Grounding, Growing, Grateful - Reflecting on the Arts Equity Summit
On March 22 - 24th, I was able to attend the first ever Arts Equity Summit, held in Boston, MA. Created by the organization Arts Connect International, the three-day summit and arts-integrated experience aimed to examine issues of equity both in, and through, the arts.
The weekend was one of incredible performances, important learning opportunities, and joyful community building. On Friday night, March 22nd, I went to Hibernian Hall in Roxbury to pick up my materials for the summit, eat delicious food, and watch some fantastic performances. In addition to the performances taking place, there were also numerous artists and arts organizations with tables along the side of the hall, including some of my favorite arts organizations like MassCreative and Dunamis. I headed home that evening after talking to some old friends and making new ones, excited for the next day full of learning and connection.
On Saturday morning, I gathered with other summit attendees at the Institute for Contemporary Art for a morning of performances and speakers. Members of Abilities Dance kicked off the program with two descriptive performances. The speakers included Jason Lujan, Hyppolite Ntigurirwa, and Kaisha Johnson. Jason began his talk with a Land & Native Peoples Acknowledgement, a moment before the event to pay respect to Indigenous inhabitants of the local area and to honor the native land the event would take place on. Kaisha, co-founder of Women of Color in the Arts (WOCA), shared the stories of two black women who were vitally important to Boston - Elma Lewis, who founded the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in Roxbury in 1950, and Philis Wheatley, a poet and enslaved woman who became famous for her writing at a young age. Hyppolite, a peace artist, shared his heartbreaking story of surviving the genocide of the Tutsi in Rawanda and his journey to expression through the performing arts. Before moving to District Hall, the crowd enjoyed music by Quisol.
On Saturday afternoon, there were two break-out periods, with a number of sessions to choose from. During the first period, I attended a session entitled “Dismantling Biased Marketing Practices” led by John Beck, Deputy Director at ArtsBoston, and Victoria George, founder of the Network for Arts Administrators of Color (NAAC) and Executive Producer at the Front Porch Arts Collective. They shared their findings as part of ArtsBoston’s Audience Lab, which spent 18 months working with 10 organizations to uncover biases in existing marketing practices. Audience Lab also helped those organizations develop tools to overcome the biases that were discovered. John and Victoria discussed three elements of audience development - broadening, deepening, and diversifying - and how diversifying, or bringing in new audiences, is the most difficult and often the most ignored. For the second session, I attended a live recording of the Art Accordingly podcast, put on by the Arts Administrators of Color Network. Quanice Floyd and Joshua Jenkins first shared some arts news, discussing the U.K. National Portrait Gallery declining a large donation from the Sackler family, a family known as fiscal sponsors of the arts and also largely responsible for the opioid epidemic. Later in the podcast, Quanice and Joshua interviewed Karen Young, a current Boston Artist in Residence (AIR). Karen talked about her experience discovering her identity as Chinese and Japanese and how she came to love taiko drumming. She shared her experience forming the Genki Spark, a multi-generational, pan-Asian women’s arts and advocacy organization, as well as her Boston AIR project Older and Bolder, a community of elder women who play taiko together and use their art to move others to action. The session ended with a group discussion about how to maintain one’s identity and artistic vision while making enough money to support ourselves. Karen’s story really moved me. After talking about wanting to be white when she was a young girl and wanting to be black when she was a college student, she shared that she asked herself, “Why don’t I want to be myself?” This hit home for me as someone who has wrestled with my sexual identity as well as with fitting into new communities, and as a young arts administrator trying to find my path.
The final event of the day was a series of performances followed by the Saturday afternoon keynote session. Paine the Poet, Ny’lasia Brown, Ally Ang, and Tamiko Beyer shared their poems with the crowd. I was especially moved by Ny’lasia’s poem about how she’s had to grow up too fast and how people expect too much of her because of the color of her skin. I was also touched by Ally Ang’s joyful poems; Ally said that often, too many of their poems are sad and so they shared joyous poems instead. Panelists Aysha Upchurch, Dr. Antonio Cuyler, Pawlet Brookes, and Chaédria LaBouvier discussed a number of important topics including the challenges of funding the arts, definitions of equity versus equality, and arts education. Saturday was a long but amazing day. I spent time listening to arts leaders of color, learning about their particular challenges in the arts world, and thinking hard about how I can be a better ally/accomplice for people of color and other marginalized folks in my work in the arts.
The Sunday activities were wonderfully restorative. In the morning, Kelly Young and the Older and Bolder crew performed for the summit attendees gathered at the Nonprofit Center in downtown Boston. I got a chance to play a taiko drum, and the energy and happiness in the room filled me up. The community brunch allowed me to connect with others working in the arts and discuss our takeaways from the weekend. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet new people and share in fellowship. After a breathtaking performance by Anju, the Arts Equity Summit came to a close with a gratitude circle. Attendees gathered in a circle and shared what they were grateful for during the weekend as well as a “weather report” of how they were feeling. I shared that I was grateful for the opportunity to come together for challenging conversation and for intentional, warm community. My weather report was that it was the first day of spring and that the heaviness of winter was lifting.
The mantra that I walked away from the Arts Equity Summit was “Grounding, growing, and grateful.” The summit reminded me that I should focus on tangible things around me that I can do to create change. I have agency to make the arts world a better and more equitable place for marginalized people. Getting caught up in worrying about what I may or may not be doing “right” only holds me back from the work that needs to be done. The experience also reminded me to be kind to myself because I am always growing, but that I need to do the work to educate myself, listen to those with less privilege than me, and to step up for those who may not be safe doing so for themselves. And finally, I am so grateful for the experiences and opportunities that the Arts Equity Summit and Arts Connect International provided. I was able to come together as part of a community that it can be easy to feel cut off from in Boston. Thank you to ACI and all of the amazing speakers, presenters, artists, creators, and musicians who made the summit possible.