the necessary synergy between tower and field, and prevent the field from professionalizing. It’s an annoying shame. That said, there are some really great collaborations happening between academics and practitioners — and many academics, myself included, stay connected through consulting work and board work. There just needs to be more collaboration — people in the field hire our grads and many practitioners have or plan to adjunct in our programs. Academics need places for their interns, and we need practitioners to provide us with the data we need to help determine best practices and build the field — it would just be a lot more efficient if there was an assumption of collaboration across the field.

I have taught at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Undergraduate students appear, overall, interested and open to learning about cultural equity issues. I wish they knew more about these things heading into college, but I rarely run into aversion to learning about gentrification, cultural equity, social justice and ways in which history has shaped our current cultural contexts. The majority of graduate students come to their graduate programs interested in social justice and cultural equity — unfortunately, it’s arts management curricula and the lack of diversity in the classroom, including: students, faculty, administrators, reading assignments, guest speakers and course content that beat it out of students before they graduate. I’m glad to say that many press on and explore these issues in their capstone projects, theses and their work upon graduation.

ArtsATL: Portland seems to be an arts-friendly city, or at least an artist-friendly city full of unique, creative niches. How has the cultural environment in Portland shaped your work related to education, constituency-building, and leadership in the arts, for example with your former position at the Portland Regional Arts & Culture Council? What are the distinct needs of the communities in Portland around questions of cultural equity and what is at stake in those conversations?

Burrell: Portland is a really creative place, and it’s a city full of very thoughtful and well-meaning individuals who really love where they live. It’s also one of the whitest cities in America. While I attended one of those extra-progressive liberal arts colleges where I learned how to understand my own privilege as a white college-educated person, it’s particularly easy in this city to fall into a bubble where you simply rarely interact with people who don’t look like you or come from a similar background, so my equity lens admittedly got soft for a while. It’s a true privilege of a white person to avoid thinking about race. 

Portland had a mayor named Sam Adams from 2008-2012, who will likely go down in history as the greatest arts supporter to ever sit in that seat. He asked all of his bureaus — including the Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC), where I worked for over six years — to be accountable to equity issues throughout their work. This prompted a lot of white folks in Portland to start thinking about racial equity for the very first time and it moved our organization to think totally differently about how we operate on every level. Going through a series of equity trainings at RACC reignited a lot of my old thinking about white privilege, which translated to new practices in my work. Through my work in arts education, we’ve always thought carefully about what kids we’re reaching, but in the past few years, I’ve been thinking totally differently about internal structures — who we’re hiring, what kinds of volunteers we take on. I think a lot about the inherent power of building a staff team that has diverse backgrounds and perspectives. And I search to identify what biases that I carry with me that negatively impact my work or my interactions with people of color. I look for ways that I have benefited from the system as it exists, and sort out how has that system shut out others, and how those systemic barriers can be eradicated.

Fortunately, Portland is still small enough that there’s a lot of room to lead and room to play. I was able to help start an emerging arts leaders network for Portland (PEAL), at a time when L.A. and New York had already been running these networks for years. I think that has given me a personal sense of agency, which has translated directly to equity work. So, in addition to changing up my day-to-day operations, I’ve been able to work with a team at PEAL to host some of Portland’s first conversations about equity in the arts.

Related posts

86500