Building a Culturally Conscious Future for the Arts

It was my honor last week to attend the Turnaround Arts White House Talent Show which showcased the singing, dancing, playing of music, and performing of spoken word of young students from around the United States. The talent show is the result of a diverse group of artists committing their time to working with and mentoring students in low performing schools and illustrates the importance of having a full creative life. Many of the artists have seen the students that they work with make tremendous strides, growing personally and academically, and the schools themselves have achieved great success in just the few years since the program began.

Removing obstacles to access to a full creative life needs to be a core value for all arts organizations in 21st century America. This access is essential to a healthy and democratic society and without it we will fall short of upholding the full value of the arts in addressing and overcoming the many challenges we face as a nation.

The arts and artists have long played a critical and prominent role in confronting inequities and encouraging alternatives. They have empowered communities from within and built bridges among different ones. I had the opportunity to present and hear bassist, composer, and activist Marcus Shelby tell the history of Blues in America through storytelling and music. He began with Harriet Tubman and how she used the call and response, rhythms, and improvisation foundations of the music to lead slaves to freedom, and then he led into the stories of female Blues singers like Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nina Simone who used their music to expose what happened behind closed doors within their community and create open conversation for solution through song.

Today, Shelby uses the Blues to teach his students a sense of power, vision, cooperation, and self-expression, all important qualities in leading change. Another Blues artist well-known for cooperation and building bridges is the late B.B. King, whom we proudly honored at our National Arts Awards. Through his collaborations across genres, his music reached many millions throughout the world. In the United States, his music reached from the White House to the small clubs packed with people seeking relief from the very troubles he sang about.

The line between artists and activists is sometimes blurred. In the 25th anniversary year of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Temple University's Institute on Disabilities told the story of the Intellectual Disability Rights Movement in Pennsylvania through a multi-faceted production called A Fierce Kind of Love. The play, written by Obie-nominated theatre artist Suli Holum and directed by David Bradley, featured a cast that included actors with intellectual disabilities. Recognizing the importance of empowering the community that the very play represented and informing new audiences, the Institute also focused on community engagement and structuring productive dialogue around the production.

Americans for the Arts has worked with and learned from each of these artists and many more people both in the arts and non-arts sectors who, through the arts, empower themselves and their community and affect minds and hearts toward change.

This is one of the reasons that since its founding 56 years ago, the founders and leaders of Americans for the Arts have been committed to ensuring that every American has access to the arts and arts education. "All the arts, all the people" has been our steadfast declaration--a phrase about connection and the transformative power of the arts. But we also recognize that there are systems of power that grant privilege and access unequally such that inequity and injustice result, and that must be continuously addressed and changed.

This conversation is ongoing as times change, language shifts, and ideas evolve, and this sentiment compelled Americans for the Arts Board and staff to commit even more time and resources toward cultural equity. While our core belief that all people should have equal access to the arts has never wavered, the political, social, and economic circumstances in which we carry out our mission are constantly evolving and policies, support, and resources must evolve along with these.

This May, under the leadership of our Board Chair Abel Lopez and Margie Reese, chair of our diversity task force, our board renewed our commitment to access for all with the release of a new statement on cultural equity, created after surveying and speaking with more than 3,000 people on issues of cultural equity, and the engagement of more than 150 commentators including staff, Americans for the Arts members, Americans for the Arts advisory council members, stakeholders in the arts field, and partners in the nonprofit sector. The Statement was approved unanimously by our Board of Directors in April and like all such statements, it will continue to evolve and improve as long as inequities exist.

Our first formalized diversity statement was developed in 1988 and updated periodically until the most recent statement in 2006. But while the former documents acknowledged the value of diversity, they did not, in our opinion, include strong enough measures of accountability by which to benchmark our progress or success. By broadening our hiring practices, training staff, and bringing our organization's strengths to the arts field--including research, forums, strategic partnerships, and tools and resources--we embrace an ongoing conversation about why it's vital to enact policies and practices that represent everyone. Even as a national organization that holds this mission as core, we are constantly learning and making adjustments.

On several occasions, our Board member Floyd Green of Aetna has spoken about "cultural consciousness," a term that has resonated with many of us here at Americans for the Arts. It is an ongoing state of learning and openness through which we encounter different cultures and come together for an even richer cultural experience, with an increased appreciation for one another.

And it is this sense of cultural consciousness that embodies the work that Americans for the Arts has invested in cultural equity. As Edgar Smith, chairman and CEO of World Pac Paper, LLC and Business Committee for the Arts Executive Board Chair, said, "This statement is not just for today--it's for tomorrow." This work doesn't stop, and as we press on, we encourage the arts field to take a good hard look at their communities and join this conversation. Access to the arts takes many different forms, and I hope that we can continue to learn from one another in order to take purposeful strides forward. Let's make sure our field truly reflects the artistic and cultural richness of our country.