Shelly’s Musings: Meetings, Convenings, and Cultural Equity


Shelly Gilbride

In the fall, I’ve been on the road and in the air much more than usual. In the span of 30 days, I workshopped best practices in arts education with my fellow Arts Education Managers across the country, learned about the most recent research on cultural equity and creative placemaking with other Grantmakers in the Arts, been inspired to nurture diverse arts leaders in the future with the Western State Arts Federation and helped the California Arts Council to allocate $9 Million in grant funding in the coming year.  Meetings, panels, presentations, think tanks, work groups, agendas, action items, work plans, reflections, to dos – it’s been inspiring, exhilarating and exhausting.  There is one tie that binds these events together, a constant theme and omnipresent issue that grantmakers, artists, educators and cultural workers are all grappling with – Equity. Equity is the central issue in the arts and culture field around which all other topics like evaluation, data collection, sustainability and artistic ingenuity revolve and return to.

What does Cultural Equity mean?

Cultural equity, racial equity, educational equity, structural equity – the quest for fairness and justice needs many modifiers. I’ll focus on that first one –what exactly is cultural equity? I ask that question for real, because the term seems to mean different things to different people. For some, cultural equity is inherently about race and ethnicity. Some think it’s about the preservation of cultural forms.  For others, it’s about cultural sensitivity. It can be about one of those things, and often it is about all of those things.

I’ve looked for a stable definition for cultural equity – one that is from a reputable source, that is not full of jargon, that any grownup can understand, and that is distinct from the public understanding of diversity, inclusion, multiculturalism and access.  Has cultural equity become the jargon basket that holds all of those terms? A friend of mine recently asked me what I was working on and I responded that I was working on a new cultural equity program. She looked at me quizzically and said, “like a diversity program?” That question could have easily been “like a multicultural program, or an access program?” Well, yes, it is a diversity thing and an access thing, and a multicultural thing and an inclusion thing.

I couldn’t find a definition for cultural equity that I liked (and please send good definitions my way), but here is what my colleague Jason Jong and I came up with: Cultural equity refers to “the effort to minimize disparities in accessible and relevant arts opportunities to all people.” For the California Arts Council, cultural equity reflects a desire to address inequities within the cultural landscape of the state, and to promote cultural practices that are representative of all of California’s diverse communities.

Where did all of this come from?

Holly Sidford’s seminal study in 2011 reported that large cultural institutions with budgets over $5 million most often steeped in Euro-centric artistic forms comprise less than 2 percent of the universe of arts and cultural nonprofits, yet receive more than half of the sector’s total revenue. Since then, research about the disparities in the field has grown and the depth of knowledge has deepened. As the LA Times recently reported, the diversity and multicultural programs of the past thirty years have not led to significant change. The 2 percent universe that Sidford describes is the reality after many years of diversity programs. What is the California  Arts Council’s role in that universe, and what can we do about it? An overwhelming majority of California Arts Council applicants and grantees have budgets of less than $500,000, let alone $5M. I don’t feel like we directly perpetuate the cultural ivory tower, but we are still very much a part of this inequitable reality—and we need to be a leading part of the solution.

Former California  Arts Council Director Barry Hessenius summed it up nicely in his eponymous blog about the opening of the Grantmakers in the Arts conference: “funders are trying all kinds of approaches, and it’s too early yet to pass judgment on what might work and what won’t. But time is part of the problem, for delay in equity is denial of equity and the field must make some giant leaps to address the inequity issue.”  At the California  Arts Council, we are working to figure out how best to make those leaps to address equity from within the institutional walls of a state arts agency…so maybe we are climbing rather than leaping.

What do we know? A Programs Perspective

Since we have defined what the California  Arts Council means by cultural equity, we are taking every opportunity to engage in this discussion. We sent Jason Jong to Policy Link’s amazingly comprehensive Equity Summit in Los Angeles, where over 3,000 equity-minded folks from across the country engaged in this discussion. We are taking stock of where the California  Arts Council is in relation to equity and where we are going.

Where we are now: Scratching the surface

Our history with the Multicultural Entry and Advancement Program, our work in Corrections and Juvenile Justice, and our signature Local Impact grant program indicate a philosophical and mission-driven focus on equity that is authentic and real. The Arts Council programs staff knows intrinsically, if anecdotally, that we serve a very diverse cohort of grantees, even if we have a difficult time proving it with demographics data – a lack we are beginning to address by revamping our final reports to include more specific demographic and quantitative questions.

