Commentary: Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts
I wrote this already. I put a thoughtful piece together as the President and CEO of SA2020. And, quite frankly, I forgot to talk as a human being who is navigating a difficult topic with other human beings, so I started again.
Here’s the deal…community engagement is hard. Navigating from a space of simply informing people to actually connecting, involving, and collaborating with them…? Seriously. It’s difficult work.
Now…add in the topic of diversity and inclusion and ask people to participate in solutions…when they feel invisible or unheard or accused or that there’s not seat at the table for them. Almost impossible.
When the conversation turns difficult, it is incumbent upon us – as human beings who occupy the same space – to wade through the muck and be honest and candid and open and transparent.
So…here it is…I’m biased. There. I said it.
I believe arts can change the world.
I believe artists – creative people, generally – look at challenges and provide solutions that come from looking at the world differently. They share stories and navigate difficult spaces and provide a glimpse into the dark and shady areas. Artists provoke and question.
I grew up in theatre. On a daily basis, I am grateful for the ways in which theatre prepared me for my current job. Because of theatre, I am able to listen and pivot. Because of theatre, I am able to look at the big picture, for what is a stage production but multiple facets – lights, sound, actors, set – working together. Most importantly, theatre prepared me for “yes, and” conversations rather than “either/or” dichotomies. I don’t know that I would call myself an “artist” – that feels mighty fancy – but I know theatre.
It is because of this, quite frankly, that I jumped in head first on this panel discussion about diversity and inclusion in the arts. Let me set the stage. (See what I did there?)
It is my job to look at our community’s progress towards the shared vision we created in 2010 and 2011 in eleven areas and identify gaps and potential interventions. What I have witnessed over the course of the last couple of years is that in the more complex areas – education and poverty, for example – we’re not seeing movement in the ways that we need to in order to reach our collective goals. Our community is growing exponentially – expected to double in size by the year 2040 – and income disparity in San Antonio is real. If we want opportunity and access for everyone – as we all said we did – we have to be willing to talk about how we are absolutely not there yet and work together to make real change happen..
There are so many facets that contribute to or hinder our community’s most complex issues, and while SA2020 shares the progress on 59 community indicators, we aren’t tracking everything. We track what the community prioritized.
A few months ago, I met Kiran Bains – after several people were like, “You need to meet her.” She had recently been hired to lead the City’s newly formed Diversity and Inclusion Office. We had coffee and talked about how many community challenges needed an inclusion lens – creating access to decision-making and resources. I immediately enjoyed her. Here was this person who was charged with having difficult conversations every day, and I thought how great it would be if SA2020 – the nonprofit organization charged with being a catalyst for our community’s vision for the future – could have more of these conversations. Would it solve everything? Absolutely not. But maybe it would give us all a shared starting point – a foundation for understanding and mutual respect.
In late January, the brand new Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center opened, and the community got its first glimpse of “Liquid Crystal,” a public art piece with a price tag of $1 million. This sparked a community conversation on public art, access, and transparency. In early February, I served on a panel at Councilman Treviño’s Coffee with the Councilman to talk about these very issues. It was well attended, and the people in the audience – mostly artists – offered up such amazing solutions to making public art more accessible and a part of our every day lives, including inviting artists to city planning discussions. I left inspired.
Then, City leaders began discussing a potential revision to our public art funding, and I wanted to pay close attention as the 2017 bond election grew nearer, and the city’s 2017 fiscal year budget came before council. Again, I believe art is the very fabric of any city – a city’s art tells its story – but particularly in San Antonio, our history is steeped in art and culture.
Shortly thereafter, I woke up one morning, and my Facebook feed was filled with news about how the Contemporary Arts Month (CAM) perennial, historically held at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center (GCAC), was cancelled. And, man, the ensuing commentary was difficult. It was clear that there were some deep-seeded issues, but also, I felt this was an opportunity for our community to learn from artists, who are natural creative problem solvers. I saw that CAM was interested in doing a panel discussion about what transpired in the place of the perennial – which I thought was a great idea – so because of my position with SA2020 and because of my personal interest in the arts, I reached out.
“Can SA2020 – a neutral community organization who understands the importance of arts – help frame a conversation that will allow us to dive deeper into the heart of this issue?”
