Tuesday, June 3, 2008

June 03, 2008

Barry's Blog - RACE & GENDER - Time for a New Look?

Hello everybody.

"And the beat goes on....................."

Like many of you I have been following the ups and downs of the Democratic Presidential race, including the issues of race and gender – both the insightful and carefully thought out comments on these issues, as well as the mindless, and at times, offensive rhetoric that has also been heard.

Barack Obama's nomination is an historic milestone in our country's history and shows that we have come a long way in terms of equality of opportunity. As is Hillary Clinton's extraordinary support. We have a long ways to go to be sure, and it remains, of course, to see what the future holds, but I think this nomination is something of which the country can take pride irrespective of November's election. Perhaps not yet the promised land Martin Luther King dreamt about, but another step up the mountain.

Change seems to always be about taking one step after another.

Because race and gender are increasingly prevalent on the media radar screens (unfortunately, as often as not, for all the wrong reasons), I wonder if this isn’t a good time to see if there aren’t some issues attendant to those broad topics that our sector should take another look at.

While much of the thinking in America still sees race and gender issues (at least in politics) as a potential, if not real, problem ---in the arts sector, I believe we have long thought of the diversity of race and gender as an asset.

So this blog is devoted to asking some questions of ourselves about what race and gender issues (as the same may apply to our field) might deserve more attention. I think there are three areas that might benefit from an examination: Art and Artists, Access and Audiences, and Administration (or Leadership).

Let’s take the RACE issue first, and by race, we are talking about what our sector calls multicultural diversity.

Art and Artists
I think there has been a long period of basic consensus in our field that it is critical to the health of a vibrant arts & culture sector to promote, nourish, and sustain the continuing growth of a wide and deep multicultural arts component as part of the totality of what we offer to America. In California, for example, every culture on the planet is represented as part of the population, and each of those cultures has its own individual artistic heritage and legacy as currently practiced to contribute to the whole. Elsewhere across the country, we are as diverse a society as anywhere on the planet, and it seems to me there is near unanimity that we all benefit enormously from every single culture being represented as part of our arts and culture future.

The first question that occurs to me is: “How are we doing in terms of supporting and facilitating the growth and health of that diversity?” When I was Director of the California Arts Council and the agency had a relatively healthy budget, when the Governor and Legislature were both supportive of insuring that we provided direct support for multicultural organizations, we had programs that did just that. We not only supported multicultural arts organizations as a separate category deserving of special attention, we tried to be directly supportive of multicultural artists, and of the various parts of the whole of multicultural arts – including Latino, African-American, Asian Pacific Islander and Native American arts so that each constituency would have a seat at the table and an umbrella service organization to represent their interests as sub-sections of the larger whole. We thought there were a host of reasons why it was important to do whatever was possible to nurture and nourish the growth of multicultural arts. I believe that same feeling was echoed by virtually every state agency across America.

Now, of course, California is entering the fourth or fifth year of virtually no real per capita state support (California continues, alas, to rank dead last), and much of the money that previously specifically supported multicultural arts organization growth no longer exists. I am sure many of the foundations that have at least tried to take up some of that slack, together with most of the municipal agencies – cities and counties that have maintained grant programs for diversity – continue to recognize and champion support for multicultural arts organization growth, health and survival. But is it enough? We continue to grow, the economy shrinks – are the multicultural arts communities growing, shrinking, or simply holding their own? Are the needs that were previously identified and acknowledged being met? Are there new and different needs that have arisen? Are those being met? Can we meet old or new needs in the current climate?

I don’t think we know. There has been no statewide attempt (or national that I know of) that has tried to take a look at multicultural arts provision of late – to even map what exists in 2008, and to compare what exists today with what existed five years (ten years) ago as a means to assess where we stand, what has been or is being lost, where the growth has been, what is needed to address various old and new challenges and obstacles, and to take advantage of current or coming opportunities. We haven’t any basis or study to analyze the health of this part of our sector at all really. I think we need more research and data – both for practical reasons and to help us make new arguments for new support.