Applicants to our grant programs tend to be small grassroots organizations, or lean mid-sized organizations. 40% of organizations that apply to our grant programs have no full time employees—zero! With that in mind, our programs staff is keenly aware of the burden that grant applications and reports put on an organization. Weare working to minimize or abolish the possible inequity that we may be inadvertently perpetuating through our grant application processes. We are always working to improve our processes – revising final reports to include more quantitative and demographic data, and streamlining application questions. We are considering how we may provide bilingual materials, build more robust technical assistance tools for applicants, and receive more timely and constructive feedback on the application process.

Where we are going: Cultural Pathways

We are also addressing cultural equity through a new pilot grant program called Cultural Pathways (guidelines coming soon!). Jason has enthusiastically and thoughtfully dived head first into these cultural equity waters, consulting with experts as well as community members. Sometimes it feels like this cultural equity conversation is happening around and about people and communities without their actual engagement in the discussion.  We hope that Cultural Pathways will raise the volume for voices of some unheard communities in the state, and bring those communities authentically to the table.

Cultural Pathways will only be open to organizations and artist groups that are not current or recent California  Arts Council grantees. This acknowledges our need to reach different communities in addition to those we currently serve. In the pilot phase, Cultural Pathways will be a two-year grant program for small cultural organizations that serve communities of color, recent immigrant and refugee communities, and tribal groups. Adopting a “grants plus” strategy, the grantee organizations will each receive $5000 a year of general operating support as well as a host of technical assistance and professional development services. We are trying to address all of the potential barriers to access—like language, technology and communication—as best we can, knowing that we will learn a lot in this first pilot year.

The travel is over, and my feet are on the ground here in Sacramento for a few weeks. The implementation of the Cultural Pathways program feels like a giant leap into the equity fray sometimes, and at other times it feels like a teeny baby step. At all times, it feels like good forward motion, sharing the knowledge and putting the learning to action so the California  Arts Council can help lead the charge to an equitable cultural future in California.

Blog5-ShellyHeadshotShelly Gilbride is the Programs Officer at the California Arts Council. She can be reached at

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Our Favorite Cook

For twenty-six years, Wayne Cook has been the linchpin of our programs staff. Everywhere we go, everyone knows Wayne. His cheerful grin and contagious enthusiasm have brightened many a convening, from staff meeting to national conference. His unique gifts have contributed mightily to the California Arts Council’s success. He seemed to love his job so much, we hoped he’d never retire. But alas, all good things must come to an end, and Wayne’s tenure has been a very, very good thing.

At the end of 2015, we are losing our favorite Cook.


Wayne grew up in Pittsburgh, a bright and charismatic lad who was both a voracious reader and an outstanding athlete. He was a football star in high school—so much a star that his 12th grade English class wrote a poem about Wayne’s skills as a running back.

One other experience in that English class stands out in his memory: The teacher’s assignment to prepare a verbal book report. Wayne memorized and delivered the Macbeth monologue that begins, “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” It made an impression on the teacher and the class. More importantly, it made an impression on Wayne. Just … not right away.

Wayne received a football scholarship to Kent State. He figured if his athletic career didn’t pan out, he’d become a psychiatrist. His future seemed to be taking shape quite nicely—and then, as often happens to the best-laid plans of mice and men, his life was abruptly derailed. During the summer before he was to start college, Wayne was in a car accident. A bad one.

The accident disabled Wayne both physically and mentally—temporarily, as it fortunately turned out, but at the time it was devastating. He says today he will never know how much he lost; he may have been a genius before the accident! But that summer he lost the ability to read, and had to start all over again with “Dick and Jane.” He lost his football scholarship. And while still under a doctor’s care, he was drafted.


In those dark days of the Vietnam war, if you joined the Army and agreed to serve an extra year, you were given some choice over your assignment. Wayne joined, and went to social work school (remember that idea he had about becoming a psychiatrist?). He found himself stationed at a military hospital at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, one of six guys waiting for the social work school to start. While waiting, they took other psych classes—eight hours a day for a year. Out in the civilian world, that’s enough class time to earn a degree.

At the end of that year, he passed a test and was assigned to a psychiatry unit at the Second General Hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, where he got to sit in on sessions with a renowned child psychologist. Thus was Wayne Cook introduced to play therapy…and anyone who knows him can guess how quickly his natural calling began to emerge.

Wayne Cook, then as now, was great working with kids. And did he excel at play therapy? You betcha.

