The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2017

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OCT 2017 Issue

Moving Towards Community Benefit: Shifting the Paradigm

Across America, more people in the cultural community are coming to understand why racial justice and equity matter. Of course, this is not a new issue for many; but the current “woke” moment catalyzed by the daily assaults on democracy—and the prospect of catastrophic consequences beyond four years of a Trump presidency—make it impossible for all but the most insular to remain complacent. Last week in Los Angeles, a group of Latina women arts leaders spoke with me about the handful of Latino arts institutions that are more than four decades old. Yet in a city where Latinos are the majority, these organizations receive a fraction of the funding given to large budget organizations that lack diverse racial leadership. This was an echo of what artists of color in the Twin Cities recounted earlier this summer as they railed against awards of millions of dollars for equity work given to large non-diverse organizations, while many diverse, leading organizations still remain unhoused and under-supported. Their point was that not only is arts funding inequitable, but that structural racism has created two different tracts.

Those of us working within spaces of diverse collaboration are asking: How do we learn from each other, and how can we make a greater impact together than we can individually? In July of 2016, ArtChangeUS founding Program Director Kristen Calhoun and I accepted an invitation to go to Detroit to plan ArtChangeUS REMAP: Detroit. The artist, rapper, and activist Invincible/ill Weaver had organized a series of gatherings for us to meet with grassroots cultural change makers. Garth Ross, Vice President for Community Engagement at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, was shadowing our process as part of a prospective partnership exploration. On our way to various community meetings, we repeatedly drove by an enormous mass of steel girders, not knowing if this stadium skeleton represented Detroit’s past or future. Kristen stood up at the community meeting and asked, “Is the stadium we passed on our way here going up or coming down?” Suddenly, the previously strained meeting came alive. Prior to this question, the sessions had been somewhat stilted—and for good reason. Detroit, like New Orleans, has attracted disaster tourism where new frontiers of profit and development are privileged over the needs and goals of local people. With Kristen’s question, the room simply erupted—as did our planning for our entire trip and subsequent field practices. 

We heard about the controversy catalyzed by the building of the hockey stadium by Olympia Development in a city deal that had no community benefits in place, yet had major funding from taxpayers. At all of our meetings, we met artists and community members who spoke passionately about a deep community effort, spearheaded by Rise Together Detroit, which had collected over 5,400 signatures, and through trainings and small groups created a legally binding Community Benefits Ordinance ballot proposal that would ensure benefits, including environmental protections, small business and employment opportunities, affordable housing and other measures. While the ordinance was defeated in the November 2016 general election, the three year process of democratic participation and the resulting language is evidence of the strength and sophisticated thinking of Detroiters. 

The CBO work in Detroit compels us to ask ourselves: Is it possible to move beyond community outreach and engagement to community benefit and agency? What would that look like if manifested in the projects and events we curate and organize? And how would that change our organizations and institutions? How do we value and uplift local knowledge, expertise, and cultural capital? How do we hold ourselves accountable when doing work both where we live and in other places? And what are the counter-benefits of employing a process that nurtures genuine relationships and equitable input from a community?

This was the complex and rich context that preceded the New Museum’s organizing of IdeasCity in Detroit in April 2016.1 Detroiters met with the conference organizers and produced a set of organizing recommendations adapted from the CBO. When we learned about this, we asked: How can we build on this effort? Could we partner to develop a set of strategies to share with our Core Partners and larger arts field? The resulting Cultural Community Benefits Principles (CCBP), developed in consultation with artists Halima Cassells and Invincible/ill Weaver, are currently being adapted into a toolkit designed by Cézanne Charles, Director of Creative Many. The toolkit will be launched late fall 2017 and it’s intended for artists and organizations along a spectrum of diversity to incorporate new strategies and approaches.

So how exactly did our practice shift after that meeting? We were propelled to recognize that Detroit sits on Anishinaabe land and is the U.S. city with the largest percentage of African Americans. This informed our organizing and programming, helping us to build new relationships, curate Detroit voices on every session and lean towards a representation of approximately sixty percent Detroit and forty percent other national voices. In practical terms, we needed to research how our dollars might stay within the community, not only through fees to artists and presenters, but through paying for hotels, printing, catering, shuttle services, media, etc. The NABHOOD (National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators, and Developers) website led us to book the Robert’s Riverwalk Hotel. Devon Akmon, Executive Director of the Arab American National Museum, recommended an Arab American owned shuttle service. We achieved our target of spending sixty percent of our budget on locally sourced persons of color, women, and LGBTQ owned businesses. Aside from investing in Detroit, we forged relationships that continue as we utilize local Detroit businesses as an alternative to big box stores.

