Toward An Equitable Cultural Policy In 2017: What Seattle And Nashville Can Teach Other Cities

Melinda Weekes-Laidlow, a racial equity trainer with Race Forward, arranges sticky notes on a wall as she leads cultural advo
Melinda Weekes-Laidlow, a racial equity trainer with Race Forward, arranges sticky notes on a wall as she leads cultural advocates in a “gallery walk” exercise.

By Michele Kumi Baer

Several city governments have developed cultural policies in recent years, and New York City, the nation’s largest, is now busy preparing its first-ever cultural plan.

This is a big deal to the nonprofit cultural sector because it offers an opportunity for arts leaders and cultural workers to have official policy advance equity. New York’s plan – to be released this summer – follows Boston’s, which was revealed in 2016.

How do we get New York to deeply embrace the full meaning of cultural equity in this plan?

This is the question among funders at the New York City Cultural Agenda Fund in The New York Community Trust, where we seek to influence policy and advance equity in arts and culture. Our working definition of cultural equity is “fairness in opportunities for all cultural organizations, workers, and participants.” (By opportunity, we mean access to information, financial resources, or programming.)

At the Cultural Agenda Fund, the pursuit of cultural equity has meant working to ensure that small, community arts groups; groups led by African, Latinx, Asian, Arab, and Native American (ALAANA) people; and culturally and economically diverse artists are as valued for their contributions to the City’s cultural ecology as larger institutions. (Here, I use “Latinx,” which is the gender neutral alternative to “Latino,” and “Latina.”)

Last year, we hosted a gathering to bring together arts advocates, funders, nonprofit administrators, and policymakers to discuss research and policy. We also invited the leaders of municipal arts agencies in Seattle and Nashville to share their experiences managing programs aimed at advancing racial justice in their cultural sectors.

By providing examples of equitable cultural policy, we hoped to inspire local solutions for New York.

You can check out the full program video for more detail. Meanwhile, here are three lessons that can guide New York City policymakers in fully embracing equity.

1. Rethink how to give money to artists and cultural groups.

A refrain among many of the nonprofits we support is that New York City needs an alternative funding model for more fairness in resources distributed to historically marginalized groups, such as ALAANA, disabled, immigrant, and LGBTQ communities. We can learn from peers around the country like the Metro Nashville Arts Commission. It took advantage of a provision in the municipal purchasing code to purchase services of “entertainment acts” and thereby distribute funds to artists not registered as tax-exempt organizations. The resulting program removed the social, cultural, and economic barriers of a traditional grants application process. At the same time, it addressed needs that emerged in conversations with historically marginalized communities in Nashville.

2. Invest in cultural workers who understand, and work to promote, equity.

Seattle has supported opportunities for the larger sector—nonprofits, funders, and policymakers—to understand racism and how it affects cultural institutions and workers. They offer training tailored to the needs of various groups and provided opportunities for cultural workers to move from learning into action.

3. Frame equity as a strategic—not moral—imperative.

We learned that these policies are more effective when the goals of equity are presented in terms of strategic value. While moral appeals speak to our values and emotions, and motivate some people, these appeals aren’t very effective in promoting widespread shifts in behavior or policy.

We know that New York City’s cultural advocates seek equity. The cultural plan gives us all an opportunity: It can help ensure that groups led by and serving historically marginalized communities have an equitable share of the City’s resources.

Michele Kumi Baer is a program associate at The New York Community Trust, a leading community foundation. This article is adapted from a Philanthropy New York blog.