In California, I suspect that the lack of state funding, coupled with the collapse of the economy, and rising fuel costs and the impact of fuel costs on inflation, has hit the multicultural arts sector particularly hard. I know too that foundations have been aware of this fact and have tried to address the needs of the multicultural community, and with encouraging success, but I suspect it isn’t really enough. So what has been the impact? Where do we stand? What is needed? And how can we address the issues – of both multicultural organizations and individual artists?

Having been in the proverbial political hot seat at one time, I acknowledge the argument that all boats must rise and that we must address and protect all sectors of the arts universe, but I think there are compelling reasons why we must make sure that the growth, capacity and stability in the multicultural arts field that we collectively worked so hard to establish and promote over a decade or longer, doesn’t now recede so that we lose a lot of the ground we had won.

While race may yet divide us politically (and one hopes to the smallest possible extent at this point in our existence), I believe most of us believe race and diversity in the arts & culture sector can unite us and make each of the other sub-parts that much more vibrant and alive. Though I know there isn’t unanimity on the proposition that individual arts organization territoriality and the “what’s in it for me” attitude really doesn’t serve us well, I think here in California (and elsewhere) we made great inroads into thinking of ourselves as a “community”. I suspect that many multicultural arts organizations and even individual artists are feeling the pinch particularly hard right now – though I accept and acknowledge that belt tightening and downsizing and other unpleasant decisions are facing everyone in the arts.

Access and Audiences:
One of the real issues for the multicultural wing of the arts & culture sector is, of course, access to the arts and development of their audiences (both within the individual cultures and across the wider culture).

I wonder how they are faring on this plane? Are multicultural arts organizations and the artists they serve making progress or falling behind in their attempt to increase public access to their art, to widening and deeping their audiences – both from within their own communities and the crossover to other cultures and other communities? Do we know?

Certainly economic considerations, leisure time availability, competition in the marketplace, and other factors play within the multicultural communities as they do in the wider community as a whole. Everything from ticket prices to program content to marketing and media management are all issues that affect and impact the success of any arts organization or individual artist in making their art more accessible, and expanding their potential and real audiences. Everyone is trying to cast a wider net, with mixed results. Tourism is actually up and so, I think, is the public’s positive feeling towards the performing and exhibition arts. If there has been some contraction in the overall efforts of the arts in audience expansion, because of obstacles and barriers - new and old - has it hit the multicultural arts communities harder or substantially the same? Do we know? Would it be helpful it we did know?

I do wonder to what purpose some of the new and increased arts education money might ultimately help to foster and promote both multicultural arts understanding and appreciation, new creativity, access and future audience development, and hope that those goals might benefit at least in part from the arts education expenditures in the future, (though I do also recognize that even though $105 million – the California arts education allocation - sounds like a lot – it is but a miniscule drop in the bucket given the size of California’s school population, and the recent history of treating arts education as an unnecessary luxury, the first of the so called electives to get the ax in tough times, and the fact that schools across the state have the most basic of needs – teachers, supplies, instruments, space and time – all essential to get arts education provision anywhere near where it ought to be.

Then there is the question of leadership. Within the whole of the arts sector we have a multitude of issues to face on this issue: how to provide competitive compensation; how to manage training and technical assistance provision so as to facilitate on-going learning with the goal of our administrators becoming better managers; generational succession issues; recruitment and retention of the best candidates we can attract; time management (far too many things to do in the course of a day than there is time for); protecting the institutional memory of so many people leaving the field or likely to leave in the next decade, to name but a few. How do all of these and all the other issues of professional, effective arts administration differ (if at all) for multicultural arts organizations? What special challenges and needs do multicultural organizations have that ought to be addressed? And, of course, can any such needs be addressed in our current situation?

Clearly, the future of protecting and expanding multicultural arts and all that might mean to our society’s future, lies largely in the hands of the leadership of the multicultural arts sectors themselves. But, what are we doing to make sure we provide every advantage to that sector so that it can provide leadership within its community?