One day he was assigned to work with a six year-old who would not speak. Wayne tried everything. He crawled on the floor, played with every toy in the room, tried to engage the child every which way. The kid refused to respond. For an hour Wayne played—or tried to play—with this boy who would not speak. Since he wouldn’t speak, Wayne tried the old, “Bet you can’t touch your nose!” trick. Repeatedly. The kid wouldn’t touch his nose, either.

At the end of the session, Wayne was exhausted and discouraged. He stood glumly in the playroom doorway, watching the kid leave, out the main door at the end of the hall. And then, just as his mom was holding the door for him, the child turned around—looked at Wayne—and touched his nose.


One day Wayne was approached by another clinic worker. Wayne really didn’t know him, but the guy saw Wayne walking down the hall and asked, “Hey, have you ever been in a play?”

Turned out the coworker was a playwright. He was casting Finally Gray, a 2-person piece he’d written for a black actor and a white actress. Wayne had not, in fact, ever been in a play—but he remembered how much he’d enjoyed performing that Macbeth monologue for his English class. So he agreed to try it, and joined the Borderline Players (so called because everyone involved worked in psychiatry in one way or another).

Wayne has been acting ever since.

When he returned to Pittsburgh after his military service, he studied theater at Point Park College—having received a scholarship working with inner-city kids through the Model Cities program. As a student, he performed at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and received his Equity card his freshman year. How? By getting cast as one of the muleteers in Man of La Mancha. It was a small part, but you know the old adage: There are no small parts, only small actors. In rehearsal, it was discovered that the small actor who was supposed to lift Aldonza in the dramatic “Little Bird” sequence, couldn’t lift her. Wayne lifted her easily, but the union would only allow a union actor to perform that maneuver…so Wayne received that coveted union card!

Wayne with Mister Rogers

But the biggest break during this part of his life was getting cast as “the black Mister Rogers” in an award-winning kids’ TV show on WICC-TV called “Cater Cousins.” (Wayne can still sing the song. Just ask him.) Billed as “a program that encourages kids to recognize their talents,” this role was right up Wayne’s alley. While starring in Cater Cousins, Wayne could not walk down the street or take public transportation in Pittsburgh; little kids recognized him everywhere he went. And some of them were visibly confused to see him outside the TV box.

Eventually Wayne faced the choice all actors of that day faced: New York or Los Angeles? Those were the only two cities in America where an actor could realistically (or semi-realistically) expect to build a career. Wayne was an east coast guy, but his biggest success was in television. So he headed for Los Angeles.


Instead of television, Wayne landed at the Performing Tree in Los Angeles— an Artists in Schools grantee of the California Arts Council. Through Performing Tree, he led drama workshops for many years, and was often asked for written instructions so that his work could be duplicated after he moved on to the next workshop site. “So,” says Wayne, “I wrote down everything I’ve ever done with a group of kids.” This eventually became Center Stage: A Curriculum for the Performing Arts, published in 1993 by Dale Seymour Publications. Once it was picked up by the Texas Board of Education, schools from coast to coast ordered it. To date, Wayne’s teaching techniques have reached at least 86,000 American teachers.

He left Los Angeles for the Sacramento region when an intriguing opportunity presented itself: leading theater workshops for inmates at Folsom State Prison. Wayne’s outstanding work as an Artist Facilitator at Folsom brought him to the attention of Governor George Deukmejian—Wayne still isn’t sure exactly how—and the governor offered him an appointment as Special Assistant to the Director of the California Arts Council. So Wayne left prison (ahem) and in 1990 joined the staff of the CAC.

Governor Deukmejian was on his way out at that point, and generally a governor’s appointees walk out the door when he does. We had to jump through a few hoops to keep Wayne. But we managed to scoot him over from his appointed position to a civil service position on the programs staff—and have hung onto him ever since.


Wayne’s unique life experiences made him invaluable to the California Arts Council. For over a quarter of a century he has been a leader in three of the most important services we offer this state: arts education, arts in corrections, and making arts accessible to all Californians, regardless of their ability or disability.

All that, and collegiality too…just the Halloween costumes the man came up with, year after year, have raised the bar to a height that may prove impossible for the rest of us to reach.


So this Thanksgiving, we give thanks for Wayne Cook. And to Wayne Cook.

Thank you, Wayne, for 26 years of outstanding service to this agency and this state. We know we will move forward, and grow, and change, and achieve many things—but we will never see your like again. Live long, Cookie, and prosper.


