How is Boston’s arts community honoring the commitments it made when signing a letter demanding racial equity last year?
This article is the fourth in a series. Part of it was reported as far back as March 2021, and while we have attempted to keep it timely, it is possible some details may be out of date. We will note any updates in this online version. -Dig Editors
This series has been slowly exploring the ways that Boston’s arts community is honoring the commitments it made when it signed Boston Arts for Black Lives’ “Open Letter from Boston Arts and Cultural Workers in Demand of Racial Equity and Social Transformation.” We’ve talked with folks from almost every sector of Boston’s arts community represented among signatories to the letter, and—as we approach the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder—we’ll soon check in with each group for a one-year update.
To refresh reader memory, the series is trying to take a snapshot of the city’s arts community’s reasoning as it works towards changing its priorities, infrastructure and culture.
Today we’ll step back to the level of “city” and see what things look like from there.
In addition to arts-focused museums, nonprofits, and academic galleries, Boston has a mayor’s office dedicated to the arts and the city’s cultural life. Its function is to support the arts in Boston’s neighborhoods and public spaces; to support artists; and to advocate for the importance of the arts within the city’s larger agenda, including its importance to Boston’s economic and other kinds of well-being.
The city’s current arts and culture team, installed by Mayor Martin Walsh, was well represented among signers of the open letter. Walsh declared racism an “emergency and a public health issue” on the same day that the letter was published—June 12, 2020—so employees of the Office of Arts and Culture were presumably fully empowered to sign it in their professional capacities. The city also announced funding and an intra-organizational cabinet focused on issues of equity and diversity that month, so when asked what drove individual choices to sign the letter, staff from the office all said it resonated with already-in-progress priorities.
“When I saw the letter,” says Kara Elliott-Ortega, chief of arts and culture for the city of Boston, “I saw a lot of things that were questions or challenges that we had already committed to [addressing] in some way, either as a city or in our office.”
What kinds of things? “Things like decentralizing how decision making is [done] or challenging the notion of institutions and gatekeepers. Really focusing on relationships with BIPOC* organizations and artists, and going to where the work is happening.”
For her, the letter put cards on the table for the whole city to acknowledge communally.
“Just fundamentally,” Elliott-Ortega reflects, “being able to say we’re all participating in racist institutions, and being clear and upfront about that as a starting point for what needs to change and what needs to happen [to create that change.]”
Other organizations that have been profiled here articulated plans to address the letter’s concerns. But the arts office had already begun its labor by the time the letter made its rounds.
“We’ve been working with a consultant this whole time—for a year now—on what it means for arts and culture to be more than an idea.” Elliott-Ortega explains. The arts office has been thinking carefully about the “culture” part of their mission—about shaping the city’s culture. “What does it mean” Elliott-Ortega asks, “to really challenge embedded racism, and colonialism? And all of these other aspects that just come with being an institution?”
Elliott-Ortega is not asking this question philosophically, she’s asking what it looks like on a day-to-day basis “to stand for something that’s different [from the past], and put that into practice as an organization.” Very specifically, her team is using what it has jurisdiction over to investigate how to “change how an organization works from within what we can control, as a 15- or 16-person team.”
This is the essence of the project the letter has stimulated: Changing institutions from the top down is labyrinthian and overwhelming work, but each individual letter-signer has (theoretically) committed to doing this work where they are, using whatever is at their disposal. Which includes whatever part of their organizations’ process they touch personally, and the strength and presence of their own feelings.
Sharon Amuguni, manager of Boston’s artists-in-residence program, describes an early equity training meeting in the arts office where open communication began to shift the group’s internal culture.
“One of the first equity trainings was very intense and emotional, but we had a moment to just sit with those emotions …” She recalls the whole group pausing, and then claiming the power in the pause. “Yes, this work is about the program’s capacity, but it’s also about us as people coming together and working on how we’re standing up and supporting each other as colleagues.” She describes immediately applying this approach to the AIR program. “Just trying to be attentive to the fact that artists are also people that are living in this time. And [there’s particular stress on] people of color, and some are parents … so, being attentive and being flexible and responsive.”
Now, she says, “if we need to pause when we’re having a meeting and say let’s end things earlier, or let’s take a break, or let’s check in on how people are feeling, we understand that.”
Amuguni is a city official whose practice has shifted. City hall is accessible to those needing a marriage license or to pay a parking ticket, but being accessible is different from being a welcoming place, a comforting place. At least for Boston AIRs, Amuguni is making it this. And then the AIRs bring this expectation into their work with other city departments.
Julia Ryan, artist resource manager for the city of Boston, also mentions small ways she’s shifted how she does her work.
“Since the Summer, with the death of George Floyd, and the general politics of police brutality and of navigating that and navigating racism more publicly in our city, one thing I’ve been trying to do is use my monthly newsletter [to the city’s artists] to help people understand ways that they can plug into or get more involved in city processes.” Processes that might impact them directly as either artists or residents—like commission meetings and development projects. “I want people to have a better fluency about just how they can get engaged, if that’s what they’re looking for.”
Of course it’s not possible to fully separate the arts office’s activities from the city’s other offices’ activities, and there are high rates of inequity in how the work of some offices has been carried out. Ryan is pointing towards the fact that holding the city accountable for change falls directly back on its citizenry.
Because government transparency is legislated, assessment is fairly straightforward. “Our demographics are already posted, you can go see them,” says Elliott-Ortega. “You can see our salaries, you can see the demographics of who works for what, and you can see how our money gets spent.” And Elliott-Ortega invites more of this. “How do we increase that level of transparency and invite more people into that process, have more feedback, more community engagement and community decision making…I think maybe that’s a place where we can really model what that looks like.”
When asked if the city can push its major art institutions towards increased appreciation for transparency, the answer was no—not in a direct way. Instead, the city thinks in terms of what Ryan calls “Collective impact frameworks. It’s basically a way of thinking about how many organizations with a shared goal can pool resources and work together effectively to make those goals come to life.”
Because Boston doesn’t fund private sector arts institutions, and in fact sometimes seeks collaboration with them, it doesn’t have any power to sanction those that are secretive about the equity of the distribution of their resources. But it does have the ability to bring organizations together to foster cultural shifts. So, the city is creating tables, and inviting everyone to them.
“The Cultural Equity Learning Community—which we were one of the initial supporters of—is a theory of change that is not top-down racial equity training.” Explains Elliott-Ortega. “Whomever wants to participate can participate. And we saw some institutions participate, we saw some people using it to influence their boards. And then we saw staff and individuals, we saw philanthropy folks signing up for it. So I think there’s something to be said for not meeting the institutional hierarchy where it’s at, and instead saying, actually, we’re going to do this decentralized process and you if you agree to these terms, and you’re interested in this process, then you participate.”
This voluntary structure, focused on achieving shared goals, implies equality of footing. So, when the city wanted to partner with a grassroots organization, the organization was comfortable setting the standards that the city would have to meet in terms of its equity, access and inclusion practices in order to work with them. In the past, an organization would have had to meet city standards, but at this moment, the smaller organization is ahead of the city in its social justice orientation, so the city wants to learn how to meet its standards.
And perhaps someday exceed them.
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*Black, Indigenous and people of color