See our Photo of the Week (and archive of more)

Art Changes
Opinion Advertize Permission
To be notified of new articles Survey Store About Us
Strategies for Cultural Enfranchisement

Executive Summary
of a Cultural Equity Policy Paper

by Edsel Matthews
Oakland, Califonia

Edsel Matthews is general manager of Koncepts Cultural Gallery, a multi-disciplinary community art service organization in Oakland, California. This article is printed with permission.

When Koncepts first learned that we would need to move, we were sure that our search for a space would be a short one. Now, almost three years later, we are still hunting for a venue. While we haven't found the home we are looking for, the search has lead to several discoveries, which are almost as important to Koncepts as finding the space.

What began as a simple search for space has grown into a search for a deeper understanding of our mission as an organization, and an understanding of where we fit in the spectrum of the greater American culture. While on the search we became involved in a number of projects that were different from our traditional activities. One of these projects was the development of a cultural equity policy paper for the California Confederation of the Arts. While conducting the research we talked to dozens of arts administrators throughout the state and the country. From these discussions we learned that the obstacles we faced in developing a venue were not particular to Koncepts. In fact, we were part of a larger system designed to maintain certain relationships throughout the cultural community. What follows is a summary of our findings and recommendations.

Introduction: Need and context for this paper

The United States is undergoing a profound racial and ethnic transformation, and as has often been true, Califomia is at the forefront of these rapid, dramatic demographic changes. In the last 20 years, the percentage of European Americans in this state dropped from nearly 80% to 57%, and by the year 2000, no single ethnic group will constitute 50% of the population. We will all be minorities.

Along with this increasing diversity comes increasing tensions. So-called tribal wars such as in Bosnia or Rwanda may seem foreign to Americans, but we have already seen violence and violent words between different ethnic communlties, and we have to face the very real danger of our society splintering along racial and ethnic divisions.

"Without our stories and songs, paintings and sculpture, we have difficulty recognizing ourselves. To deny a people their cultural expression is to deny them their existence." -- Dudley Cocke - Appalshop's Roadside Theater.

One premise of the paper is that the arts can play an important role in encouraging society to address these racial and ethnic tensions by helping people understand each other, and by bringing communities together to meet and discuss issues. Through participating in a variety of artistic expressions from different cultures. people can dispel myths and fears about each other. Exposure to and participation in the arts also helps individuals build cultural pride and self-esteem, which serves to develop productive citizens.(1) Finally. the arts have an important economic function in communities by providing employment, both directly and indirectly, and by improving the safety and general business climate of neighborhoods. In order to play these roles successfully, however the entire arts community (individual artists, arts organizations, arts administrators and educators, public agencies and private funders) must adjust to the changes in our society and must learn to meet the needs of all Americans. Essentially what we need is a system where each individual, whatever his or her background or heritage, will have the same opportunity to become a full participant in this society's cultural milieu.

The paper, commissioned by the California Confederation of the Arts, is the result of over 100 interviews and discussions with representatives from a broad cross-section of the arts community, plus 40 in-depth interviews with individuals, three group interviews, and an extensive survey of existing reports and other literature on the subject .

During the Development of this Study We came to Realize:

  • Strategies must focus on commonalities. It is important to remember that we are all Americans (a truism that is often lost in discussions of diversity and pluralism) and that the various cultural communities have more commonalities than differences. Thus, we can develop strategies that focus on those common needs rather than on the specifics of each constituency. There are so many ways other than cultural, to view diversity, (such as gender, disabilities, sexual preference, locality, etc.), that there is a need to focus on the common ground we share.
  • Solutions must come from the communities American culture is still in the process of being defined. If we are to find ways to encourage diverse expressions of that culture from this state's various ethnic and racial communities, solutions must be developed and executed within the communities themselves. As one of our interviewees put it, in most discussions of multicultural arts, she felt "like a patient on an operating table about to be cut open by a group of doctors who haven't asked me what was wrong. "
  • In order to achieve cultural equity we must develop strong cultural institutions in all
    communities. The analysis and conclusions reached in this paper came out of a process designed to insure that arts professionals from California s diverse cultural communities could speak for themselves as they defined the issues, and reached a common understanding of specific goals, analyzed current approaches, and suggested new strategies. While we understand the dynamic role that individual artists play in creating and defining art expressions, we feel that institutions, which most artists work through, are the most effective vehicles which can be used as agents for change in the efforts to achieve cultural equity. The purpose of this study was to look for concrete initiatives to address our goal -- creating an equitable climate in which diverse cultural expressions can flourish. Based on our discussions, interviews, and analysis, we have identified the principal strategy for reaching that goal: To develop a process for building a network of strong arts institutions within the various communities.

What is the Problem?

Diversity in the cultural community does not mirror diversity in the population. Our interviewees agreed that given California s extraordinarily diverse population. this diversity should be mirrored in the nature and activities of arts organizations and artists, as well as in the audiences. Thus,

There is a dearth of strong arts institutions in communities of color. When we look over the cultural landscape, we should see a similar mix of major, mid-sized and small arts institutions reflecting the population and meeting the needs of each ethnic community. Within each community, artists, arts administrators and support personnel should have similar opportunities to develop their skills, reach audiences. and support themselves.

Unfortunately, this vision of cultural equity has not been realized. Although California does have many arts groups run predominantly by people of color (more than any other state and 25% of all such groups in the country, according to a recent NEA study) (2), most of these institutions are young, small and struggling. If we add up the budgets of all arts institutions funded by the California Arts Council, the combined budgets of all of the "multicultural organizations (as broadly defined by the CAC) represent only 3% of the total-even though people of color now constitute 43% of the state's population. Out of the 70 arts organizations in the state with annual budgets of over $1 million, three can be identified as organizations of color (meaning that they serve, and their artists, programs, boards and staffs are largely composed of, people of color). There are many more statistics and illustrations, but the conclusion is clear. There is a dearth of strong, viable arts institutions in communities of color.

