Artists who signed the ‘Boston Arts for Black Lives’ letter last year weigh in on what’s changed—and what hasn’t—in the regional arts scene since then
This is piece number five in a long, leisurely Dig Boston series examining the impact on Boston’s arts community of a June 2020 “open letter” circulated by a group identifying as “Boston Arts for Black Lives.” The letter and the group’s website have since been taken down from the internet, but an archived copy can be accessed here. The significance of the letter beyond the extremely specific commitments it asked its signers to advocate for, is that it was signed by hundreds of employees of Boston-area arts institutions, arts educators, community organizations, city officials, and individual artists (including myself).
The goal of this series was to get a baseline sense of where those who signed the letter were starting from in terms of the kind of reckoning and reconciliation work the letter called for. The hope was to create a collective snapshot of the arts community that the whole city could look back on in 2021, from (ideally) a different place in terms of equity and inclusion. And so here we are, in 2021.
The very fact that the letter and Boston Arts for Black Lives disappeared from the internet before even a full year had passed says a lot of what there is to be said here—not necessarily about the group behind the letter, but about a community that hasn’t been looking for it. Can you hold yourself accountable if you aren’t looking at your to-do list? Maybe the do list has been internalized?
In the final piece of this series, I’ll circle back to everyone I spoke with in earlier columns to see what they feel has and hasn’t changed since 2020. But for this installment, the focus is on the many artists who signed the letter.
The letter’s call for change was addressed to those holding power within the region’s cultural institutions—it made demands for very specific things like divestments; equity audits of human resources practices; term limits on board members, directors and senior staff; and centering of community voices/decentering of institutional ones. Still, over 200 people who identified themselves as either “artist” or something like “painter” or “musician”, signed the letter. Many of Boston’s educators, arts administrators, programming staff etc. are also artists and identified themselves in both ways when signing the letter. But this article focuses on those who signed with no affiliation listed beyond their individual or collective creative practices.
At the one-year anniversary of the letter’s release, I crafted a 10-question survey that artists could answer anonymously, asking how people had found out about the letter, why they signed it, about their expectations when signing it, and about what they’d felt had changed in Boston or within their own practices since its circulation exactly a year before. I went through the signatories to the letter and did my best to track down or guess at the email addresses of the first 140 artists that had signed it. (A thrilling research project because it was a reminder of how many amazing artists work in Boston!)
A handful of artists told me they were not going to have time to respond to the survey within the week allotted. (Here is the survey if anyone reading this who signed the letter wants to answer the questions for themselves, now or later.) And many didn’t respond at all.
Of the artists who responded to some or all the survey’s questions, a very neat 50% of them identified as falling into one of the two groups the letter specifically advocates for: Boston’s BIPOC community and/or those that are differently-abled.
Most respondents said they originally learned about the letter from social media or a friend/colleague, and several didn’t remember how they’d heard about it.
When asked why they signed the letter, despite not being in a position to meet many of its demands, almost everyone who responded to the survey gave an answer that had to do with a deep desire for change either in “the world”, or in Boston, and expressed support for and solidarity with the very specific demands the letter was making of Boston’s art and cultural institutions. Some also expressed a more general sentiment along the lines of allyship. In several cases people described having already been involved in activism around specific demands mentioned in the letter, or signing because the letter brought multiple requests they’d been involved in advocacy about under one umbrella. Others knew and wanted to lend support to the letter’s authors. In a few cases people admitted to signing because they saw that peers whose opinions they valued had signed it before them. And some respondents identifying as BIPOC or differently-abled described signing specifically to show their support for one another at a difficult time, or as a symbol of commitment to themselves: a public statement of their unwillingness to tolerate bias, oppression, inequity and other painful conditions of engagement with Boston’s art institutions.
When asked about their expectations—what they thought would happen as a result of the letter’s circulation—most artists demonstrated cautious optimism plus some wariness of the risk of performativity standing in for action.
“This kind of public acknowledgement, and collective consensus is the first step in making structural changes. Public announcements, at the very least, create witnesses. My first thought was: It will take time. A long time probably, but hopefully not too long, and it will be ongoing. And much of it will not be visible for a while if all goes well, in my opinion. The emphasis of visibility as proof of work can in fact mask the bigger problems that need to be addressed.”
