Taking Action for Black Lives in Boston’s Arts Community
In mid-June 2020, a few hundred members of Boston’s arts community, including myself, signed a statement—an open letter—that was circulated by Boston Arts for Black Lives.
Greg Cook, of Wonderland, the only local arts reporter who covered the letter, reported on June 17, 2020, that it was authored by curatorial staff from Tufts University Art Galleries, the Institute of Contemporary Art, and the Museum of Fine Art, along with an artist teaching at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts.
Many who signed it did so with their institutional affiliations listed. By signing they made significant public commitments. For example, to dissolve “hierarchical and exclusionary governance,” impose term limits at the “board, director, and senior staff levels,” and restructure “decision-making power with priority input of junior, part-time, and precarious staff.” They committed to “equity audits of internal (hiring practices, human resource policies, procedures for redress) and external (member programs, board compositions, partnerships, and endorsements) structures, with public reporting on resulting action plans.” To end a common “consultant-for-hire practice of extracting knowledge and expertise from Black, Indigenous, and communities of color in favor of full-time hires with pay equity.” And, in terms of programming, they agreed to “center community voices and decenter institutional voice” and “acknowledge and act on failures, shortcomings, and grievances from staff, visitors, or community members…without defense or excuse, and with transparent redress and accountability measures.”
They also agreed to have “a plan for meeting these demands with actionable strategies” put in place within a year of signing, and to do all of this work, along with much additional work to dismantle white supremacist culture that is outlined in the letter, in ways that are “fully transparent both internally and externally to the institution to ensure accountability.”
This series begins roughly two months after the letter circulated. It’s an attempt to get a baseline of where Boston arts organizations whose members signed the letter are at in terms of this reckoning, hopefully creating a collective snapshot of this moment across the arts community that the whole city can look back on and compare with a very different-looking picture in terms of equity and arts culture a year from now.
The plan is to circle back to each organization here roughly a year from now to see what shifts the time has brought. A city’s creative community can act as a bellwether for its overall culture, and in this place, where so much of a claim to US history is made, I am openly rooting for historic-level sea change.
The series starts relatively small, with the 50-year-old Boston Center for the Arts (BCA), where, though the buildings are grand, the overall staff size is not. There are more people on the organization’s volunteer board (19, were 24 in 2018) than there are employees. Its website lists 16 (23 in 2018) staff members, two of which are contractors and the rest of which are currently furloughed to one degree or another (in two cases, at 100%) due to the pandemic. More than half of those listed on the website are identified as holding leadership positions (though only two of these are among the organization’s highest-paid positions, as declared on the most recent—2018—publicly accessible tax forms).
Eight people signed the open letter with the BCA listed as their affiliation. Though a white-led organization, members of the staff describe the BCA as actively grappling with the systemic problems that the letter outlines as needing urgent action.
Randi Hopkins, director of visual arts, says that it was a no-brainer for her to sign the letter. She feels it resonated for so many at the BCA because it outlines “work that I think we already feel like we try really hard to do and try to be very cognizant of.” She says she always tries to ensure her programming at the BCA is inclusive, accessible, and equitable. “I feel like those are values of mine,” but, she admits, “in some ways it’s felt abstract.” Until now—a moment she sees as focused on looking more closely at what being inclusive and accessible and equitable really means organizationally. Doing this, she feels, “puts the brakes on a lot of things and it’s hard work. I really appreciate it, but it’s also definitely a challenge and I really value that BCA is letting us kind of step back at every turn.”
Emily Foster Day, BCA’s co-executive director, expresses similar sentiments. She recalls that when joining the BCA in 2014, during Veronique LeMelle’s tenure as CEO, she was excited by the organizational emphasis on cultural equity and on working collaboratively and cross-organizationally rather than hierarchically—like Hopkins, she sees these values as already embedded in the organization. She touts the arts programming team (Hopkins, Andrea Blesso, Lyndsay Allyn Cox, and Andrew Grimanis) as leading the BCA’s efforts “to outreach to artists in our community who have historically been underrepresented and to lift up those voices.” She notes in particular a program that Director of Theatre Arts Lyndsay Allyn Cox conceived and started producing two years ago, Hella Black.
“Starting programmatically,” Day says, “we have really put an emphasis on representing artists and working with artists who have different perspectives and stories that need to be told.”
Like Hopkins, Day recognizes the value of moving more carefully and thoughtfully now than ever. She explains that “we are working, at least organizationally, to really slow down, to dismantle what I think is one of most pervasive white supremacist practices that we have here, which is this sort of culture of urgency,” describing it as “this need to get things done really quickly and move forward.”
But Day acknowledges that there is still a lot of work to be done. “I think the program piece of it is just one part of a much larger organizational effort that needs to happen. There is a lot of work that we need to continue to do.” She describes this work as “listening and learning with artists front and center” within the BCA and outside of it—for example, participating in the city of Boston’s calls with individual artists and in conversations with other local arts organizations (especially via staff participation in Boston-based Cultural Equity Learning Community’s virtual training program geared toward “white-identifying arts and culture sector leaders” and meant to reduce harm toward their BIPOC and QTPOC peers).
Others the BCA is listening to include local artists Pascale Florestal (former BCA venue associate), Jenny Oliver (former BCA Boston Dancemakers resident), OJ Slaughter, Chanel Thervil (former BCA public artist in residence and curator of the BCA’s 26th Annual Drawing Show [full disclosure: The author of this article had a piece included in this large group exhibition]), and Steve Locke (who is no longer local). Internally, in addition to citing Allyn Cox as a major driver of equity, inclusion, and organizational change, Hopkins calls out the BCA’s relatively new senior director of communications, Lauren Pellerano Gomez, as “really deeply committed” to this work.