In order for these institutions to develop, they need access to resources, including material, intellectual and capital resources. And in order to gain that access, they need to overcome several obstacles and assumptions that this study identified.

The current system of funding for the arts was developed to support, a now-outmoded model. Arts groups of color find it very difficult to obtain support and survive their first years. In terms of support from private foundations, there is a shortage of small grants available for developing organizations, and a critical lack of funding for the work of artists of color. Although many foundations have raised the issue of diversity in the arts, the reality is that, according to a recent study, only 3.7% of arts-giving went to support "ethnic arts." (3) While government agencies (particularly the CAC) have made efforts to change historical funding patterns, "multicultural" arts organizations still receive a far lower level of funding than mainstream institutions. This study attempted to look beyond the statistics and discern the reasons for these patterns. There are many, but the bottom line is that the current system of funding for the arts was developed to serve a 1950s-style cultural milieu dominated by large, centralized institutions producing artistic expressions of Western European culture. The world has changed, but the system has not.(4)

Formula-based funding perpetuates the status quo. Under the widespread policy of formula-based funding, the amount of any request is limited to a percentage of the organization's previous income. For example, suppose that two institutions with annual budgets of $100,000 and $l million apply for funding for similar projects; the smaller organization could only request $3,000 in support, while the larger could request $30,000 for essentially the same program. This policy creates a system of "ghettoized expectations," whereby funders automatically assume that larger organizations are more capable and more fiscally responsible -- which is not always the case. The result is the perpetuation of a class structure in the arts, with the vast majority of support going to major, older and mostly European-American institutions.

The corporate model of organizational structure is inappropriate for small, community-based arts institutions. Funders expect (and usually requirel that non-profit groups follow the traditional, corporate-board organizational model, with a board of directors setting policy and overseeing a chief executive of officer who implements that policy. Small, community-based arts groups are often forced into top-heavy organizational and decision-making structures that waste precious time and resources and are not appropriate for their size, their community, or their mission.

Current approaches focus on integration and collaboration As part of this study, we examined the principal strategies used to increase diversity in the arts. The most common approach, particularly for private foundations, has been to award grants to major (mostly European American) institutions, with the funding earmarked for efforts to diversify their audiences. boards, and staffs. While some diversification has resulted, these moves have mostly served to mine ethnic communities for their audiences and their most talented people, while the community- based organizations that developed that talent and those audiences continue to struggle (and often die) from lack of resources. More than once, we heard this practice referred to as "cultural colonialism." Other strategies include collaborative productions (where large, mainstream organizations control the funding, and the community-based groups often do a disproportionate amount of the work without parallel resources). (5)


Despite all of the differences between California's diverse cultural communities, they share several basic, interconnected needs which are not being met through the current system of delivering cultural services through a few centralized, mainstream arts institutions. Any serious attempt to rectify the current inequities must focus on the following areas:

  • Create mechanisms for professional development of arts administrators. The past 20 years have seen an exponential growth in the level of knowledge and skills required to run a community-based arts organization. Yet there are few avenues for arts administrators to obtain this knowledge In order to develop institutions that can flourish in the current marketplace, we need to develop mechanisms for training administrators and staff.
  • Develop methods to provide access to intellectual, material, and capital resources. In the same way that the required knowledge base has mushroomed, the resources needed to run an arts organization have also skyrocketed. A recent study found that arts organizations need $2.70 in capital resources in order to generate $l in income -- the highest capital requirements of any sector of the economy. This makes it extremely difficult for small. developing institutions to survive. Particular needs inciude specialized performing facilities, computer systems, and other of office eqiupment. Similarly, small organizations do not have the resources to maintain people on staff who have the necessary specialized knowledge in areas such as marketing, publicity, and production. We need to explore new methods for providing some of these resources to cultural groups, such as through resource banks, shared facilities, and the like.
  • Develop an infrastructure of support personnel in communities of color. While audiences may only see a few performers on stage, successful artistic productions are a result of a large network of professionals, including directors, set designers, lighting technicians, and graphic designers. We need to develop avenues within communities of color to help these people develop their skills and make a living at their craft (career paths that are currently available, for instance, in the opera but not in jazz).

As our interviewees emphasized, specific initiatives must come from the communities. There are few opportunities, however, for the various parties to look beyond their own needs, to overcome the pervasive myopia on this issue, and to share their perspective in a rational, organized manner. Thus, the next step is to develop a mechanism for continuous, organized discussions among funders, artists and arts administrators; focusing on the identified areas of need, these discussions should be designed to increase everyone s understanding of the multiple perspectives and to come up with solutions that meet the needs of all of California's diverse communities -- and thus help create the rich tapestry of a truly American culture.

If you would like a copy of the Cultural Equity Policy Paper, we encourage you to write the California Confederation of the Arts at 704 "0" Street #2, Sacramento, Ca. 95814.

1. A number of studies published by institutions such as the Rockerfeller Foundation, Getty Foundation, and Harvard University Project Zero give statistical proof of the value of the art in educational and social terms.

2. 1991 NEA Final Report Survey of Culturally Diverse Arts Organizations, pg. 35.

3. Weber, Arts Funding.

4. Both Nodal and Kriedler have written a number of papers focusing on the growth of philanthropy in the United States and the impact on cultural institutions.

5. There is agreement about uneven distribution of collaborative funds, however, both mainstream and community organization staffs have waged complaints about the uneven distribution of labor

Published in In Motion Magazine Novmber 4, 1994