Thursday, June 20, 2013

Diversity and Reciprocity: Who Decides?

I'm very pleased to share this guest post by one of my mentees for 2013,  Alicia Akins.  Alicia is currently Programmes Director at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, Luang Prabang, Laos.   Alicia's emerging career provides great evidence that a wide range of experiences can enhance and expand your view as a museum professional.   She has an undergraduate degree in music education, a MA in international studies, and time spent in China and now Laos.  Our monthly Skype conversations have certainly taught me as much as I have shared,  and as you'll see below, our talks have been wide-ranging, from how to encourage staff to how cultural colleagues in the US are addressing issues of diversity.  We both look forward to your comments on this post.
As I’ve been following the discussion about diversity in the arts over the past several months, I have been struck by two assumptions: first, that lack of diversity is a problem exclusive to white institutions and second, that there is something particularly alienating about whiteness that keeps others from participating in the arts. While I don’t claim to have a solution for diversity, I hope only to add what others have brought to the discussion: another perspective—that of a female black millennial with a lifetime steeped in the arts and other cultures.
It's not an uncommon story, that of a black person being derided by other blacks as “acting white.”  I’ve heard it myself many times before. It’s a both problematic and damaging viewpoint. The implications of what this accusation means, both about the white majority and about my own group, have stuck with me since first hearing it over two decades ago.  Just how much does whiteness have to do with consumption of culture? What are the dangers of diversifying? Is diversity the most recent addition to the white man’s burden? Can arts institutions successfully operate under a separate but equal framework? Who really benefits from diversity?  Where does diversity come from/flourish?
An example from sports
It is not arts institutions alone that have tackled the issue of diversity.  Universities, the entertainment industry, government and other areas have raced to diversify as well.  But it’s the example of sports that I find most interesting.  No, sports don’t fall under the same category as arts, but they are legitimate leisure alternatives.  Different sports tend to attract different demographics.  Golf, hockey, tennis and skiing for example are all very white sports and their costs are the most obvious barrier to entry. Participation, however, is rarely ever influenced by a single barrier, and cost might not be the biggest hurdle to overcome.
Coaches and managers have tried to change these trends.  Initiatives within each of these sports have sought to attract wider participation.  But, the alternative is not nonparticipation in sports.  To the contrary, there are many sports that are dominated by minorities: track & field, basketball, boxing, American football to name a few.  So what benefit is there in having professional black hockey players, or Middle Eastern tennis players, or even recreational ones as long as people are active?  Is there an advantage to playing one sport over another?   What if, in addition to cost, underrepresented people are opting out due to the social reasons?  They want to play what their friends play? What if they prefer sports where they’ll get more respect and prestige for being good? Or what if they are choosing sports based on role models from their group? There would be a definite problem if they were being excluded but diversity is not just about access, it’s about interest as well.
Are you interested in Chinese opera?  If you heard enough of it would you be interested then?  And if you decided that you loved it and started practicing it, would droves of other white kids start doing it too because all they needed was one positive role model?  Does the world need more people practicing Chinese opera?  Would it be a step forward and a credit to racial progress if non-Chinese started to play Chinese musical instruments? Would that validate the practice?  Would it confirm the art form’s relevance? Are you hoping that your kids will grow up in a world where they can dream of achieving that kind of musical artistry one day, not to feel intimidated to try because of the color of their skin or other factors that make Chinese opera inaccessible?
What happens when we mistake a lack of interest for a lack of opportunity? I think everyone looses.  I believe most efforts to diversify are nonreciprocal. Many are aimed at breaking down financial, intellectual, and cultural barriers minorities and underrepresented groups might have to “Western” arts.  Are ethnically oriented institutions doing outreach to gain a larger white audience?  White privilege assumes white people don’t need to be reached out to because they lack the constraints—financial or cultural—that prohibit participation. Are different minority groups reaching out to each other in the ways they do participate in and consume culture to draw out the rich parallels of experience they might have? Without reciprocity, I fear that attempts to diversify will lead to more homogeneity with all interests coalescing around mainstream notions of creativity, culture and art. 
I am sure that organizations and individuals are busy putting their best creative energies into coming up with solutions.  I just don’t know if the time would be better spent asking better questions about what diversity means and should look like for our field.  One place to start might be in evaluating their own beliefs that their particular form of art is critical to a high quality of life.
Images from Flickr, top to bottom:
  • Fence by Spence Lawn
  • Track and Field by Phil Roeder
  • Chinese Opera by Ronald Targa


Traditionalist said...

This is a tremendous and, I believe, trailblazing article. Great analogies and so well articulated.

Yes, diluting an art form in order to attract those who are not really interested is a poor strategy. It alienates that art form's natural constituency, and prevents anyone from actually experiencing what is meant to be important.

Elitism in sports is acknowledged and appreciated; why can't we also acknowledge that there is elite high culture? And that presenting it in its purest form does everyone the greatest service.

You are absolutely right that the true task of opening doors to a bigger population lies in stating clearly why these high art forms will enhance ones life--i.e. EDUCATION!

For too many years our education system has been coopted by bogus politically correct dogma that patronizes rather than provides tools. And higher education in the arts has gone down the desiccated road of deconstructionist theory that takes all the joy out of experiencing high culture.

It is time to return to the benefits offered by CONNOISSEURSHIP TRAINING! We need to be unapologetic about acknowledging the existence of greatness.

Richard Kooyman said...

This is a refreshing insight in what lately has been a sea of criticism against many art institutions.
Art organizations and institutions have been left scrambling for funding and fighting each other ever since the neo-liberal political campaign to defund and control the Arts began.

Arts policy makers and administrators, instead of fighting for public support for institutions and organizations (just like the farm industry does, the military industry does, the highway industry does etc) fell in line with the conservative entrepreneurial idea that the Arts should live and die based on supply and demand capitalism.

That party line insists that if you aren't getting bodies to attend there must be something wrong with what you are selling. In turn arts administrations began to pick at each other using the neo-liberal language of diversity, inclusion, democracy, and participation.

These concepts can end up being a trap. No one is against any of these qualities but how they apply can be difficult to define.
Here in Michigan we are seeing the scary real dangers of this playing out in the suggestion that the Detroit Institute of Art collection be considered as an asset to be sold to pay off city debt. The idea that our priceless cultural objects are no more valuable than office furniture or real estate is only made possible when societies attitudes about the arts are shifted (or attacked) away from their valuable aesthetic qualities to political ideologies or uneducated personal beliefs.
The Arts are human not democratic. And populism in the arts only plays a role on American Idol.