I Once Was Blind

Acknowledging Race in Granting to Individuals

Recently, Caroline served on the jury of a government arts council. Among the forms she had to fill out were the standard nondiscrimination forms required of any vendor doing business in this city. It gave her pause, as one individual, to agree that her “firm” would not discriminate against “its employees” on the basis of “Race, color, creed, religion, national origin, ancestry, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity (transgender status), domestic partner status, marital status, disability, AIDS/HIV status, height, weight.”

She felt confident she would not discriminate against herself. But that comprehensive list also made her wonder how long it had been a part of city policy, and how much discussion had ensued before each one of those terms was added. Making policy as a public agency — and requiring vendors to adhere to it — may be thornier than it is for an individual or for the private foundation we run together, but this paperwork was enlightening in the context of our foundation’s recent commitment to racial equity.

When we started the Sustainable Arts Foundation in 2011, our mission was narrow — support visual artists and writers with children — and easy to enforce during our kitchen-table board meetings. We did not want to add too many rules or restrictions until we had seen what the demand for our program would be. That first year brought over one thousand applications, however, confirming our premise: parent artists need support. In those early award rounds, we kept an eye on gender and geographic diversity but did not announce or adhere to any policy about achieving them.

After two years of funding, we could establish a jury of award winners; broadening our selection committee expanded our aesthetic filter beyond our personal taste. But using past award winners as jurors is not perfect: artists may be drawn to work that is similar to their own. Our awardees have produced art in a broad range of genres and media — from picture books to poetry, painting to photography. But we could not be certain about the diversity of the artists themselves.

We had always required blind applications, a decision driven by a desire for fairness: we sought to ensure that we were not favoring artists with big reputations, prominent exhibitions, or extensive publications. Blind applications let the work speak for itself. But we began to pay more attention to the unintended consequences of the blind review process.

Three years ago, we started including an optional, post-application demographic survey to get a clearer picture of our applicants. In the context of racial equity, surveying applicants can help determine if there are deficiencies in outreach or selection. The goal of this survey was twofold: we hoped to learn if we were reaching as diverse a group as possible; additionally, we wanted to know whether the demographics of our applicant pool were accurately reflected in our awardees.

Given our small number of awardees (fewer than sixty at that time), we could not draw immediate conclusions, but several years of data began to reveal meaningful trends. We learned that 20 percent of our applications came from artists identifying themselves as people of color. Unfortunately, we did not see that same percentage reflected among our awardees.

A selection panel of previous award winners creates a connection and empathy that we love, particularly given the specific challenges of parent artists. They often work in isolation from any creative community, and art making may have to wait until after parenting and more remunerative work. Our jurors understand our applicants’ needs better than anyone. However, the drawback of this system was making itself obvious: with artists of color underrepresented in our jury, it was hard to imagine the problem fixing itself.

It was around this time, in early 2016, when Tony heard GIA president Janet Brown give a presentation about GIA’s racial equity statement of purpose and the path the organization took in crafting it. Soon after, while completing a GIA survey about racial equity, he felt frustrated, unable to respond positively to many of the questions:

Does your organization have a statement or policy about racial equity?

Does your organization have practices that encourage applications from ALAANA artists and/or arts organizations?

Is your organization intentionally addressing racial equity in the development of new programs or in the revision of existing practices?

We felt motivated by GIA’s public stance and challenged by their questions. We were influenced, too, both by our own knowledge of our country’s racist history and by the increased visibility of inequity in the news. We can calculate this inequity easily with statistics about incarceration and funding for public schools in predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods. Add recent police shootings, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the battle over the Dakota Access pipeline, and public insensitivity to race in the presidential campaign, and we could not pretend any longer to be blind to these factors, which combined now to insist on our response.

Numbers tell one story. What is harder to quantify is the prejudice — whether it is intentional or not — that compels us to recognize and promote familiar forms of art and literature while overlooking expressive viewpoints that are less familiar.

