The Hewlett Foundation Blog
April 17, 2014 — By Sheena Johnson
The commentary around the recent release of The Faces of the Future report—including blog posts from my colleagues John McGuirk and Emiko Ono—has been fascinating to me. Not just professionally, but personally, because I am one of the NextGen Arts Leaders that the report is talking about. I have benefited directly from the NextGen Initiative’s efforts through a Center for Cultural Innovation grant to travel to New Orleans, where I studied with Urban Bush Women to deepen my dance practice. And it was through an Emerging Arts Professionals/San Francisco Bay Area Facebook post that found my current position as a two-year fellow with the Hewlett Foundation’s Performing Arts Program.
What I found most compelling about the report were the sections on intergenerational dialogue and the importance of creating stronger networks for arts leaders of color. On my own career journey, I have received considerable support from caring mentors and elders, as well as from being part of a community of likeminded folks of color. I would like to share my experience—as a cultural worker, arts administrator, and dance artist—to inform the conversation about investment in up-and-coming arts leaders, and, in particular, support for arts leaders of color.
This isn’t just about a career. It’s about purpose.
In reflecting on the findings in the report, I kept thinking, “What is our call to action as arts administrators?” Often, the conversation is solely career focused, looking only at the next job, the next opportunity. NextGen arts leaders must operate in multiple roles to sustain ourselves financially, personally, and spiritually. For example, I am a mom, an advocate, a community convener, a dance artist, and a producer. All of us move in the world with a multiplicity of identities, yet we continue to talk about arts and culture in siloed ways, as if art and culture are not the foundations upon which we express our humanity. We don’t live our lives in silos, so why do we approach our work that way? Being an arts administrator is more than just my career; it deeply reflects my values and passions. My work investing in the creative capacity of communities is bound up with my work of being a mom and building a world where my son (a mixed black boy with queer parents) can feel safe and at home wherever he goes. Art and culture dictate and shape our realities and perceptions, and therefore are integral to creating social change. If I am not creating a better society for my son to grow up in, then why do the work that I do?
Recently, I have become a participant of the Multicultural Arts Leadership Institute (MALI), a program that provides professional development for leaders of color in the arts, culture, and entertainment sectors in Silicon Valley. Though MALI, a Hewlett Foundation grantee, is not a part of the NextGen Initiative, it is a great network of emerging arts leaders that is specifically developed by people of color to support arts leaders of color. MALI can serve as an example of how funders can invest in leadership development, particularly given the recommendation in the report that “developing the leadership of arts professionals of color will require new programming specifically designed for them and their career paths.” The authors go on to say: “More effective marketing or outreach to these groups will not, on its own, produce better results because of the complexity of each of California’s ethnic, cultural, and language groups and the differences across various communities of color.” During a recent MALI retreat I had the privilege to share space with twelve amazing folks of color who are asking the same questions about purpose, the critical roles art and culture play in our communities, and how to create sustainable livelihoods that align with our values. No matter our titles (artist, creative, producer, entrepreneur) we see our work as being in service to the communities we are a part of. We work toward building a creatively vibrant Silicon Valley through civic engagement. One of the leaders of the retreat shared the story of her involvement in the revitalization of the Mexican Heritage Plaza (MHP) in East San Jose. Their actions turned a facility that was once seen as a fortress held against the community into a community haven and cultural oasis known now as the School of Arts and Culture at MHP. It was a great example of individuals with a common goal coming together to change a community.
Who’s at the table matters.
From my experience, emerging leaders networks in general have been tremendous idea generators, but lack the power to enact structural change. Network members are not commonly in formal positions of power in our nonprofit dominated sector (e.g., executive directors and foundation program officers) and the torch is being passed too slowly. If our power in the current structure continues to be limited, then we have to expand our thinking about what it means to be an arts leader beyond the context of the arts and culture silo. We have to expand our frame of reference beyond just 501(c)(3) organizations, because that is not the only frame through which communities engage in the arts. Conversations about the challenges facing the arts and culture sector need to include more than just executive directors, board members, funders, and arts administrators. Where are the artists? We have to invite culture bearers and community leaders to the conversation. Art and culture intersects deeply with efforts to improve social outcomes in health, human services, education, and beyond. Where are the teachers, nurses, and social workers in our conversations about the value and sustainability of the arts and culture sector?
It’s about service.
This was the light bulb moment for me: it doesn’t matter how many great ideas you have, if you don’t have power (institutional or communal) and you are not at the decision table, then you can’t change the future of the sector. If you, as a culture worker, are not developing ways for your community to build power, to be self-determined, to define its own destiny, to set its own agenda, what change can you really make? And so this is our work as arts administrators, artists, cultural workers, and advocates for the arts—to build self-determination and respond to the call of action to serve our communities by being on boards, sitting on panels, organizing, and going to community meetings. At MALI, we are not in the room together because we are all arts administrators; we were selected to work together because we are citizens of the Silicon Valley community who care about the creative and cultural offerings available to our communities. And, from here, we can build power.
As a sector we have to rethink our structures of support if we are to interrupt historical patterns of inequitable funding and resource distribution in underserved communities. This must include rethinking our support structures for arts leaders of color. One network structure or funding strategy doesn’t fit all, as MALI demonstrates. If we, as cultural workers, embrace the complexity that comes with the multiplicity of our identities and see our work as a shared vocation, we will increase our capacity to make change and make a difference in the lives of our communities.