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Conversations vs. Confrontation? Moving Beyond Silos

When asked about equity in the arts last year in an interview on Barry’s Blog, Anthony Radich, Executive Director of the Western States Arts Federation, said:

“I am concerned that the values of diversity and equity our field have stood for over the years are increasingly overlooked in creative economy conversations…. I believe our field should not be so ready to dance with economic development interests that we will discard years of good work in the areas of equity and diversity. We can bring those values to an arts economic development conversation, and we should.”

Several strands of work I’m engaged in now highlight tension between different perspectives people bring to the same issues. One strand is community planning for arts and culture. I’m currently working on two cultural plans, one in the Dayton, Ohio, region and the other in Fort Worth, Texas. As these projects have moved forward, this tension, in particular around the issues Radich raises, has been present in both planning processes, albeit taking different forms, given their communities’ different demographics and cultural assets.

Elsewhere, in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood of Boston, I am adjunct staff for Spontaneous Celebrations, a small artist-run community arts organization that produces several large but local community cultural festivals and a range of arts programming, mostly for youth in a population of predominantly African American and Hispanic working-class residents. It has been around for 35 years, continuing its activities even as the surrounding neighborhoods have been subjected to intense gentrification, pricing many people out of areas they’ve lived in for decades. In this community context, the creative economy conversation has been overwhelmed by concerns of equitable access to cultural programming.

As I listen to these two distinct conversations — to people whose priority is to use arts and culture to enliven their communities as well as to others who feel that they are fighting to retain their cultural visibility in their own community — I wonder whether it’s not so much that equity and diversity are being over-shadowed, as Radich suggests, but that we are having conversations that are too atomized, too driven by specific funding or planning agendas. At some point when we move up the decision-making chain, getting further from the people who come to our planning sessions, we are forced to make difficult decisions and resort to silos that oversimplify — and atomize — these issues.

As is often the case, there are no easy answers. But common ground can be found if we are able to continue the process of communication by listening to and integrating divergent viewpoints. Perhaps that’s the first step to breaking down the silos that so frequently get in our way.

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