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The Embedded and The Revealed

I've begun to see our perceptual capacities as a kind of funhouse (only not always so much fun). Our paths to clear sight are blocked here by obstacles, there by distorting mirrors. It's easiest to spot the places a fellow-traveler has been tricked into thinking a mirror is a window; and hardest when we find ourselves walking smack into a wall, serenely confident until the last second that we were approaching a portal.

Now comes Michael Kaiser, President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC (which makes it more or less the nation's flagship performing arts institution). He has published a brief essay, "Questions on Diversity" on the Huffington Post. It is sincere, positive in intention, and pockmarked with as many embedded assumptions as a never-plowed field has boulders. Read it, and we'll take a funhouse tour together.

First Stop: "Diversity." Webster's synonym is "variety," but when the term "diversity" is used in nonprofit arts circles, it is a euphemism with highly specific meaning: Predominantly white arts organizations should have people of color on the staffs, boards, walls and stages to show that they include and respect everyone. No one is out there urging organizations grounded in Latino or African American communities to put Italians and Irish and Asians on their boards, because it isn't actually about diversity per se. It's about addressing the white privilege and racism that have funneled the lion's share of U.S. arts funding to institutions led almost entirely by white people, especially those with red carpets and marble halls.

Thinking beyond embedded assumptions, there would be many ways to address this: for instance, use public funding to addresses private-sector imbalances in cultural development, so as to bring about "cultural equity," a much more forthright and useful concept. If funding is limited, redirect it from the wealthiest organizations to those having less access to private wealth. "Diversity" seeks a way to address that problem without naming racism or privilege, and without changing the distribution of resources significantly. Implicit in Michael Kaiser's HuffPost column is that this hasn't done much to change things for the better. How could it?

Second stop: "Representation" Kaiser writes that "when a single minority is placed on a board with no responsibility other than to represent a race, it does nothing to change the true mission, or audience base, of the organization." True enough, but what about the embedded assumption? The idea of any individual representing a race is grotesque, but it becomes even more so when you consider that the white people who serve on those boards are not seen as representing anyone other than themselves, despite the common expectation that every utterance by a person of color in such a position speaks for thousands (if not millions).

I have been many times in the company of groups with this embedded expectation. If there are two, for instance, Native Americans on the board, and they happen to disagree on something, a fellow board member not burdened by the expectation of representation will be sure to say, "Can't they get their ducks in line?" Since white board members are free to disagree in any and all ways, this merely compounds the grotesquery.

Asking people to represent a race is a sad story in so many ways. At the end of his life, the brilliant thinker and great leader W.E.B. DuBois said that his lasting regret was that he had so much to contribute to society, yet was only asked to comment when the topic was "the Negro question." If you haven't been placed in that category, stop for a moment to think how it feels: the whole room turns to you with typical eager anxiety and asks, "How do white people feel about that?" That this would probably be taken as a joke (or at least an absurdity) is an indication of how firmly this boulder of unexamined assumption is lodged in so many minds.

Third Stop: "Great organizations, excellent work." Kaiser writes that his own "work has focused on teaching leaders of diverse arts organizations to find the resources needed to be strong advocates for and producers of the work of their communities," because he "would prefer to see great African American, Asian American, Latino and Native American arts organizations whose excellent work complements the excellent work of the large white groups."

Two assumptions are embedded in this pedagogic approach. The first is that there are tricks and techniques that, once imparted, will free up resources—and it's true that merely to ante into the fundraising game, you have to know how to craft a budget and proposal, take a meeting, sell your vision.

Of course, it's a social good to help spread fundraising skills. But a little realism would help. The vast majority of funding requests in the arts—whether to government, foundations, or individuals—are rejected. (Those who share this information typically tell us that ten or more are received for every one that is approved.) For multiple reasons (I've been writing and speaking lately about the smallness of vision that keeps the arts marginal, for instance), the available funds are severely limited. So in every funding sphere, a large number of perfectly worthy and well-prepared pitches will fail to hit the mark.

