Asian American Arts Centre
A Response to “Cultural and Racial Equity in Practice: Current Policy and Research and the Future of NYC” held at Museo del Barrio November 16th 2016 New York Community Trust
The following comments are my own personal observations. Three points are made at the end. They are not meant to address all aspects of the cultural plan.
Towards the conclusion of this event I realized a large part of the discussion dealt with policies and practices, elaborating the administrative system to be able to make the arts accessible to all parts of the city. What was being overlooked became clear when questions were taken from the audience. One speaker replied, when asked about a community organization that is 34 years old, that the practice at her foundation was to see such groups as having a natural life cycle. No sustainability program therefore would be undertaken to support such groups.
The idea that a natural life cycle could be applied to community cultural organizations was striking, when the development of a comprehensive cultural plan for NYC is based on several decades of cultural inequity. This can hardly be termed a natural process. Fixing the system’s approach has failed to zoom in and see how the arts are actually transmitted under conditions of racial and cultural neglect. A systems approach takes no responsibility for individual POC organizations and see them only in terms of their ‘life cycle’. Their skills and achievements configured under difficult and daunting conditions, their devotion to their arts and their communities are then easily diminished, and disregarded. It becomes conceivable that a system of transfer to an established larger organization can learn to serve their audience, present their arts, and even gain a community’s trust.
When a natural development took place in the 1980s, artists of color created a major cultural phenomena called Multiculturalism that persisted for twenty years. Throughout the country when community groups sought increased support to accommodate audiences, the funding community chose instead to create a major funding program called 'New Audiences' where funds to present these new artists were given to established institutions. As artists attracted larger audiences they were moved from community venues that nourished them to mainstream institutions pushing their notion of ‘multiculturalism’.
Why were community venues not supported? Because we were not trusted. We were organizations of color. We weren't white. Sharing power with us was unthinkable. Here is an example of intentional racial and cultural neglect that community members may not have known, nor realized its impact on their POC community. Despite this, artists like Martin Wong, Zhang Hongtu, Mel Chin, Danny NT Yung, Xu Bing, Lily Yeh, Indira Freitas Johnson, Zarina Hashmi, Tseng Kwong Chi, Gu Wenda, Natvar Bhavsar, even Ai Wei Wei, and more recently Wafaa Bilal and Simone Leigh, who were exhibited at AAAC early in their careers, came to be recognized as important to the visual life of this society and the international community. This is one of the many ways that indicate the significant value of community cultural organizations.
Another aspect of arts organizations was raised by comparing them to public libraries, how libraries bring many library users to public hearings to substantiate their request for funds while arts groups bring few if any. This difference offers no insight into the issue of arts organizations. Public hearings are themselves a questionable way of relating to communities for whom racial and cultural neglect has become a norm. Local audiences did not come pounding on the door of AAAC to initiate a program to support unknown artists.
A small group of devoted arts people in the 1980s were responsible for envisioning arts programming. They did that when nobody cared. I could have asked artists we exhibited to come to city hearings but I doubt any would have come. Because officials weren't listening then, and I'm afraid the plan is to not listen now.
If teaching mainstream institutions how to replace community arts organizations becomes the outcome of this public process, then the problem of inequity will continue. You may teach people to attend public hearings but you may only be making another attempt at assimilation. POC don’t want to be assimilated. We want to retain our difference. We want to be equal.
Neo-liberalism nationally has formed the policies towards POC. In New York State this led to a funding department for community arts called ‘Ghetto Arts’. It then proceeded to fund NYC’s communities peanuts for four decades. Just as the center has its periphery and the periphery has its fringe, it's on the fringe where POC have lived. The harmful effects of this decades old policy should be, as far as possible, reversed.
A systems approach can never serve the purpose of what the arts are about. Equity for POC is not just about equal access to the arts, nor just a resource distribution systems problem. Art is about real human contact. People who want to share and enjoy and touch what we touch. It's about the transmission of what moves us, what animates us, about what we come to feel because the artist/teacher feels with us. Ultimately it's about what we believe and trust. That's what artists/performers do, what good teachers do, what community arts groups do. That is where a bond of trust is sparked that fosters participation and identity. The best a systems approach can do is to get out of the way and let those motivated to create, present, transmit, care for and preserve the arts and the culture it grows - the arts in situ - that embody our living culture. Such arts motivate people, and are already in place with years of demonstrated commitment to their community and their arts.
Do we have the will to take responsibility for decades of neglect, of policies that have alienated both those on the right and those in diverse communities? Now, after the elections of November 8, a different stance needs to be realized. Diversity needs to be affirmed. Can this call for equity realize the next step in doing what’s right?
Reverse 40 years of neglect. Send a message to Trump that NYC affirms the value of diversity. That we value and affirm our neighborhoods and the diverse cultures of all ethnic peoples. That the goal of cultural equity, strengthening neighborhoods, communities, ethnic groups, is nothing less than the goal of making NYC great. And that this commitment comes first before real estate, land use and temptation to gentrify communities.
On this point further discussion may be necessary, however, the colonization of settled neighborhoods, must be stopped. This is essential, else equity is meaningless.
The challenge Trump presents us is to embrace diversity. Embrace our differences, rather than show how liberal or tolerant we like to see ourselves, to truly believe in the value and the gift of many cultures jostling and bumping into each other endowing us with the kind of energy and rhythms we have come to know as NY. White ethnics have their neighborhoods as well. They can be embraced too, for what they contribute to the mix. Their pride and their culture should never be neglected as POC’s were, and never be confused with the biases and hostilities they have been taught to identify as theirs. Demagoguery can be challenged once we are clear it's in our neighborhoods, in real people, not in systems, not in profits, not in the monetary system, that is where the strength and beauty of our city lie.
Beyond legal rights and token tolerance POC and all ethnic groups want to feel recognized, welcomed and accepted by the larger city. Towards this goal, embracing our diversity could be made tangible by some form of legitimization, the issuing of a certificate for display, an entitlement that enables a clearer path to funding and support. Such a piece of parchment even if issued will mean nothing unless the quest for cultural equity is the first step in an ongoing move to transform Neo-liberalism.
People in the arts who endure in small localized communities that may have been uprooted, who acquire a faith that lasts and carries them through, and whose arts may never come to be recognized for the strength and meaning it has for their community and for our nation – these are examples of exceptional people. Contrary to celebrity culture, these people and what they do, in my mind, should become known as an exceptional investment. I suggest a different, not necessarily an expanded role for government. A government motivated to strengthening a culture, of fulfilling the inner well-being of a people, not just its economic material enhancement, a higher notion if you will, of the purpose of government.
Contemporary society can express its desire and appreciation of other traditional ethnic cultures and their wisdoms, as the birthright of every grand father and grandmother to be seen and regarded given their wise, loving presence. Neo-liberalism can recognize its excesses, its inequity, its reliance on youth culture, its drive for power and money, its use of science to replace what is felt, its preference for legalities rather than its humanity, and material secularisms that leave little space for a valid role for the spirituality of every faith.
In conclusion I suggest:
The question of Equity initiated the need for a cultural plan and must be at the center of the eight questions posed to guide procedures of all public meetings so New Yorkers can grasp the implications for their communities.
A cultural plan that affirms NYC’s commitment to the value of our neighborhoods and the diverse cultures of all ethnic peoples. Our city is as strong as its communities.
A cultural plan that issues a certificate or entitlement to community groups, establishing a clear and direct path to funding and support.
Asian American Arts Centre