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.
Shelly Gilbride is the Programs Officer at the California Arts Council. She can be reached at email@example.com.