Of course, many might argue that the needs of the multicultural arts communities are no different than the whole (or any other sector of the whole) of the arts & culture community – and that as we identify the needs of the whole, and prioritize them, addressing those priorities benefits everyone. I agree. But I would also argue that there is a fragility to certain aspects of multicultural arts provision that demands and deserves (in all our best interests) some special attention particularly in the tougher times.

Let’s move on to GENDER as the second issue:

Art and Artists
I don’t think gender is really an issue here. I think we have relatively equal opportunity for both men and women to be artists. Creativity is largely, in the arts sector anyway, gender blind. I suppose there might still be some general bias within the education system that continues to teach young girls that they have limitations boys don’t – but I think (and hope) that we continue to make progress in finally getting rid of that dangerous, stupid admonition.

Access and Audiences:
Here too I think Gender is less of a challenge than multiculturalism and race. By and large women have as equal (or even greater) access to arts, and to being artists, as do men. Our audiences – from dance and theater and music to museums and film - have as many women in the seats as men (perhaps even more – and maybe the Gender issue here is even how to involve more men and boys).

It is in the area of Arts Administration and Leadership where I think Gender raises issues that we ought to address.

Though I don’t know for sure, observation suggests to me that there are probably more women running arts organizations than men, more women on staffs, but with more men running the very biggest cultural organizations. I’m not sure if that holds true in the multicultural arts organizations, but I think it probably does. In part, of course, this is a legacy from our past when the arts weren’t considered important enough for men to devote careers in the field, and the pay was so low that it discouraged breadwinners from looking to it as a steady source of income. Of course much of that reality has, or is, changing – though still, unfortunately, not completely. The arts are an industry attracting talented, smart people of both sexes from all backgrounds; everybody is a breadwinner today by necessity; and the pay is getting better (though, I think, not yet actually competitive).

Again, I don’t know, but I suspect women are paid less than their male counterparts even in our sector – at least at certain levels and in certain places - both horizontally and vertically within an organization and within the field as a whole. I know for a fact, based on the ongoing Youth Involvement Study I am doing with the Hewlett Foundation, that there is a current (and growing - due to the failing economy) problem with mid-level, mid-career women arts administrators who simply cannot afford to stay in the field and are opting out for higher paying jobs either in other sectors of the nonprofit universe or in the private sector. With increasing inflation, kids reaching college age and the looming expense of providing higher education, and even future retirement needs greater now than they were in the past, more and more women who would like to continue to pursue arts administration as a career path can no longer afford to do so. Is that or will that be true for men too? What do we do? Having mid-level management exit the field is a potentially huge problem -- for those are the leaders we have been cultivating to assume the helm of our organizations.

To what extent is there a glass ceiling still in place in our industry? While there are women in all kinds of leadership positions within our field, is it the norm at the highest levels? Certainly well qualified women lead many major institutions, head foundation programs, occupy government seats of power, run boards of directors and come from all areas of the private sector. But is there still any remainder of inequality in our field? I’m just asking? I don’t know. But I do know that we ought to know answers to these and other questions raised herein and lying out there. Because we need the answers to questions like these if we are to make intelligent choices in terms of what strategies we embrace to address our challenges.

Fortunately, the arts & culture universe has come a long way towards establishing a level playing field based on gender. Perhaps more so than on race – but that may be true across our whole society. What are the special Gender issues for the arts & culture nonprofit universe? And what might we do to address issues that arise? These are just questions for us to consider and not ignore.

Considering race and gender – multicultural arts provision and the challenges facing women in arts administration as part of addressing all of the needs of our sector - points to the crushing need we have for an overall arts & culture sector public policy in these and other areas.

We don’t have a single, consensus based, comprehensive, well thought out, strategic public policy for arts & culture in this country. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised – we don’t have a real foreign policy, we certainly don’t have an energy policy, we don’t have a comprehensive ecological policy – we pretty don’t have any consensus, overarching policies to deal with all of the challenges, obstacles, barriers, opportunities and possibilities for our country’s future. I would think we in the arts & culture sector could do better in this area.

