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 equal