I want to share some tips for finding and building community as arts professionals of color. We live in a time when Google spreadsheets are documenting how arts administrators are underpaid and undervalued; when activists and cultural workers increasingly demand accountability from arts-institution boards (especially when the flow of money is connected to the oppression of Black and brown bodies); when POC arts professionals are not being cultivated to become the leaders that we need to shift systemic racial inequities within the sector. POC arts administrators need safe spaces to share ideas and resources and also to collaborate on innovative ways to create that sector-wide shift.
To me, community is a sense of belonging with others — be it physical, digital or other. It can happen when there is latitude to accomplish a task, make a protest, or to celebrate or share knowledge. Community offers opportunities for individuals to connect around shared interests and values.
To generate this post, I reached out to my friend, colleague and professional guru Monica Montgomery. She is executive director of Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center in Maryland. In 2014, she also co-founded Museum Hue, an “arts platform for people of color”:
We craft a welcoming, creative environment that encourages exploration, investigation, collaboration, imagination, and creation in museums throughout major cities, countrysides, and everywhere in between. Our vast cultural experiences paints a larger portrait of our transnational, cosmopolitan community across the globe. We curate Hueseum tours and Huenity mixers that provide authentic participation in various forms of expression as well as disrupts the homogeneity of the mainstream art world. Museum Hue is recognized as a cultural movement and structural intervention within the creative ecosystem.
Museum Hue’s social media presence, in particular, welcomes and activates the exchange of opportunities, career resources, fellowships, residencies and cultural news centered on people of color.
When I asked Monica why finding community matters, this is what she said:
It is beneficial for people to see themselves reflected in the field so they know there is a path and professionals who are traveling it — before, behind and alongside them. It’s especially helpful for skill-building and transparent conversations about navigating the workplace and sector.
“Navigate” is an accurate verb. As POC arts professionals working within predominantly white-led institutions, we often navigate organizational cultures in which diversity, equity and inclusion may be readily spoken words, but they are still used amid micro- and macro-aggressions, a lack of professional growth opportunities, isolation, managerial neglect and plain old indifference by institutional leaders. Even when working in POC-led institutions, especially those with a certain operating budget range and staff size, there is often financial underinvestment from stakeholders; this, too, can lead to some of the situations we face at white-led institutions.
Not every POC arts professional experiences this, of course. But there is still a sense that we “navigate,” for example, interpersonal and structural racism in hiring, promotion and communication practices, using language both spoken and unspoken. It can be exhausting and discouraging.
So with this in mind, here are five tips for finding community as a POC arts professional.
Find Opportunities to Learn
As Monica told me, “I’ve found community by going to conferences, speaking to every POC I saw, and filling a void — creating a community where there wasn’t one.” So attend a panel discussion, a book launch, a symposium or conference. Signing up for a bespoke class or training also can be one of the best ways to find and build community. If you have a chance to experience a single-identity group-learning event (e.g., race or gender), it can be empowering to reflect on personal and professional experiences in a space with shared perspective and language, and exchange peer feedback on the tools we use to address conflicts and interpersonal dynamics.
Formal professional development programs are also expanding to more explicitly focus on POC arts administrators. Americans for the Arts offers an Arts and Culture Leaders of Color (ACLC) fellowship program in the Great Lakes region. The two-year pilot program aims to be:
…a model for systemic national arts leadership change by coupling advanced leadership development for ACLC Fellows with targeted learning opportunities for their close professional mentors and regional arts leaders who, all together, work to advance their approaches to management towards greater racial and cultural equity in the Great Lakes region.
And on Nov. 9 and 10, the Arts Administrators of Color Network will host an annual convening that is expected to draw hundreds of POC arts professionals. The event will connect and examine leadership development, entrepreneurship, program management, civic engagement, self-care, holistic business practices and the impact of race on the sector. I’m participating on a Pathways to Arts Leadership panel, so come say hello!
Engage with Shared-Interest Groups
I can’t overstate the importance of connecting with affinity groups and associations that facilitate connection and resource sharing among and between POC arts professionals. Museum Hue is incredibly active on Facebook, with job listings, articles and programming opportunities. There’s also information on how it advocates for POC in art, culture, history, education, creative economy and museums. All posts are moderated.
The Arts Administrators of Color Network is also very active on Facebook; several posts a day contain information and resources that I could spend all day reading and responding to if I could. The creators and managers of these communities often prompt questions, debate and the random “Amen!” for workplace occurrences commonly faced by POC folk — especially when no one else gets it. Other active groups on social media include Binder Full of People of Color in the Art World, Theater Folks of Color and NYC Black Theatre Network.
Here’s Monica: “I created a series called Mentorathon to aid POC in the museum arts and culture field who didn’t have mentors and advisement. It is an evening of speed mentoring and interactive brainstorming for entrepreneurs, artists and small business to crowdsource advice from the creative community.”
Having mentors as a POC arts administrator is crucial to building community in the sector. It’s a forum to reflect, to share experiences and war stories. It’s a check-in: “Do you see this incident the way I’m seeing it?”; “How did you navigate this type of situation?”; “What would you do in this instance?”; “What are your thoughts on this new job opportunity?”; “What do you know about their organizational culture?”
Women of Color in the Arts offers a Leadership Through Mentorship Initiative that “pairs emerging and midlevel administrators with more seasoned leaders with the explicit purpose of cultivating long-term professional investment and self-sustainability for women of color in the performing arts field.”
But mentors needn’t always be someone you view as higher in a leadership or professional status category. In peer mentorship, there is also beauty and power.
Build your own community
Can I reflect on something that Monica stated earlier in this post? “It is beneficial for people to see themselves reflected in the field so they know there is a path and professionals who are traveling it — before, behind and alongside them. It’s especially helpful for skill-building and transparent conversations about navigating the workplace and sector.”
While many opportunities exist for you to hop on the community bandwagon, it can be daunting to find a fit that feels right. Sometimes, if you have the interest, stamina and commitment, maybe you can create a space for other people with shared interests and identities.
After the 2016 election, I experienced the full range of emotions and knew I wanted to be with POC arts creatives to consider what resistance and mobilization efforts might look like in our sector. After attending some disastrous, very disorganized arts-politics events, my friends and I decided to host a potluck. There were 25 artists, curators, magazine editors and actors; African, Arab, Asian and Latinx folk were represented in the room. We vented. We laughed. We cried. We said we wanted more opportunities for connect. Almost three years later, our Potluck Project has a listserv of more than 200 POC creatives. We share professional and creative opportunities, and we continue to organize potlucks sporadically through the year. We feel empowered and supported — like a community.
This quote from Monica is one of my favorites:
Givers gain! We will operate in a spirit of generosity, intentional community and ‘solutionary’ thinking to access the power of crowdsourcing creativity for optimal results.
Enjoy your journey to find, build and expand your community as a POC arts professional. Connecting with likeminded knowledge- and community-seekers can be one of the most empowering experiences. It can also be incredibly draining if you don’t maintain a sense of presence in the moment, even within a space you may have helped create. Never lose sight of why you’re looking to connect with others. Try your best to create conditions where you can allow yourself to listen, learn, empathize, contribute and grow.