Calling Out Arts Organizations: This is Our Fault

The run-down PIX Theatre on Main Street in Sleepy Eye, MN. Photo: via Flickr User Diversey.

Here is a quote:

The world is a complicated place, and there’s a lot of division between people. The performing arts tend to unify people in a way nothing else does.

I understand that blame is rarely a productive place to start. Casting aspersions is easy compared to doing the actual work. I also recognize that there is a difference between casting blame and taking ownership. I’m unsure how to get us to do the latter without also doing the former. And productivity will be what I do next week. But right here and right now there is a point I can’t shake:

I blame nonprofit and regional theaters for the election of President Trump.

Story continues below.

Now we wring our hands and ask why?

There are definitely other bakers of this shit pie we’re all currently feasting on, but I have some very specific ire reserved for the theater community. I will also be perfectly clear: this is my artistic community I’m talking about. This is me living my values: Since I asked white people to pick fights in their spaces, I need to pick a few in mine.

We, the arts arm of the nonprofit industrial complex, let this happen.

Theater, and art in general, have the power to change the world. And way too many of us relinquished that power in service of preserving our donor base and protecting white fragility. We used our power to produce Miss Saigon. We used our power to produce The Mikado. We used our power to enable blackface, brownfaceredface, cripface and yellowface. We used our power to victimize women. We used our power to produce multiple stories about white people lamenting to other white people about how the world is changing in front of audiences of white people. We used our resources to keep our lights on and our heads down while ignoring the small-handed, bloviating barbarian at the gate.

And now he is here and we are “shocked.” Why? We built this.

Story continues below.

Every time we ignored “diversity” in service of protecting the comfort of our “older” patrons, we built this. Every time we didn’t produce that daring, challenging work that might cause people to wrestle with their whiteness because “it may alienate some people,” we built this. Every time we stopped a line of action with “we aren’t a social justice organization,” we built this. Every time we said “I just don’t think they’re ready for that,” we built this. And we were right: they weren’t ready because we didn’t ask them to be. We didn’t ask that much of ourselves.

We sold our future and the safety of our fellow Americans for some ticket sales, season subscribers and temporary job security. And now that bill is due.

Casting aspersions is easy compared to doing the actual work.

This election was not won on facts, it was won on stories. Trump told a racist, sexist, misogynist, xenophobic, able-ist story that millions of people wanted to hear and we let him go unchallenged. Sure, we opined on the Internet (like I am doing presently) and bemoaned to our colleagues. But we also let that racist comment from a board member slide, or we kept up appearances at Thanksgiving, or we produced all-white season after all-white season to keep a certain sect of our audience comfortable. We relinquished our power to inspire and influence in service of the status quo. We hoped that someone else would fight the good fight. And others did. Then they lost. And now we wring our hands and ask why?

Story continues below.

We let them down. That’s why.

Shortly after the election results were final, Dan Rather said:

This is a conversation that I need you to be a part of. Do not opt out. Your voice matters now more than ever. I will continue to be here in the days and weeks ahead. And we shall endeavor, together, to find a path forward in the best of America’s ideals.

While I agree with him, I need us to acknowledge the ways in which we already opted out. We have already failed to do our part. We need to own that:

Nine times out of ten, in the arts as in life, there is actually no truth to be discovered; there is only error to be exposed.

I want to acknowledge that there are many theaters, nonprofit arts organizations and smaller community organizations doing the things that need to be done. I see you and I’m sorry that the field did not support you when you were trying to save us all. That is our error to expose and it is our duty to expose it. We have to be bolder going forward. We have to take a stand against oppression and call it by its name especially when it can affect us. Otherwise, we are trading our comfort for the oppression of others. Speaking truth to power is one of the best tools in our toolbox. I hope, going forward, that we are brave enough to use it.