Increasingly, museums, theaters, and other cultural institutions across the US face growing critique from communities they aim to serve. The questions are wide-ranging, including what art is presented, by whom, and for what audience. Also being questioned are funding ecosystems that skew both public and private resources toward large, Eurocentric institutions while chronically underinvesting in organizations led by and serving people of color. Questions are being raised too about why art collections, artistic staff, and endowments often are prioritized over direct service to community, and why regional and national marketing to affluent audiences often gets more attention than addressing economic and social distress in the art institutions’ own neighborhoods.
For institutions that have historically enjoyed a certain level of prestige, these calls for reexamination of (and accountability for) their charitable purposes may be disorienting. For some, the impulse might be to retreat further, to protect their reputations and their leadership, to ride this out. But we hope this will be a time of honest soul-searching that will ultimately leave arts organizations far better positioned to fulfill their missions.
Arts and culture are not a monolith. There are countless arts organizations that directly invest in the social and economic priorities of the communities they serve—often doing so with fewer resources and against the tide of underinvestment. We write this article as a call for arts and cultural organizations to do more in the name of community justice, both by learning from the equity practices of others in the sector and by actively collaborating with (and financially compensating) these experts and catalysts. It’s a potential path forward for the arts and culture sector, not only to institute meaningful change, but to serve as a bulwark in uncertain times.
Understanding the Mantle of Arts and Cultural Organizations
Being is not doing. Arts and cultural organizations must offer more than their mere existence to transform their communities. As we have seen in far too many cities, the presence alone of arts and cultural organizations does not prevent the crumbling of local economies. Larger organizations, such as museums and orchestras, cannot afford to cast themselves as victims of economic downturns and compete for scarce funding solely on the basis of narrow notions of cultural value.
Arts and cultural organizations are uniquely positioned to build civic capacity for public discourse around controversial issues and difficult history. This recognition and call to action is not new; indeed, it’s in the very nature of cultural organizations to help people understand their world. In 2001, the American Association of Museums (AAM) established a Museums and Community Initiative to challenge museums to become more active, visible players in community life and “reinvigorate” their civic role. As Christopher Gates, former executive director of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE), reminds us, “by providing the means to preserve memory, sustain culture, and create identity, museums help equip us to understand each other and ourselves.” And it is this understanding that animates our efforts to strengthen democracy, promote civic engagement, and build community.1
As places of education, museums have the same obligation as other educational institutions to provide instruction and space for civic discourse.2 But they also enjoy a broader platform, and deeper history grappling with controversial topics, than many other arts institutions. Art has the ability to propel new ideas, cause us to question orthodoxies, and speak truth to power. For this reason, cultural institutions have often found themselves in the crosshairs of culture wars.
“Museums have the potential to be relevant, socially engaged spaces in our communities, acting as agents of positive change. Yet, too often, they strive to remain ‘above’ the political and social issues that affect our lives—embracing a myth of neutrality,” writes Museums Are Not Neutral co-founder Mike Murawski.
Museums and other large arts and cultural organizations can reinvent their spaces as civic hubs. During the 2020 presidential election, for example, numerous museums and performing arts centers across the country hosted voting sites in their lobbies, with some also offering curated exhibits to support the sense of civic duty. But they have the power to do even more. As Josephine Ramirez, executive vice president of The Music Center, a division of the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County, wrote in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, “Those of us who work in arts and culture are primary caretakers of an absolutely essential public value”—one that allows us to “deepen our ability to understand others unlike ourselves.”
A Framework for System Change
Cultural institutions’ assets make them uniquely situated to advance critical community dialogue. What stories they tell, who tells those stories, who is invited in and in what settings, what barriers to participation are either removed or left in place—all these programming choices position them to either be leaders in advancing community equity or to reinforce patterns of structural inequity. The artistic strategies of organizations, individually and collectively, have the power to drive real system change.
The ability of arts and cultural organizations to move systems does not, however, start and end with artistic assets. Operational assets can play an equally important role in advancing social and economic well-being. The Overlooked Anchors, published by the Kresge Foundation in 2019, provides a framework that looks at how to align operational assets with artistic assets in the areas of purchasing, hiring, workforce development, small business development, community capacity building, core products and services, and real estate development. But, as the report details, these methods work best when linked to deep resident engagement.
A key element of this framework is that it helps align mission and operations. It is built on a solid business case, not purely philanthropic motives. This makes the work essential and less likely to be subject to budget cuts. Organizations that view community revitalization as core to their overall mission (and realize the potential benefits to their own bottom line) can develop more robust, visionary strategies.
