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February 25, 2015 / Rebekah Seder, Editor

Advancing a more equitable arts sector for a better region

By Rebekah Seder
Senior Program Manager
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

A vibrant arts sector helps create a vibrant region. The arts spur economic growth and neighborhood development; improve educational outcomes and promote creative problem-solving skills; they give voice to issues of social justice; and they generally make cities better places to live. The evidence of this is clear in the Greater Washington region, which is increasingly seen as a cultural hub. Just recently, the National Center for Arts Research ranked the Washington area first in a list of the most “vibrant” regions in the country.

For those who support the arts – and those whose mission it is to support underserved communities – ensuring that people in all parts of our region, and from all walks of life, have the opportunity to experience and participate in the arts is important. As our region, along with the rest of the country, undergoes dramatic demographic changes, ensuring that the arts reach everyone is both more urgent and more challenging.

At a recent gathering of WRAG’s Arts & Humanities Working Group, funders considered some of these challenges. The conversation, framed by Clay Lord and Abe Flores from Americans for the Arts (AFTA), prompted more questions than it answered about how to advance diversity and equity in the cultural sector in our region, a place marked by inequities that frequently play out along racial lines.

Demographic shifts have real implications for arts organizations. Data show that “traditional” arts organizations (museums, orchestras, opera, etc ) serve predominantly whiter, older, and more affluent than average audiences – and the composition of their staffs, boards, artists, and donors frequently mirror those trends. Big arts institutions, which often attract significant funding, aren’t always accessible to diverse audiences, while small neighborhood-based organizations that serve local communities sometimes lack the professional capacity to attract major funding. Just as some neighborhoods are “food deserts,” there are parts of our region that could be viewed as “art deserts” too, particularly in terms of the level of philanthropic support flowing to those areas.

These trends easily lead into discussions of big systemic inequities in our society, like the pervasive lack of high quality arts education, especially in low-income schools; funding practices that privilege established organizations with professional staff and experience with institutional funders; and organizational hiring and governance practices that perpetuate exclusivity. These obstacles can seem insurmountable, but arts leaders throughout the country are addressing them in new ways.

Locally, arts organizations and grantmakers have been grappling with this for some time. Currently, local arts agencies in six jurisdictions are taking on small-scale approaches to tackling these issues, through AFTA’s Greater DC Diversity Pilot Initiative.

While public arts agencies have a major role to play in ensuring a thriving, diverse arts ecosystem throughout the region, private philanthropy can support these efforts as well. Arts funders can encourage their grantees to consider ways to reach new audiences, by providing support for leadership development; fundraising, marketing, and community outreach; and capacity building to learn how to become more diverse, implement those plans, and develop metrics for success. Finally, funders can consider and address the ways that their own grantmaking and evaluation practices and priorities might exclude smaller, more diverse organizations from successfully applying for funding.

Click here to learn more about WRAG’s Arts & Humanities Working Group or contact Rebekah Seder.

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