But others harbored profound cynicism. One artist summed up the kind of concerns that many expressed as follows:
“Honestly, I didn’t think it would contribute to any systemic change. These museums and academic institutions are old, and they are funded by old money. The legacy foundations themselves are beholden to complicated social and family politics. In addition, these public entities are part of a complex ecosystem with deep ties to white supremacy and the capitalist machine. Most successful visual artists themselves are tethered to these same systems. I’m not sure if institutions can be truly dismantled from the inside, if we are brave enough to bring around real change.”
When asked what kind of changes they’d witnessed at the individual institutional level or across the city’s broader arts culture during the year following the letter’s circulation, the answers showed a similar pattern of being divided between feeling some real, if incremental shift might be in progress, to feeling pretty hopeless.
Those who thought change was definitively in the works described it as happening primarily in the realms of programming: open calls and academic hiring processes prioritizing artists of color, a wider range of voices/stories included in exhibition curation, more funding allocated to public events featuring BIPOC talent and centering BIPOC audiences.
But even the artists who pointed to this kind of progress included caveats that the areas where they’d seen the most progress were all at the level of institutions holding themselves accountable for increasing BIPOC visibility, not at a level that pointed towards any kind of internal or systemic change. No one pointed towards evidence of meaningful institutional restructuring, efforts at reparations, handovers (or even sharing) of powerful leadership positions in the arts in Boston. One person noted that even programming meant to showcase Boston’s many talented BIPOC creatives seems to go out of its way to avoid content posing any kind of real challenge/threat to the status quo. The complaint made most frequently about the efforts that Boston’s cultural institutions have made so far, besides just their inadequacy in terms of depth, was an utter lack of imagination in approaching the problems.
Probably the saddest thing to read was a response that said “I am so disappointed with the city’s cultural institutions. I am moving out of Boston this fall in no small part due to their incompetence and fear.”
Finally, when asked about the changes each artist surveyed had made in their own practices or communities after signing the letter—what kind of anti-racist commitments they had been enacting personally over the past year—the answers included things like engaging in reading/self-education and conversation with others about difficult issues; revamping teaching curriculums to be more inclusive; refining an activist practice so that it formed alliances to bridge gaps between underrepresented groups rather than focusing on just one; changing subcontracting/hiring/casting practices; championing students and colleagues from underrepresented groups/sharing personal opportunities with them; starting a BIPOC culture workers support group; holding employers accountable for biases; redistributing a percentage of personal resources as way of modeling reparations and offering meaningful financial support; becoming a labor justice activist; educating and healing others through workshops and presentations (about decolonizing, racialized trauma, equitable collaboration); working to deinstitutionalize conferences/programming as a term of participating in it. People reported these activities as making them feel tired, energized, skeptical, enriched, more heard/cared for, overwhelmed, like the work is enormous, taking them deeper and deeper, a part of something more profoundly important than they ever expected to be part of.
Overall, many respondents were already engaged in the work that they reported doing in these realms before signing the letter, but the timing of the letter seemed to coincide with a ramping up or doubling down on their efforts.
It looks superficially here like artists have been extremely active in honoring the commitments they made when signing the letter, but in fact many people did not complete the entire survey and left this answer blank. Or simply noted that they had been doing a lot of thinking and reflecting, but felt immobilized in terms of what action to take next: what was and wasn’t appropriate. One person described going through “a mental crisis” over these issues in the past year that they were still processing. And another said that they did not feel that signing the letter required them to take any kind of personal action—signing it so that the institutions it was addressed to would know people supported its demands was the critical action.
Which allows this piece to close on an important question that a few survey respondents asked in different ways—and which circles back to the issue of whether it matters that the letter is no longer accessible online.
Who are we, collectively, as a city, accountable to for making the kinds of changes the letter called for? Are we accountable to its writers? Are we accountable to each other? Who gets to decide what meaningful progress looks like?
I started this series thinking that I’d use it to help hold people accountable for at least reporting on how things feel as they try to shift the city’s arts culture. But now I’m sharing the accountability outwards: is Boston’s arts community the place you want it to be yet? Do its institutions reflect what you think is most important about culture? Does the ecosystem nurture everyone and everything that’s important to you? If not, what’s the next rallying point for pushing this agenda forward? What’s your next step?