I met with Nina, Chris, and Orlando from CAM (an all-volunteer organization I soon found out) in mid-February. The very next week, I met with Jerry from GCAC. And in both meetings, everyone felt strongly that this particular instance could lead to an even broader conversation about arts, inclusion, and the need for solutions. I reached out to Kiran because of her background and our original conversations. And we all agreed to partner – mostly because we keep having similar conversations in our community, so why not work together and use our collective partnership to shine an even brighter light on it.
I cannot speak for the rest of the partners or panelists, I can only speak for me, and I believe in the power of the collective. It’s why I do the work that I do.
In 2010 & 2011, a pretty giant group of local artists showed up to the public SA2020 meetings in an effort to make sure that “Arts and Culture” ended up as one of the community’s vision areas. The vision statement we all agreed upon at that time was:
In 2020, San Antonio leads the world as a creative community.
San Antonio reflects a diverse range of artistic expression that
builds on our rich cultural heritage. The arts are integral to our
way of life for citizens of all ages and backgrounds. Public and
private support spurs a renaissance of artistic creativity where
a vibrant cultural economy flourishes. Contemporary art reflects
the dynamic nature of San Antonio’s artistic, literary and cultural
communities and movements.
In a time when diversity and inclusion has come to the fore, and arts funding is being debated, I am certain that artists – the very storytellers of our community – can create solutions. This, for me, is one conversation of many. It is, I hope, a way that we – a community who is invested in making arts “integral to our way of life” – can provide real solutions for inclusion in institutions, policy, and funding. It is one opportunity of many to talk about real issues and problem solve together. It is literally what SA2020 was built on, and it is, quite frankly, what artists do. I also believe that as we problem solve inclusion in the arts in our community, we can use this as a means by which to jumpstart an even broader community conversation about inclusion generally.
In early March, representatives from CAM and GCAC and I, finalized the event, including selecting panelists. The panelists we selected had very specific perspectives, and we hoped this would start everyone on the same page before moving into a conversation with those in attendance.
Kiran, a San Antonio native, brings a global perspective to diversity and inclusion, having worked in peace-building in Bangladesh, India, Uganda, Kenya, and Ghana. The rest of the panelists, who work in visual artists because March is Contemporary Arts Month, were chosen based on the following reasons:
Veronique Le Melle recently joined Artpace. She brings the perspective of a newcomer to the San Antonio arts scene, as well as a background in other arts communities. Jon Hinojosa brings the perspective of modeling inclusion and access for our next generation’s creative leaders as the founder and leader of SAYSí. Cruz Ortiz brings the perspective of a current artist who has shown his work in and out of San Antonio and can speak to inclusion in selection.
I was asked to reach out to each and invite them to participate. With the exception of Veronique, I know each of them well. I was also identified as the moderator because of my role at SA2020 – an organization built on engaging the community in data-driven solutions.
Potential questions so far include topics that range from defining “diversity” (which we’re also going to be asking the audience to do), examples of policies and practices that help make cultural institutions more inclusive, modeling inclusion, and artist selection.
These overarching perspectives will set the stage for what is the most important part of this event: the community conversation on solutions for San Antonio’s arts community. Everyone there will bring different experiences and perspectives, and it is in these conversations that we, as a community invested in arts, will learn from each other. The question is: how can you – as an individual – help make our arts community more diverse and inclusive? But further, what areas do you see where we can make incremental change happen – funding (both public and private), artistic selection, policy?
Maybe I’m completely Pollyanna-ing this (that’s a thing, right?), but I believe that we can move this conversation from “this is what’s wrong” to “this is how we can work together to make it right.” Because, again, I believe in the collective.
We are navigating difficult waters. I get that. Not everything will be solved after one conversation. This isn’t even a new conversation in San Antonio. We all know that. There are many who have been beating this drum for years – not just in arts, but in the community as a whole.
As a supporter of our arts community, and as the leader of SA2020, I stand firm in making sure these solutions are shared and listened to and challenged and evaluated. It is absolutely time to make equity and access a thing we not only talk about, but actually support and make happen.
If there is a group that can develop real solutions, it’s artists. I wholeheartedly believe that. I am so incredibly grateful to the leadership of CAM and GCAC for willing to do this together. And I am so thankful for the panelists for willing to rock an uncomfortable conversation. I ask you to join us at the event on March 29 with your experiences and solutions, so that we can continue building and moving forward.