Andrea Blesso, director of dance, gets wisdom on these fronts from Hibernian Hall’s residency program and has been engaging in regular dialogue and listening with other “artists serving artists, not high-level people” at Jacob’s Pillow and through Boston Dance Alliance.
Allyn Cox says it has been very helpful to be a part of a larger conversation with others in her industry outside of Boston, and has been following the We See You White American Theater movement very closely. Locally, she sees Company One Theater as very, very longtime leaders in terms of equity and inclusion and notes that the group has “leaned in even further” in terms of committing to equity at its senior leadership level; she also thinks the Theater Offensive is getting a lot of things right and that the Speakeasy Stage Company is on the right track. But in addition to handing out praise where it is due, Allyn Cox has been keeping focus on work that the Boston area’s theater community still needs to do, most recently getting involved in a collective outcry about the dissonance between the Gloucester Stage Company’s public claims of BIPOC allyship and its planned programming for its 2020 gala.
Though repeatedly named by others as the organization’s biggest champion for change, and acknowledging herself that this is the case, Allyn Cox is the only person interviewed for this piece who did not sign the open letter. She says she believes that her colleagues who signed will “hold themselves and the BCA accountable” for what they’ve said they’re going to do by signing the letter. And she expresses appreciation for some small but symbolically very important organizational changes that have already been put in place—such as making Juneteenth an official holiday and recognizing what has been called Columbus Day in the past as Indigenous People’s Day. Allyn Cox also had some unexpected donor funding that the visual arts program received funneled toward her budget, allowing her to curate a virtual Lunchtime Listening series this summer.
In fact the visual arts program also did something else very differently this year in an effort to live up to the commitments it signed onto via the open letter.
“In June,” says Hopkins, “we were in the middle of the Public Art Residency and the Run of the Mills Residency open calls, and first we extended them, and then we actually just reached out to people outside of who had applied, realizing that if we didn’t make a choice reflecting our values right now in that process and really forefront that as much as we could, we would have missed a really important opportunity. That was like the first moment where I felt like this isn’t going to be business as usual.” [Full disclosure: The author of this article was an applicant to one of these programs this year and in previous years.]
The BCA also has a curatorial project (co-organized by Jen Mergel and Combahee River Collective co-founder Demita Frazier) in the works about the Combahee River Collective, a group mentioned explicitly in the open letter, that was scheduled for this summer to align with a national exhibition project that several other Boston institutions are participating in but which the BCA has chosen to spend longer developing rather than rush to meet the national project’s timeline.
Another effort to move away from “business as usual” is that the BCA is in the midst of developing a request for proposals for a racial equity audit consultant.
“We can identify areas within the organization that we feel we need to work on,” says Day, “but we also think it’s very important to get an outside perspective and somebody who is experienced and understands all the sort of hidden ways that white supremacy can exist within an organizational structure.”
This article invites comments (via @hkapplow on Twitter) from readers about their personal experiences with the BCA and what it should be thinking about as it works toward meeting the commitments it has made by signing the open letter. Here are a few musings arising from the development of this story to get the ball rolling, inspired by a sentiment expressed in artist-activist-educator Fannie Sosa’s 2016 publication A White Institution’s Guide for Welcoming Artists of Color and Their Audiences, which boils down to, “None of this stuff is hard. You already know exactly how to do what’s right here.”
One person interviewed for this article said, “I hope I’m not being too frank,” during our interview, and that seems a possible indicator of either an expectation of perfection or an organizational resistance to transparency—both habits of white supremacist culture.
Though it has in the past, the BCA does not currently collect demographic data about the artists or audiences it serves, except in relation to the 551 Studio artists’ studio program that it is in the midst of reconfiguring. The BCA states that it expects to develop a system for this as a part of a planned equity audit, but when asked about this, it could have voluntarily offered up informal information for this article about the current levels of diversity on its staff and board, as well as about the equity of the distribution of recent layoffs/furloughs necessitated by COVID-19.
And there were two feelings expressed that came up in these interviews worth revisiting when this series circles back next year.
When asked about what kind of feedback the BCA has been getting from the wider community about its efforts to be more equitable and accessible, Hopkins expressed some feelings of discouragement. “I think in general, the community, very rightly, is skeptical about whether this is authentic, and so I think we get a lot of pushback. We get artists who we ask to participate, who we like to work with, and admire and some of them are saying, ‘Right now my priorities are elsewhere.’ So we’re watching a lot of individual decisions get made, by people who definitely see BCA as a white organization.”
Allyn Cox spoke openly about the amount of effort involved in her role as a champion of change at the BCA.
“I think with any white-led institution, if you do not have a large number of BIPOC staff members, unfortunately the work of transformation tends to fall on the shoulders of the few. Not that it is intentional at all, and I think that our leadership is aware that it happens. But I think in any white-led institution, when you don’t have an ample amount of BIPOC staff members, and staff members in leadership positions, it is hard to swing the pendulum. It makes the work slow and long. But not impossible.”
It should be said that creating a cultural shift, even in a small, tight-knit organization like the BCA, is far more difficult to do remotely than in person, and it is also worth noting that the BCA was already in the midst of recovering from a crisis in leadership in 2019.
In June of 2021, things may look very, very different. At the moment, the BCA’s status seems best described by a dance concept that Blesso offers up:
“There’s a [movement training] strategy called ‘listening strategies,’ where everyone begins in stillness. You find a common stillness and breathe together to sort of get your energy where you’re connecting physically through that. Then you [try to] move [together, in unison] from the stillness. Moving from that stillness is your most authentic choice because you are not distracted by other things. I’m really excited for the BCA, as an organization, and us, as artistic directors, to make our next choices from that kind of stillness.”