Revisit Your Organization’s Values
The concept of behaving as an anchor is gaining ground in the art world. However, value misalignment seems to limit meaningful action in many cases. Ironically, those more likely to self-define as anchors (e.g., large fine arts museums and large performance venues) are less likely, for example, to wield that power through local purchasing and hiring in ways that align with their missions. In contrast, many smaller and mid-sized arts and cultural organizations (e.g., Wing Luke Museum in Seattle and Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans) have different values that compel them to put the community first.
Organizations that recognize the role of arts and culture in responding to racialized harm set engaging in anchor strategies as an inherent baseline for their operations; no framework is needed to guide what they do. Their influence and community partnerships remove the barriers some larger arts and cultural organizations face in community engagement, and their participation in anchor collaboratives demonstrates an entry point for other organizations in the sector. For this reason, in the Overlooked Anchors report, they are identified as serving as potential “anchor catalysts.”
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Local and state art agencies and councils are grappling with how to establish more racially equitable public funding while also continuing to fund large art museums. For public organizations, a reinterpretation of values and mission should be easier. However, “excellence” must be viewed through a social justice lens. For example, instead of equating excellence with conventional high artistic standards, institutions could be more nuanced in their understanding of the possible value and impact of some art, and also start to hold themselves to higher standards of inclusion.
A focus on conventional “artistic excellence” perpetuates the status quo. Again, Ramirez is a useful source. As she observes, “The arts field has long exalted the artistic virtuosity of the few and deployed it for the relatively few more, who, most likely, are over 50, white, and have higher education degrees and greater income.”
Organizations that have changed their values and adopted inclusionary “mandates,” rather than staff doing the work on the sidelines, are beginning to find their way as institutions. If all arts and cultural organizations would follow this path, the benefits for local communities would be immense.
Investing in BIPOC Staff and Leaders
Changing US demographics, along with inclusive hiring practices, have led to increasing numbers of Black/Indigenous/People of Color (BIPOC) staff and leadership in arts and cultural organizations, but there’s still a long way to go. BIPOC staff have been leading the way internally in terms of institutional change for a very long time. Today, they also create larger movements, such as #MuseumsAreNotNeutral.
In Seattle, the Office of Arts and Culture in 2018 established the Build Arts Space Equitably (BASE) certification program. It brings together people of color (exclusively) from both the arts and culture and real estate sectors in cohorts to learn about cultural community organizing and commercial property development. The cohorts helped to shape the Cultural Space Agency, a public development authority that develops affordable arts and culture space in BIPOC communities.
Yet few white-led organizations recognize their BIPOC staff as important assets for system change. They are too often “hidden” across the organization in tenuous community affairs and service positions. Layoffs due to the pandemic have most likely impacted BIPOC staff disproportionately because they are overrepresented in such positions—even though these are the very people who could have helped institutions reckon with current social justice demands.
Empowered BIPOC leaders have begun reimagining and/or reinterpreting the mission and vision of their organizations. These promising leaders suggest what change might look like. At others, however, boards cling to “industry standards” that prevent BIPOC leaders from making the necessary changes in their organizations. When organizations struggle, the impulse is often to cling even more tightly to the status quo, and BIPOC leaders may find it difficult to get buy-in on radical moves and still keep their jobs.
Philanthropy must not decrease funding to these organizations just as BIPOC leaders are stepping into leadership roles. Moreover, funders need to foster the conditions that enable newly installed BIPOC leaders to act boldly and creatively.
In short, the onus for challenging structural racism and community inequities must not be borne solely by those who are most impacted by it. White leaders must invest time, energy, and resources in examining their internal and external institutional practices. Institutions helmed by both BIPOC and white leaders will benefit from prioritization of racial justice analysis and equity strategies across their institutions. Overlooked Anchors found that arts and cultural organizations with strong executive leadership, board buy-in, and direct mission focus on community outcomes were those that were best positioned to drive systemic change.
Arts and cultural organizations will always need to align with changing times. This ask itself is not new; what is new is the demand to rethink their very missions in light of the growing movement for racial and economic justice.
This requires arts institutions to take responsibility for the state of their local economies and the livelihoods of local residents beyond artists and cultural workers. It means actually creating equitable economic and social opportunity, instead of simply trying to broaden audience. It demands reckoning with the harm that the arts and culture sector has either ignored, reinforced, or provoked. The process can be unsettling, but if done earnestly and in active partnership with community, it is also an exciting opportunity to reassert arts and culture at the very center of advancing justice.
- Christopher T. Gates, “The Civic Landscape,” in Mastering Civic Engagement: A Challenge to Museums (2001). American Association of Museums (AAM). P. 28. The book reports on work done through the Museums and Community Initiative.
- Courtney Brouwer, “What is the Civic Mission…of Museums?“ Robert R. McCormick Foundation, August 3, 2011.