Nothing Concedes without a Demand

by Roberto Bedoya (bio), executive director, Tucson Pima Arts Council

“Nothing concedes without a demand.” Frederick Douglas

In the area of equitable grant-making what are the demands being made? Who is making the demands? Who is responding to the demands? What is the nature of the demands? Is it the demand for a policy changes brought on by U.S. demographics, the changing properties of the social good or the economy? What the deep recession has revealed are the fault line in our society—what are the fault lines in philanthropy… what demands have they triggered?

The NCRP report offers us a look at a significant cultural fault line—the politics of resource and position that operates in the culture sector and its relationship to equity and democratic aspirations. It is a report to applaud. (To implicate myself, I acted as an advisory committee member to the research report and there are a few fingerprints of mine in the document.)

As a public funder the relationship to equity issues in never far from the mission of the Tucson Pima Arts Council (TPAC). It is built into our purposes and processes. Both the City and County governments ask for demographic information associated with our grant-making as part of our yearly evaluation. Being accountable to the wide breath of our community and demonstrating equity is part of our charge.

I joke with colleagues that the public I serve ranges from the anarchists to the white gloves and… they let me know it. The beauty of the public sector is that Tucsonans feels that they have the right to assert: “I don’t like that piece of public art, you’ve wasted my money”, “ Why did A get funded and not B?”, “You privilege the majors”, “You privilege community arts” in the newspapers, on talk radio, at City Council meetings, at TPAC Town Hall gatherings. These assertions can move beyond the “sour-grapes” lament of a few, to a broader one – how a group articulates its demands. Most recently, in the context of Arizona’s toxic social/political landscape the call for cultural equity is paramount and embedded in our cultural communities resistance to the far right attacks on civil society. It is a call and demand for Democracy, not the “me and my friends” self-interests of privatization.

In the report, public funding is presented as more accessible to serving marginalized groups than private foundations, which is true. Yet, the dynamic and catalytic presence that the public funders have in our cultural ecosystem is fragile and under great stress as cities struggle to balance their budget, and arts councils find themselves on the chopping block. At the same time public funders are leaders in the field of community cultural development and arts-based civic engagement activities. They are poised to have a greater impact upon our society as our multi-racial nation continues to grow, shape art making practices and cultural participation.

TPAC’s work in community cultural development is primarily through our P.L.A.C.E. (People, Land, Arts, Culture and Engagement) Initiative, which support art-based civic engagement projects that address contested and complex social issue, which is featured in the report. P.L.A.C.E., supports place-making arts activities that shape the physical and social character of the region through projects that creates a sense of “belonging”, that address the politics of marginalization that says you or your community don’t belong.

The success of P.L.A.C.E., is a result of a partnership with the Kresge Foundation, Nathan Cummings Foundations and Open Society Institute who believe that social justice demands that we value diversity, challenge social inequities and fuse “ art, culture and social change”. They understand the important role intermediaries play in achieving this goal. This partnership illuminates a key element of success what in the report is referred to the sovereignty of context, a term that TPAC uses to acknowledge local knowledge and it authority. That moving the equity dial towards a more inclusive democracy is not drive-by work, it takes time and must be rooted in place, in context.

The success of NCRP is that is looks at the politics of marginalization in the cultural philanthropy sector, presents the evidence and prompts reflection on how we serve the public. The demand tied to this analysis is for a more just world, one that is beholding to the evolving richness of our multi-racial sector, that serves our humanity. Change is not all that easy but it must occur, which is a leadership demand that the cultural sector must face if we are to be relevant and of use to our society.