Are the Arts Just Using Activism Language to Sell Tickets?

Illustration: Ryan Blocker.

Recently, I sat on a panel about racial justice in the arts at the Chicago Lake FX Summit + Expo. I shared the stage with lovely colleagues who could brilliantly shift between the more esoteric and abstract questions about racism in the arts and the practicality of implementing programs. These were folks doing really impressive work to address racism in the arts and outside of the arts. But a discomfort crept up for me in that discussion that has been a bit of gadfly in my life for some time now. In talking about my own work as an arts administrator, I was borrowing the language of activism. I also have noticed others in the field — artists, curators, administrators, philanthropic organizations — do the same thing. How might the use of activist rhetoric be a bit…complicated?

For the last few years, a number of major philanthropies have shifted their focus away from diversity initiatives to addressing systemic inequality. In November 2015, just two years after he stepped into the role as president of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker wrote an open letter detailing the foundation’s refocusing of its efforts to address structural inequality through the FordForward initiative. Ford was one of the largest and most public organizations to take on this refocus, but a lot of other foundations were doing the same. It’s up for debate whether the spaces they funded were leading that charge or if it was the foundations themselves or some combination. It was also around that time that it became clear that the term “diversity” was falling out of fashion.

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I distinctly remember a conference on museums and race where several attendees expressed their dissatisfaction with the word “diversity.” Their critique was that “diversity” often serves as a cosmetic fix; that it stands for bringing more black and brown people into the fold, but not to examine the structures that kept them out of the fold in the first place, or what kind of agency they will have within institutions. “Inclusion” was also critiqued because, the attendees said, it suggests a power dynamic in which someone does the including but doesn’t examine their relationship to power. I began to notice that the new language supplanting the old language was more radical, more activism-oriented. In fact, my activist and organizer friends were using the same language as my arts friends. Everyone was talking intersectionality, being woke and dismantling racism. Given the current political moment, that certainly has intensified.

When I noticed the shift, I was working on audience development initiatives while the activism I saw friends and colleagues participating in addressed prison reform, the bail system and police brutality. They were fighting for people’s rights to just be — to move freely through the world — but we were all using the rhetoric of liberation. I’m not claiming a hierarchy of importance. I’m aware that some folks can successfully merge an artistic and administrative practice with an activist one, but not everyone can. I also affirm that art can be liberating; that activism and art do not exist on opposite sides of a spectrum. But I couldn’t understand my work as activism, and I was curious, then, why I felt I could still use its language.

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What first troubled me about the conferences and panels I was attending was how little thought was given to the origin of these terms. Where were these terminologies coming from? I would participate in dialogues about intersectional feminism but there would be no mention of Kimberlé Crenshaw. In fact, it was activists and academics who fought for these terms and for these frameworks. Even in anti-racist spaces, not much consideration was being given to the history of the theft of intellectual labor from people of color. Was I complicit in perpetuating that history by using terms without critically investigating their origin or crediting their authors?

Even the terms we have now discarded have histories of radical people who fought for them. From the 1970s through the ’90s, multiculturalism emerged as an ideological response to liberation movements and changing US demographics: the idea that there was not one dominant cultural narrative but there could be several identities simultaneously, each respecting the other. However, author Jeff Chang points out in his book Who We Be, that very idea was a battle site for the culture wars:

The culture wars were always framed as a struggle for the soul of America, a clash of competing narratives: the story of the great America we are in danger of losing forever versus the story of a hopeful emerging America. The nation’s colorization might lead to the end of American civilization or the beginning of a great national transformation. The culture wars made clear that race remained America’s most troubled divide.

In other words, multiculturalism was the radical politic of its time.

It also concerns me that the new “woke” language hasn’t been accompanied by substantive institutional change. A Mellon Foundation survey in 2015 found that “72% of AAMD (Association of Art Museum Directors) staff is Non-Hispanic White, and 28% belongs to historically underrepresented minorities.” Of the positions most associated with upper-level decision-making (curators, conservators, educators), 84% are white (non-Hispanic). Have the language shifts aided us in making substantive change or does it serve as a sort of social capital? It lets you know who has been to the latest conferences and who is a part of the current dialogues. And many of the conversations I have been a part of are just dialogues about language. And while being able to name oneself is a huge issue for marginalized people, it is not the entirety of the work. Are these conferences having a real impact in the field? Without institutional change, arts organizations could actually be using activist language to uphold white supremacy.

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An even more pressing concern for me is that is may be unethical (or at least morally questionable) to conflate audience development initiatives around diversity with activist work. Let me be clear: I firmly believe arts spaces should actively strive to reflect the communities they serve. As I mentioned earlier, art can be liberatory and art can be activism. I am part of many programs and projects meant to better service communities of color. What I am saying is that I am not sure people of color purchasing tickets to a performance they might not have attended without some intervention on the part of the institution should be framed as a liberatory act.

I believe part of my work as an arts administrator is to remind communities of color and marginalized folks of their own creativity — to ignite creative passions for people, to lift up diverse artistic practices and artists, to use art to undo racism. But what I try to hold onto is that there is a long, racist history of looking at communities of color as untapped financial markets. If I’m truly committed to the political, social, economic and creative liberation of people of color, I should be invested in that liberation beyond a potential benefit to my institutions. And my concerns should extend beyond language. You can’t be #woke just to sell tickets.