The Creative Economy in San Luis Obispo

by John Ashbaugh

I was pleased to join dozens of leading local artists and arts advocates for the second annual “Creative Economy” Forum on Monday, October 26 at the Performing Arts Center, San Luis Obispo. This event is sponsored by Arts Obispo, a countywide organization that partners with the California Arts Council to promote the visual, performing, and literary arts in San Luis Obispo. The Creative Economy Forum provided a key networking opportunity for several representatives of arts organizations and advocates for the arts.


The “creative economy” is an amazingly large piece of the state’s economic output – far more than is commonly believed: According to an analysis by the Otis College of Art and Design, the arts provide about 10% of the State’s economy, estimated at $294 billion in direct, indirect and induced spending. One of every ten jobs in California depends on the arts, almost 1.5 million jobs statewide. Recent State legislation (Assembly Bill 189) provides for the State Arts Council to designate “cultural districts,” which are defined as “a geographical area certified pursuant to [the bill] with a concentration of cultural facilities, creative enterprises, or arts venues.” Such districts are to be nominated by local communities, and will be certified by the Arts Council beginning in mid-2016. The Arts Council will be adopting a set of rules and an application process within a few months.

Keynote speaker for the Forum was the Director of the California Arts Council in Sacramento, Craig Watson. Mr. Watson explained that the idea of the AB 189 program is to bring “heat” to a defined, walkable neighborhood that “attracts artists, creative entrepreneurs, and cultural enterprises; encourages economic development and supports entrepreneurship in the creative community; encourages the preservation and reuse of historic buildings and other artistic and culturally significant structures; fosters local cultural development; provides a focal point for celebrating and strengthening the unique cultural identity of the community; and promotes opportunity without generating displacement or expanding inequality.”

At an afternoon workshop, I joined Mr. Watson and about 20 others in exploring the possibilities for a San Luis Obispo Cultural District. This City’s Mission Plaza – together with its proposed expansion through the Broad Street/Monterey Street intersection – represents a great opportunity for a potential Cultural District. This two-block area already contains several historic buildings as well as four sites specifically devoted to “artistic and culturally significant structures,” i.e. Old Mission and its Museum and Gift Shop; SLO Museum of Art (SLOMA, now proposed for expansion); the History Center of SLO County (also considering a possible expansion); and the Children’s Museum (recently expanded). The City is working on designs for a new parking structure nearby with about 400 spaces, and part of the site on Monterey Street, across from the Children’s Museum, is reserved for a theater. SLO Little Theater is considering the possibility of relocating from their current site to this location.

A State-certified Cultural District would reinforce fundraising efforts of all the organizations planning new or expanded arts/cultural facilities in close proximity to Mission Plaza, which already serves as “a focal point for celebrating and strengthening the unique cultural identity of the community.” Some workshop participants suggested that a designated Cultural District should also be extended north of Chorro Street to embrace the new Chinatown project, which will offer many new and renovated retail spaces as well as residential units in the upper floors. These spaces and units might be able to attract artists and/or galleries. In fact, the Blackstone Hotel at the northwest corner of Chorro and Monterey has just been leased by the developers (Copeland Properties) to Cal Poly for live-work spaces to be occupied by their “Hot House” students, who will bring a new burst of youthful creativity and innovative energy to the downtown.

Any Cultural District in downtown San Luis Obispo should attempt to include living space for working artists. Although few people reside within these downtown blocks at present, the City has been working with developers in this zone to provide additional housing in the downtown. A “Cultural District” must promote the availability of housing targeted to working artists, musicians, actors, writers, and others involved in the creative economy. A Cultural District could also include two downtown movie theaters that have artistic/historic significance: Jim Dee’s Palm Theater, the only remaining “art house” theater in the City; and the Fremont Theater between Osos and Santa Rosa. Thus, a Cultural District might be envisioned to span an area as large as five blocks along Monterey Street and Mission Plaza.

The City of San Luis Obispo is already engaging many downtown stakeholders in our proposed update to the Downtown Concept Plan. Additionally, we’re engaged with several arts and cultural organizations in this area as we prepare plans for our Mission Plaza extension. These include Old Mission Church, SLOMA, History Center, Little Theater, and Children’s Museum). Many possibilities are available; all of them suggest that we should respond to and promote the State’s new initiative under AB 189 to designate a San Luis Obispo Cultural District.



John Ashbaugh is the Vice Mayor of the City of San Luis Obispo. He can be reached at Header image: New Museum of Art and Southern Extension of Mission Plaza (proposed)