Somebody ought to convene a national conference with a representative sampling of our leadership (not all the big name, important people that tangentially touch our field but who are really academicians, celebrities, business leaders etc., and not just the name recognition national leaders either (although them for sure)-- but also the average, common “in-the-trenches” typical arts organization leadership too (at least for the first go round) and begin to hammer out a comprehensive, well thought out, overarching national arts & culture public policy that addresses issues from multicultural arts provision, to gender participation; from arts education, to audience and access development; from funding, to government support; from economic development to international cooperation and collaboration; from leadership issues to business coalitions; from media coverage and so on and so on. And the process ought to somehow involve the whole of the field. It might take two or even three years to complete, and, of necessity, this must be a recurring event, because no policy, however arrived at, will be on point and relevant over a long period. Changes in circumstances dictate that public polices in any sector need on-going revision and updating.

I know there have been some very worthwhile and meaningful efforts towards this goal in the past – both localized and more far reaching; from valuable Manifestos to smaller Strategic Plans. This isn’t a new idea – and all those efforts that have already come should be used as a foundation on which to build. But I think a truly national all-inclusive policy – comprehensive (but not so bogged down in minutia and petty detail as to be crippling and exhaustive) and one that was specific, would help us to make our case better to all those to whom we wish to make our case, would garner us more public support and media attention, and provide critically needed guidelines and blueprints so that we were all of the same mind, all on the same page, about what we believed was important, necessary, immediate - and would underpin our actions and words. I think this is just another element in efforts to galvanize the arts as a community – a goal that still seems too elusive for our field. I think we continue to pay the price for not being a cohesive, united force. We continue to move in that direction, but still, too often, we go our own way and think our own self-interest trumps the good for the whole of us. I think, to the degree that attitude continues, we are harmed by failing to harness the power we have together - particularly in comparison and competition with other sectors that have put away some of their self-interest to act in concert.

Race and Gender are two subjects. How are we doing in those two areas? Is it time to take another hard look? Doubtless there are countless other subjects to examine as well. I know there is little money or time to support continuous research, data collection and analysis and planning - but it is expensive and time-consuming NOT to engage in those activities too.

I hope somebody gets us to the point of a national Arts Policy someday. I know a lot of people have been talking about it for years. We can, and should, develop mechanisms for real public policy formulation – dialogue and debate that deals across the board with the critical issues of the arts and which involves everyone. Just the process would reap enormous benefits.

And we should at least begin to get a better picture than we have now about the current status of multicultural arts provision and the challenges facing women in our leadership model.

Just my opinion anyway.

On another topic having absolutely nothing to do with anything really, I just can't help but comment on something not so important perhaps, but that strikes me anyway.

All during the contentious contest between Senators Obama and Clinton, there has been both threat and fear that the supporters of one would not support the other. Party stalwarts, fearing such an eventuality, have as staunchly and frequently as they could reassured the media and the public that on the contrary, given what is at stake in November, the party would unify behind its nominee. I think that's right, they likely will.

But the media in wanting to reduce this entire subject to a sound bite, as only the media can, began early trumpeting such unification as: "Oh yea, and everyone will sing "Kumbaya"- thereby trivializing not only the issue but, and I find this insulting, the song too.

I remember first hearing the song sung by Joan Baez at a concert in Berkeley when I was a sophmore in the 60's. And, like millions of my generation at the time, found the song hauntingly beautiful. It became one of the anthems of the 60's and the civil rights movement and the protest against the war in Vietnam. And now it is in danger of becoming the equivalent of some b.s. kind of touchy feely thing.
According to Wikipedia - which Gore Vidal insists is 100% wrong on everything, 100% of the time, the origin of the song is either a reverend in Oregon in the 1930's or it has African slave and even Arabic antecedents that go farther back. No matter, it is a song about the common shared plight of man, it is a song of all of us in it together and it is a quite beautiful song.

I hate that the media is making it synonymous with sappyness.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.