Op-Ed: An Unspoken Threat to Equity Work in Arts & Culture: A Devotion to Cultural Hierarchies
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Culture is a concept founded on an abundance of meanings and frameworks used to understand human activity. At the most fundamental level, culture relays people's specific ways of life by representing the full range of learned human behavior patterns that hold up our societies. Art is, therefore, an extension of the culture surrounding us and materializes our relationship to it. How dominant cultures decide what is considered art or what is worthy of being uplifted reveals the Cultures we value and the hierarchies that dominate our cultural landscapes.
As cultural institutions in the social impact sector increasingly attempt to represent a changing society by diversifying their collections, programs, staff, and boards, they are also wrestling with internalized beliefs on what they value culturally and artistically. Equitable investments in arts and culture require us to be honest about our values, including those that guide our institutions and uphold existing Cultural Hierarchies.
By holding these observations close, we can pose questions to help funding institutions do the deep equity work they are increasingly committed to. What can we learn about the Cultural Institutions that define us? How can we interrupt the conscious and unconscious beliefs that influence decision-making habits? And how can we disrupt notions of superiority if we are committed to the power of Arts & Culture in our lives?
Our Cultural Institutions keep unspoken Cultural Hierarchies alive.
Informed by Western and Northern European Values of the late nineteenth century, American society began to develop a Cultural identity that defined and distinguished culture vertically. Lawrence W Levine historically assessed this form of categorizing as Cultural Hierarchies, where culture and art forms fit neatly within the beliefs of a homogenous society. Terms like "Highbrow" and "lowbrow" were used to describe intellectual or aesthetic superiority and someone or something lacking in intellect or refinement. "Rude," "legitimate," "lesser," and "pure" are but a few descriptors that would have been used culturally at the time to distinguish Afro-American folk music from Symphonic music, German Opera from Italian Opera or paintings embodying elements of divinity from prints available to the masses. And while we can't imagine these polarizing labels being used today, the American lexicon of culture is rooted and firmly absorbed in these 19th-century beliefs of superiority. The language we use may be different today, but our institutions exist under a framework that operates and appeals to benefactors who share the sensibilities of this familiar 19th-century model.
To visualize Cultural Hierarchies as a model, we can look at it as a traditional top-down organizational chart, where the levels of power and importance are laid out as a set of social beliefs. If the visual arts were an institution, white male artists would outrank art by artists of color, women, LGBTQ, and disabled artists. Art created with precious, archival-grade materials would be positioned higher on the chart than art made with ordinary found objects. And let's be clear, artists would only appear in the matrix if they held an advanced degree alongside an extensive track record of exhibitions with "reputable" institutions. Paintings and sculpture would remain high on the chart as an elevated art form for those with refined or cultivated tastes.
In contrast, weaving and collage would be slated several degrees below due to their utilitarian and accessible nature. Visualizing such a matrix may help illustrate the beliefs that plague our cultural landscape and that discount and shut out vast segments of people and their cultures. This visualization of Cultural Hierarchies can also help us understand how funding institutions have historically directed their investments and engaged in the arts and culture sector.
How Funding Choices Uphold Cultural Hierarchies
Our Arts & Cultural institutions have a long relationship with philanthropy; together, they embody a philosophy of interdependence, elevating the connection between the individual and the community. Together, they can play a critical role in restoring lives and developing thriving communities. They do more than help shape our perception of what art is for or how we can be better citizens; they also perpetuate the elitist ideals of Cultural Hierarchies by disproportionately funding our arts and cultural institutions.
By and large, philanthropy supports our Cultural Institutions. Because a mere fraction of the nation's budget supports our Arts and Cultural Institutions - .003% ($167.5 million) in 2021, the field relies on philanthropic dollars to sustain this nation's expressive vitality and cultural representation. The most current data shows disparities in Arts funding by genre and demographics, which found that 60 percent of arts funding goes to 2 percent of the cultural institutions representing white and Western European art forms. Meanwhile, only 4 percent of arts funding goes to organizations with a mission to serve communities of color. The most recent Foundation 1000 dataset of the last decade shows U.S.-based private and community foundations increased funding to African, Latino(a), Asian, Arab and Native American (ALAANA) communities slowly, moving from 5% of total foundation dollars in 2009 to10% (of $35.9 billion) in 2019.
The inclusive power of the Arts to guide communities toward each other is jarring against its often exclusive use as a status symbol. A propensity to revere Western Art forms over Eastern or sub-cultures like Outsider Art, Folk, or Street Art assigns value to cultural expression and promotes notions of othering. Elitist beliefs are instilled through direct engagement with events and activities that earn social cache rather than lesser-known, albeit meaningful productions. We rely on Artists to empower our communities so they may re-imagine a better future. Yet, a vast majority of Artists struggle to make a living wage and are often devalued without the right pedigree.
While this data does not represent the powerful work that has undoubtedly changed these statistics over the last two years, deeply ingrained beliefs that some cultures and art forms hold more value than others remain true. Representation of Women artists alone continues to lag throughout the nation's most prominent Institutions, only gaining significant traction after 2019. We can see evidence of these upheld beliefs as grantmakers show some ambivalence over continuing increased levels of support to BIPOC communities since 2020. How this impacts the Arts and Culture sector is massive in that we must challenge the quiet, under-the-breath, knee-jerk habits rooted in elitism and superiority. Doing so will help us recognize that we must address funding disparities instead of just increasing arts funding.
Lasting Change Cannot Be In Partnership With Superiority.
Making decisions about which art forms have value and which artists should be uplifted inherently asserts personal and organizational values. This is not to say that supporting Western Art forms should be invalid or irrelevant today. Instead, it's an opportunity for funders to take stock of the Arts & Cultural organizations they support and consider why you are precisely aligned with them. Not doing so threatens our ability to represent the full breadth of the human experience, moves us away from our commitment to equity work, and risks further devaluing the role of Art and Culture in our lives.
Moving forward, even if we consider a more progressive view of what the disparities in funding might look like as we close 2022, this is an opportunity for meaningful reflection that will drive the lasting change we want to see in advancing racial equity work in the arts. We can do this by undoing the hierarchical cultural organizational chart to inspire a flat, human-centric model that values the creative expression of self-trained Artists and Cultures distant from our own.
In the spirit of reflection, we offer one last consideration. What does the unspoken Cultural Organizational chart at your Institution look like? How can you re-imagine a human-centric model that embraces inclusion rather than exclusion? Your reflections, like art, have the power to drive a shift in culture that values the full breadth of the human experience.