Alternative Pathways to Change

by John McGuirk (bio), program director, Performing Arts Program, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change raises critical issues that arts funders should address to minimize disparities to accessible and relevant arts opportunities for all Americans. The report recognizes that our communities are evolving due to demographic changes including race/ethnicity, age, income, education and other factors. In addition, it identifies leading organizations that have successfully fused arts and social change, as well as funders that are using this lens in their grantmaking practices. The report indicates funding and participation is rapidly growing for culturally-specific organizations, and decreasing for major arts institutions.

However, the report falls short in describing the evolution of funding practices to meet the changing cultural needs of our communities. It should better recognize the progress made over the past two decades by arts organizations and other “institutions that focus primarily on Western European art forms” to broaden and diversify their audiences and programming. And disappointedly, the report reinforces outdated stereotypes, such as “high art” or “elite” in describing arts organizations. It creates an us-versus-them polarization: large budget versus small budget, western canon versus other traditions, urban versus rural, and on and on.

My suggestion is to take the “Funding Typology and Pathways to Change” from the NCRP report and reframe them to be more inclusive, and to recognize the value of the entire arts ecosystem. Pathway 1 could be titled “Sustaining Diverse Traditions” — this includes both the Western classical canon as well as culturally-specific practices from multiple traditions. Then Pathway 1 is about continuity of multiple traditions and artforms that are meaningful to our evolving communities. Pathway 2 could be “Nurturing New Cultural Expressions” from varied backgrounds and aesthetics. Pathway 2 focuses on developing innovative new voices, diverse aesthetics and emerging artforms. Finally, Pathway 3 could be “Ensuring Equitable Access to Arts Education.” When multiple cultural traditions are taught to K-12 students, this is the great egalitarian solution to reach all segments of our communities. I would also include life-long learning in this pathway to recognize that adults and seniors continue to engage in arts and cultural learning.

This is an imperfect taxonomy, but hopefully more inclusive and less divisive. I intentionally did not include pathway strategies for art-based community development and economic development. In these instances, arts are a tool for achieving other outcomes, but it is a mistake to assume all arts and culture should fuse with these social change goals.

Finally, as we continue this discussion, let’s be careful with homogenization and stereotypes. We can’t cluster all funders into one homogenous group; nor can we cluster all artists and arts organizations into a homogenous group. It’s the differences, the variety, and the vast pluralism that make our communities vibrant and interesting. We must continue to work together respectfully and diligently for a diverse and inclusive arts ecosystem so that everyone has access to the arts.