Leaving Detroit, we asked our network of Core Partners2 to adopt the Community Benefits principles, contribute their own recommendations of best practices, and identify barriers and strategies to equitable and accountable organizing. For those of us operating out of large institutions such as schools, museums, and larger budget arts organizations, how do we facilitate new pathways into the approved vendor and subcontracting processes? A good model of field practice includes the Detroit-based Allied Media Conference’s zine outlining how they organize their conferences. Amerinda has a list of Cultural Equity Recommendations for NYC in response to their Cultural Plan, which is applicable to other cities and cultural strategies. The Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, an Allied Media sponsored project, also outlines a set of principles providing media-based models of access and common ownership.

We left Detroit not only researching local businesses wherever we work, but also asking, “Whose land are we on?” Returning to the California Institute of the Arts where ArtChangeUS is based, I must have asked fifty people whose land CalArts is on, and no one was able to answer until Eyvind Kang, a new music composer and CalArts faculty member, who had collaborated with Tataviam bird singers on a composition performed on campus, said the institute sits on Tataviam land. He also pointed to a number of noted CalArts Native American alumni: Richard Ray Whitman, Raven Chacon, Suzanne Kite, Eve-Lauryn LaFountain, and Chad Stephen Hamill. In other words, answering the question widened our knowledge of the land and its connection to a network of native artists. Building an institutional relationship based on this new knowledge then became the next step.

Such have been the questions raised as we have explored how to create a model of cultural equity over two years with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Our question: how can a large budget, non-diverse organization co-create and commit to an authentic relationship of equity?3 But when we asked, “Whose land are we on?” there was no answer.4 We had been invited to curate a dialogue series, which we branded ArtChangeUS@Kennedy Center National Conversations. Launching with the rapper/actor Common and writer Chinaka Hodge, we eventually found the answer through artists we programmed. On April 24, 2017, an historic event occurred when Natalie Proctor, tribal chairwoman of the Cedarville Band of the Piscataway Nation and two of its members gave greetings and offered song, prior to a “Water is Life” conversation between Liz Medicine Crow and Ty DeFoe. It was the first time in the Kennedy Center’s four-decade history that the tribe received this recognition.

Significantly, Garth Ross followed up by inviting them back as performers at the Open House program and now acknowledges the Piscataway in all of his program introductions. And on September 14 and 15, 2017, the Kennedy Center was the site of a groundbreaking conference: “First Americans + New Americans: Dignity in Land, Citizenship and Sovereignty, co-organized by the National Congress of American Indians, Define American, and ArtChangeUS. The watershed event convened tribal and immigration rights leaders to uplift and advance shared priorities. A free Millennium Stage concert with Combo Chimbita and Dark Water Rising opened the program to the general public. An ArtChangeUS@Kennedy National Conversation with Erika Andiola, undocumented immigrant rights organizer, and Kevin Gover, head of the National Museum of the American Indian, extended the historic gathering to digital audiences, through an upcoming podcast series. Would this have happened had we not asked: “Whose land are we on?” Asking opened a door to a response that the institution chose to step through.

As I noted at the outset of this essay, demographic change is rapidly reshaping culture and redefining American identities between and beyond the two coasts. Houston, Texas surpassed New York in 2010 as the most racially and ethnically diverse metropolis in the country.5 The most diverse neighborhood census track in America is Mountain View, Alaska.6 As I write, a number of significant arts gatherings are being planned. In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre is planning a national summit to envision a future for community engagement in the American theater. In Los Angeles at Lula Washington Dance, black choreographers are meeting to connect past legacies with the future. In New York, the Brooklyn Museum is organizing a conference on arts and social activism to shine a light on what unites and separates us as a nation. The great Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs said that change “takes place in living systems, not from above but from within, from many local actions occurring simultaneously.” Today, a new American cultural map is being drawn and remapped by its people. 

  1. IdeasCity is an international initiative founded at the New Museum that acknowledges the inherent effect of art and culture on the vitality of a city. With programs in Arles, Athens, Detroit, Istanbul, New York, and Sao Paolo, IdeasCity operates as a platform for designers, artists, technologists, and policymakers to explore issues, propose solutions, and engage the public. (
  2. ArtChangeUS Core Partners represent an innovative model of network organizing. It is anchored by the collective creative and operational capacities of nineteen Core Partners. They are individuals from diverse artistic disciplines and geographies who are the leading edge of cultural change through artistic creation, programming, scholarship and organizing.
  3. Robert van Leer, the Senior Vice President of Artistic Planning, originally approached us and after a year of intensive planning meetings became an ArtChangeUS Core Partner. An excellent example of a well contextualized introduction by non-Native organizers. Alternate ROOTS convened April 20–21, 2017. p 4.
  4. A good case study for why  building  relationships matters: Dakota  perspective  on the Walker Art Center’s attempt to install and subsequent removal of Sam Durant’s Scaffold sculpture. One of the gallows replicated was used for the hanging of thirty-eight Dakota men in 1862, the largest U.S. mass execution.
  6. immigration-smithsonian-journeys-travel-quarterly-180959441/


Roberta Uno

ROBERTA UNO is a theater director and writer, is the Director of Arts in a Changing America (ArtChangeUS), based at the California Institute of the Arts.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2017

All Issues