An enduring pattern has been inscribed on the struggle for cultural equity in this country. Those who get the biggest share of funding—them that’s got, as Billie Holiday put it—pay lip-service to fairness for those who get crumbs—them that’s not. But lip-service is generally the only currency they are willing to shell out. The haves counsel patience: Show up as members of the team, they say. Be part of the united front at budget hearings, go along with our program, and you’ll get your reward by and by.
In San Francisco, people are tired of waiting. In March, the Budget Analyst’s Office released a study on allocations by Grants for the Arts (funded from San Francisco’s hotel tax revenues) to diverse arts organizations—those serving primarily people of color, ethnic minorities, women, and LGBTQ people. The findings show that the proportion of funding to these groups has remained steady for 25 years. For example, an average of 23 percent of the pie has gone to people of color (who now make up 58 percent of the city’s population, a figure that has been rising steadily since Grants for the Arts was first created), and 77 percent to largely white organizations.
The city has been promising to address this situation for a long time, but the numbers make it clear that they were more interested in paying lip-service than dollars. Now, advocates for cultural equity have urged the city’s Board of Supervisors to add a million dollars to the Arts Commission’s Cultural Equity Grants funding pool, created to channel support to the same communities repeatedly short-shrifted by Grants for the Arts. If overall funding won’t increase by that much, some say, shift it from Grants to the Arts, which has consistently failed to rise to equity.
In the larger economic scheme of things, those who benefit from the current division of resources typically denounce any critique or counter-proposal as “class warfare,” as hi-tech mogul Tom Perkins has been doing in his recent outcries of “war on the one percent,” sometimes equating it to the Nazis’ persecution of Jews. (Listen to a slightly toned-down Commonwealth Club version.)
Here, too, breaking ranks with the privileged was perceived as a huge violation of The Tacit Agreement (just play nice, go along with the way things are and—honestly, we promise—things will get better down the road), triggering an outraged response from the beneficiaries of the status quo via an advocacy group called Arts Town Hall. “Pitting arts organizations and City agencies against each other won’t help solve our bigger problems,” they wrote. “We need to work together to find more resources for cultural equity grants—not cut funding for the arts to fund them.” They were so outraged, apparently, that they never considered how offensive it would be to refer to these advocates of color, ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ artists as members of a “fringe”:
We write to strongly urge you to increase funding for the arts, specifically cultural equity programs. We do not support a divisive and damaging proposal being advanced by fringe members of the arts community that would cut funds from the arts in order to fund the arts.
At the end of 2011, I wrote about an attempt to cut Cultural Equity Grants (“Utterly Clueless: Cultural Policy San Francisco-Style”), contextualizing it with many of these same cultural policy issues, which despite San Francisco’s self-proclamation of diversity and progressive values, seem never to be seriously addressed. I’d like to say that things have greatly improved so that what I said two and a half years ago had become obsolete, but sadly, I cannot.
What I can offer is a practical suggestion. If it sounds far-out, I suggest you stop a moment to consider how much you may have internalized the view of the doable promoted by status-quo beneficiaries, a view that exists precisely to reinforce their right to say what can and should be done. (It might help to read Maria X Martinez’s elegant post called “Grants for the Restaurants” at the Cultural Equity Matters blog site, which site also features much of the relevant material.)
A Practical Suggestion: Pay Your Debts. Arts advocates who receive the most municipal funding and lead mainstream advocacy efforts have been talking about cultural equity forever, all the while urging the communities that benefit least from the status quo to keep showing up without much to show for it. Now’s the time to pay off. If the pie isn’t going to get bigger right now, voluntarily surrender part of your slice for Cultural Equity Grants. Go personally to your contacts on red-carpet organizations’ boards and get them to meet with Supervisors and stake their political capital on a significant increase earmarked to support cultural equity. Team up with other beneficiaries for the status quo and send a major delegation to both the Supervisors and Grants for the Arts, demanding equity even at a cost to your own funding.
If you don’t like pitting arts organizations against each other, stop doing it: line up on the side of right.
You will find links to and summaries of much of the pertinent material at Barry Hessenius’s recent blog covering this story. He predicts this scenario:
Demand for equity by the multicultural communities will inevitably grow and put pressure on all funders—and a more equitable distribution of funds will likely mean less funding for the current recipients (it will have to come from somewhere). I think the days when multicultural arts support is its own “special” category are numbered, and the former majority cultural community—at least in certain urban areas, if not everywhere—will find its preferred status over. And as costs of doing business for arts organizations escalate, income decreases and shifts (funding, foundations, other philanthropic support and audiences), we are likely to see more closures and failures by organizations who will become economically nonviable. And all the improvement in our business skills won’t likely be enough to “market” our way out of this reality without substantial government support—and that seem problematic at best. This is the tip of the iceberg.
What other music could I offer for this issue? Billie Holiday singing “God Bless The Child.”
Them that’s got shall have
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible says and it still is news