Hard Questions for Hard Times

by William Cleveland (bio), director, Center for the Study of Art & Community

We are living at a time when many of our societies most closely held assumptions are being assailed. Often the push seems to come from the convergence of historic forces outside our control. But in other instances the momentum emanates from more intimate temblors set in motion with intention, by individuals and groups, across sectors, within organizations or communities. Regardless of their locus, the primal tensions disturbing the status quo are no secret. The disparity between rich and poor, climate change, polarized politics, the clash of tradition and modernity, the pervasiveness of corruption are all adding fuel to the fires, above and below.

One interesting byproduct of this tectonic dance is a widespread increase in what I call “gap awareness.” Until recently, a critical mass of American stakeholders (and stock holders) perceived themselves to be on the safe side of the “haves/have-nots” divide. Now, for many middle class Americans, the gap is becoming personal and long held assumptions about fairness and equity are getting questioned, right and left. It is inevitable that as global/local economies continue to languish and the inequities and imbalances inherent in our economic, political, and social system become more pronounced, this awareness and the accompanying turmoil will continue to grow. This has implications for every sector, even the arts.

I am a strong believer in challenging my own assumptions — particularly the deeply held ones that help to form my personal worldview. It keeps me on my toes. For some, the NCRP’s Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change report is probably an assumption challenger. For others, it likely adds substance to existing perceptions about a historic resource gap plaguing country’s cultural ecosystem. To be sure, the report presents a pointed analysis of select data; drawing sharp conclusions about what the authors hold is the unbalanced, inequitable state of cultural investment in America. It is clearly intended to provoke, to challenge, to call the question.

Personally, I appreciate this kind of forceful insistence. After re-reading the report the question that it calls up for me is not whether it is mathematically unassailable. I have no doubt that there are many in the cultural philanthropy field that can, and will parse aspects of the report’s data and analysis. For me the meta-challenge it poses for each individual reader is whether the “truth” it holds is concerning and compelling enough to call the questions it raises in ones own back yard.

Is cultural equity a core value that informs our work? If not, why?
If so, how specifically do we define it and hold ourselves accountable?
If we looked hard at the patterns of cultural investment by our organization and across our community, over time, what would we find?
If there were a significant “gap” between our stated values and this investment history, what would we do?

I have no doubt that this is what NCRP would encourage you to do. To that end, the report concludes with a “Typology” that can be used by funders to begin a process self-inquiry into the equity issues it raises. It is by no means an easy set of questions. There is no escaping the fact that this kind of reflection is hard work that can be painful and contentious.

At their core, both the NCRP report and the Typology can be taken as an invitation to arts funders to pause and scrutinize many of the assumptions that have framed cultural philanthropy in the US for the past fifty years. If there ever was a time for this kind of rigorous self-examination it is now — most certainly, as a forthright response to the fairness questions raised by the report but, more importantly, because of its implications for the cultural community, and society at large. This is because the report’s thesis describes a cultural ecosystem that is out of balance in a way that threatens both the health and relevance of the entire sector — all artists and arts organizations, in all communities. So, in the end, the question being posed is not “either/or”, or “we vs. them, but rather how can cultural investment in America truly make sense and be meaningful in the 21st Century.