The second assumption is that organizations grounded in communities of color will attract private patrons once their leaders know the fundraising ropes. To understand the distortion here, you have to scrutinize how and why people contribute private wealth to arts organizations. By looking at who gives, how, and where, it's easy to spot the through-lines: most people give significantly when it feels good to associate themselves with the social or cultural meanings of an institution, with the others who patronize the institution, with the institution's charismatic leaders, and/or with the visions of themselves conferred by adopting the status of patron. Most are more inclined to give when the risk of being associated with public failure, risk or embarrassment is small. (I'd like to add that most give when they love the organization's work, but I've met a significant number of major patrons who were indifferent or hostile on that score, so I'll just say "many.") All giving entails altruism, but a great many other factors shape choices about where, what and how to give.

Michael Kaiser distinguished himself by serving as Executive Director of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater—a massive organization on the conventional dance company model—receiving credit for a turnaround that erased its deficit. His role was widely, and perhaps accurately, characterized as "saving the institution."

Does it really need saying that it isn't enhanced arts management techniques that turn such things around (although they can help), but the fact that someone with the requisite funding relationships, someone who fairly exudes the qualities major donors need to feel secure and valued, takes the organizational helm? Established patterns of giving and clearly demarcated comfort zones show us why the organizations led by people of color that have attracted the most private wealth are those that most resemble their white counterparts in scale, form and intent: major dance companies structured along conventional lines, museums, and so on. And the ones that do the very best have champions like Michael Kaiser.

Final Stop: "More discussion." Kaiser ends his piece with this sensible statement: "I am not certain I am right. We need more discussion." I agree. And it has to start with dislodging a few more boulders. There is a danger that major institution leaders will read Kaiser's piece as something I do not think he intended: license to forget about the cultural politics of race and heritage (and gender, which he doesn't mention but which is just as much an issue) and just get on with programs and ways of operating that implicitly assert the superiority of certain Euro-American cultural traditions.

This fear is historically based. The flagship white institutions were formed by the convergence of many impulses, but one of them was elitist to the core. Henry Lee Higginson, 19th century founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, raised initial funds by exhorting fellow plutocrats to “Educate, and save ourselves and our families and our money from the mobs!”

Almost no one talks like this anymore, but if you have ever been in a room of anxious advocates for such institutions, you will be offered all the dog-whistle speech you can consume—often, without the least awareness of its embedded meanings. Recently, in one such room, it was stated to me in this way: "“The major institutions are about artistic excellence, and the smaller community-based groups are about participation.” In truth, of course, each is about both excellence and participation. Each defines these aims in its own way. And each, given the crooked timber of humanity and any standard of judgment you care to choose (from critical reviews to audience response to the creators' own self-evaluation), achieves them only part of the time.

You can't pretend this giant boulder isn't embedded right in the pathway to equity. The moment has to come when more people say, "You know, that boulder is getting in the way. Let's move it." Awareness, acknowledgement and action are always needed to clear the path to change.

Instead of big generalizations about "diversity," break it down. On account of their size, their funding sources and their role in the nation's cultural life, public and quasi-public institutions like the Kennedy Center have a duty and opportunity to reflect the remarkable multiplicity of our collective cultural landscape. They can do it by involving leaders of vision and social imagination, which will automatically entail a variety of complexions and heritages, respecting each person's freedom to represent oneself as one sees fit. They can do it by choosing the most creative repertoire, without constraint; by creating partnerships of equality and reciprocity with organizations very different from their own; by sharing their own resources with other groups possessing surplus creative brilliance but lacking access to money. And I have named only a few of the available possibilities.

But here is the thing I would most like to see: Leaders of historically white institutions standing up to speak out for artists and organizations rooted in communities of color whose work does not closely resemble theirs in institutional form, culture or artistic approach. I would like to hear this statement from the head of a major ballet or opera company, speaking to Congress or from the dais at an arts conference:

"In times such as these, I am worried about our own budget. We are facing cuts and layoffs, like almost every nonprofit organization. But culture is an eco-system, depending for its health on the well-being of individual artists, on communities' ability to sustain participation in the informal arts, and on countless small and mid-sized community-based organizations helping to create beauty and meaning. Many of these are based in low-income communities and communities of color, hardest-hit by the economic downturn and its aftermath.

"In fairness, in recognition of the arts ecology, this it not a time to withhold resources. Please channel as much support as you can to these worthy groups, most of which lack the access and connections available to my institution, even though they share our commitment to excellence."

I am not holding my breath. But I am ready, willing and eager to be surprised.

Click on Art & The Public Purpose: A New Framework to read and endorse an exciting new proposal for investment in art's public purpose.

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Thought provoking piece, Arlene.

On a complex issue.