So we began to broaden our marketing efforts to reach a more diverse applicant pool, while also urging our jurors to examine their own possible biases. As we noted in our instructions to them:

We’re mindful of disparities of opportunity in this country, and are looking for ways to make sure that we’re not turning a blind eye to the ways race and ethnicity affect one’s participation in and contribution to the art world. We don’t currently ask applicants to identify their race or ethnicity (although sometimes that is made clear in the portfolio and/or artist’s statement) and we are not asking you to evaluate applications any differently than in past rounds. So as you read, please continue to look for the best, most innovative, new work you see, and please continue to be open-minded toward practices whose techniques, impulses, and outcomes may differ from your own.

Some of our jurors were, quite reasonably, puzzled or even put out by the instructions, wondering how they could evaluate portfolios both in the same way they always had and also be somehow more open-minded. We were not intending to be vague but did want to promote broad thinking. (Incidentally, we have learned since sharing this language with other organizations that it is attractive to those who would like to promote diversity but are prevented by public laws, their own bylaws, or other measures from doing so explicitly.) However, our instructions do read to us now as a bit of a cop-out — a well-meaning one, certainly, but still just a stumbling step toward a bolder and more specific commitment.

We considered matching the percentage of awards to artists of color proportionally to the percentage of their applications — a defensible stance, perhaps, but one we felt didn’t go far enough. Our foundation was young, but it was already skewing predominantly white. Acknowledging our country’s history of discrimination and a legacy of denied opportunities, we announced we would make at least half of our awards to artists of color.

The response was tremendous.

Our program, unique in its support of parent artists, has always been extremely competitive; we typically receive over 1,000 applications for our ten awards. In the fall of 2016, our first round since this announcement, we received over 3,600 applications. Even more striking is how the percentage of applicants of color increased, doubling to over 41 percent.

Our application did not change except to ask applicants to describe their racial identity. Borrowing the approach that is being proposed for the 2020 US Census, applicants are asked to “select which categories best describe you.” Our jurors received the same instructions as before, and did not see the applicant’s racial identification as they reviewed portfolios and winnowed several thousand compelling applications to several hundred competitive ones. We receive so many more qualified applications than available funds that the hardest part of the process has always been narrowing a list of over one hundred finalists to ten award winners. We did this without regard to race. Only after defining a short list of potential awardees did we check the demographic information on their applications, at which point we found we did not have to make any adjustments to fulfill our mandate.

The feedback from our applicants and jurors was largely positive. As one juror commented about our new policy, “I think it is admirable, fair, and progressive.” But we did receive some criticisms. Some applicants were upset by what they viewed as an affirmative action program; some jurors (whom we surveyed after our award announcement) found themselves distracted by trying to tease out hints of racial identity from each applicant’s portfolio. One noted, “I’m on the fence here. I am all for balancing grant opportunities for all groups but if there is a dedicated percentage of applications that are awarded grants because of this requirement, I think that there possibly could be better qualified grantees that are overlooked.” We are still processing this feedback, which will help us refine our application and review process in the fall.

We are a small organization; our annual grantmaking is a rounding error compared to the total dollars granted by GIA members. But we are not too small to help change the landscape of equity in the arts. We have heard from so many artists who did not win awards but still find our commitment meaningful. One wrote, “Thank you for your special focus on leveling the playing field for artists of color. That helps me even when I am not a direct recipient of grant funds.“

In addition to our public commitment of funding to individual artists, we have also begun in our residency grant program application asking writers’ residencies and artists’ colonies what they are doing to promote racial equity. Recalling how GIA’s survey questions motivated us, we hope both to challenge organizations that may not already be thinking in these terms, and also to learn from those that have made a significant commitment to inclusion. Notably, our most recent batch of residency grant applications included two from organizations that, in response to our question about equity, pledged in their proposals that 50 percent of their residencies would go to artists of color, and several programs described the ways in which they were formalizing their approach to equity.

Moving forward, we will continue to make adjustments to our program. We plan to keep surveying our applicants, both for statistics and for a narrative on how we are doing. As our jury becomes more diverse, we will continue to survey them about how we might adjust our outreach and review efforts. We want to do all we can to reach those who may not yet have heard about either our individual or residency award programs.

We announced our racial equity initiative during a summer of significant social and political turmoil and then made our awards in mid-November. We have experienced a political shift that threatens to change the cultural landscape of this country in ways we do not yet fully comprehend. All we know right now is that our work has never felt more important. There is still a long way to go before the art world becomes truly equitable, but we are glad to be taking steps in the right direction.