whom much is given, much is required.” A stalwart in the Black creative
community here in Columbus, Ohio said that to me when I started a job
at a local arts council in 2015. It was a place I had always dreamed of
working. Who wouldn’t want to support artists while simultaneously
effecting change in their community? I was honored, and beyond excited.
The support I received from my immediate creative community was
immeasurable, and I carried with me their dreams, as well as my own. I
could not let them down, lest I be seen as a failure.
That same excitement quickly turned to dread. It wasn’t the work—far
from it; I absolutely loved my job and what it meant for me personally
as well as the community. However, I soon realized I was one of only two
Black arts administrators in the entire city. Let that sink in for a
moment … I’ll wait … Two arts administrators of color in a major
metropolitan city of approximately 880,000. A population that, by the
way, makes Columbus the 15th largest city in the United States. A fact
of which we are very proud. Regardless, that old adage, “Pride comes
before a fall,” often holds true; and as far as I’m concerned—as an arts
administrator with over 15 years in the sector—Columbus was failing its
While the past five years have seen a major influx of creatives and
the development of grassroots and community-centered arts-based
organizations, many of which were developed and run by Black and Brown
artists, the only two arts councils in the city cannot seem to keep up. I
continuously witnessed Black and Brown artists be passed up for funding
or representation, while white creatives remained at the forefront.
Yet, come every Black History Month, the council was sure to reach out
to a Black creative or two. You know, just for appearance’s sake. Their
ideas of support are outdated, and let’s not even begin to talk about
the conflicts of interests that occur. In my office of 10 employees, six
staff members resigned during my time there; that’s 60% of the staff,
which is both an astounding and troubling percentage for employee
retention for such a small organization.
I was the only non-white administrator, and with that came much
backlash from my white supervisors. For example, having led a community
centered workshop, I was approached by artists who were concerned with
the lack of funding and representation for diverse groups of creatives. I
wholeheartedly agreed. We could do better, and I would make sure
“better” happened. However, when I took the news back to my office, the
only reply I received was, “You’ll just have to let them know it can’t
be about Black and white artists all the time.” Not convinced? Here’s
another example. A statewide meeting for all arts administrators was
held where we could talk about strategic plans for the coming years. Out
of over 100 professionals, again, there were just two of us Black
administrators, the same two, in the room. If your stomach didn’t drop
when you read that as mine did, I’m afraid to say you are part of the
problem. Add to that constantly being overlooked for promotion despite
my years of experience, coupled with senior administration’s inability
to associate with, understand, or care about peoples outside of their
own ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or immediate community, and they’re
guaranteed to fail eventually.
I became hyper-aware of my front facing role in the community and was
ashamed to be part of the “ivory tower.” My time was mostly spent
appeasing my peers whilst remaining loyal to my employers. No matter
what I did, I could not make the other nine people in my office realize
that the ways in which they were approaching arts funding and support
were antiquated and ineffectual. I suppose that’s because out of 27
board members, a vast majority of them are city council members, one
even being the daughter-in-law of the arts council president.
Additionally, as if it couldn’t get any worse, the arts council does not
officially report to any governing body apart from the board, making it
impossible for me to bring about change.
If you do not happen to be a Black or Brown woman, you’ll never
understand the strife we face in the workplace, and yes, that also
includes arts-based jobs. Those of us in the creative sector have a
tendency to pat ourselves on the back and think we’re not susceptible to
the same prejudices and hiring shortcomings as the rest of the world.
This is simply not true. Having been in the field for more than half of
my career, and working with numerous national and international arts
councils, I can say that the arts are severely lacking in diversity,
which in and of itself seems to be a contradiction.
Inequity needs to cease being the status quo, but remaining ignorant
to difference, diversity, and inclusion on all levels seems to have
become industry standard. So, how do we change these practices? I task
arts leaders to look at their hiring practices, including their human
resources personnel; dismantle their state of privileged seclusion;
abolish the wage gap; be more accessible; be purposeful in hiring and
community outreach; hire experienced employees; and participate in
annual implicit bias training. It’s 2019—at this point, there’s really
no excuse to lack a diverse workforce; and for companies that still
don’t understand, check out these 50+ Ideas for Cultivating Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace. I promise you’ll thank me later.