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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.
Recent data regarding the funding patterns of cultural institutions reveal crater-sized gaps in the cultures and people left out. These findings are unsurprising, recognizing that our conscious and unconscious beliefs influence our decision-making - and ultimately, who and what gets funded. As stewards of Arts and Culture, we are responsible for closing this gap. We can use self-reflection as a tool to deconstruct deeply ingrained notions of who and what we consider superior. When we do this, we embrace inclusion and liberation in our work leading to rebuilding the harmful systems we default to daily as cultural workers and foundation officers.
Philanthropy and Arts and Culture institutions can be powerful allies in shifting the cultural hierarchies that permeate our daily lives. To be proper stewards of Arts and Culture, we must look underneath our donor relations practices, how exhibitions come to be in our museums, and why filling the seats at our small box theatre companies is a constant struggle. To reach this point, we must look inward to consider the values and habits rooted in elitism and superiority that we bring into the institutions we represent - as individuals. Doing this allows us to expand our ability to see through human-centric eyes rather than through a set of hierarchical norms designed to serve so few. And while there is no one size fits all approach to self-reflection, the questions below can serve as probes to identify where personal values and operational practices may be out of sync and where you can start to work toward change.
Institutions hold unspoken Cultural Hierarchies in direct opposition to inclusion and equity in Arts and Culture. An internal assessment of our daily operations can lead to change. Some questions to probe:
What art forms are you funding or featuring? Are other art forms speaking to issues important to you?
How many degrees of separation exist between boards and the projects or artists you've funded or featured in the last decade?
What is your process for attracting artists/groups outside of institutional circles?
Do you require invitations to apply for funding/exhibiting? Who is left out as a result?
Do you require a specific level of education? How does this requirement align with what you are funding or trying to achieve?
Does your exhibition history requirement exclude certain groups of people? Does it require a specific level of achievement regarding where artists/groups exhibit?
What do terms like world-class and artistic excellence mean to you? How might they present obstacles for some artists? Does your definition celebrate and honor the diversity of your communities?
Elitism and superiority show up in subtle ways. A reliance on best practices, industry jargon, and social norms dictate how we work and often buries why we choose to uplift some but not others. Without self-reflection in our work, we risk excluding artists without higher education, ignoring economic and racial inequalities, and dimming the lights over communities outside the social circles that lead to funding.
Future Forward: An Equitable Lens to Cultural Preservation
As stewards of Arts and Culture, it is our moral imperative to honor the artifacts and experiences of our communities. There is no room for exclusivity in Arts and Culture if we strive to be inclusive and equitable in our communities and cultural spaces. To preserve Culture as we know it, we must acknowledge how marginalized and privileged voices define, evaluate, and perceive Art and Culture similarly and differently. However, we can only achieve this when we preserve the full spectrum of humanity - and before we preserve it, it must be deemed valuable.
This is where you come in. As unique individuals, we can assert the value of underrepresented cultures or out-of-the-radar art forms and artists with the self-reflection we bring into our workplaces. Your work to recognize and challenge the conscious and unconscious values ingrained in your world is a critical first step in preserving our Culture, inclusive and representative of our diverse communities. As the saying goes, check yourself.