A Brighter Future: ArtPlace America & Equitable Development, A Reflection

This post is part of the series, Future of the Field: Cross-Sector Creative Placemaking Series.

“...the characters remain pointed toward the future, their pockets lined with fresh hope and an abiding faith in their own abilities and their own heroics.”

Long before “creative placemaking” became part of mainstream consciousness, about twenty years ago, I curated my first arts festival in a small river town northeast of Pittsburgh. Young and optimistic, I couldn’t have been more excited. This was the early aughts, long before iPhones, Instagram, and Black Lives Matter. “I didn’t know it yet, but it would radically shift my thinking about racism, privilege and art.”

The annual festival, funded by the local Community Development Corporation, included site-specific installations, and my interest was to add performance to bring activity to the main street. Despite two days of rain (I’ve never produced an outdoor festival since), many new folks came for the first time. I later learned some of my White colleagues didn’t see this as a success, and some expressed concern of a shift in the festival’s quality and brand. In the words of many Black attendees, previous festivals were “more White.”

Today arts institutions feverishly post equity commitments, form equity and engagement committees, and proclaim their community to diversity, equity, access, and inclusion. There is no question of ArtPlace America’s success. Across the country, ArtPlace opened doors and brought new voices to the table. As a collaborative funding project, ArtPlace demonstrated the power of philanthropy to shape community development.

As I read the ArtPlace America report, The Role of Arts and Culture in Equitable Community Development: A Visual Analysis, I started to imagine the future and an even more robust call to action.

Let’s imagine new approaches and push beyond the aesthetics of inclusion. For some, sprinkles of Black culture, like a bit of hot sauce on the side, equals equity. In cities like Pittsburgh, with more than a decade of significant place-based development and funding strategies, Black cultural institutions are still underfunded. And many are as vulnerable today as they might have been fifty years ago (if not more so). Black entrepreneurs and cultural venues are as unlikely to own their facilities as Black residents are to own their homes.

Let’s not spend too much time on authenticity debates, or what constitutes an “institution.” Policy makers might want to debate what makes a cultural institution - is it the place, the space, the leadership, the building ownership, the board, the artforms - the answer is all the above. Centering people, in fact, means that an institution is what the community says it is. In the neighborhood where I worked, the two Caribbean restaurants, with curry chicken and ackee & saltfish, and late-night hangs were as much cultural institutions as the historic theater.

Let’s ensure public dollars reflect the public. Let’s not shy away from following the money to ensure it reflects the public we say it’s intended to serve. And, yes, sometimes this does take us down some sort of quota-like, checkbox path, but why not. Until a new system manifests broadly, which doesn’t center capital and capitalism as we know it, we must count equity in dollars and cents.

Let’s transform spaces and advance wellbeing, doing away with a racialized cultural hierarchy that privileges White artists, art forms, and processes. Let’s take a position on racial equity. Let’s acknowledge that cultural policies, preferences, and practices are never race neutral.

Let’s build collective power as we honor our complexities and tell our personal stories. Without attention to our personal stories, tied, we undermine our equity efforts. Let’s be forthright, despite the limitations of language.

Let’s give each other some grace in these endeavors.

I know now what I didn’t know twenty plus years ago. We must be explicit in our commitment to racial equity and to equal investment in Black and Brown cultural assets. It is not a natural by-product of good work or good intentions. Equitable development cannot be left to chance. And, like the characters in August Wilson’s plays, I remain optimistic.