Considering The Essence Of Being Mainstream Or Culturally Specific

Earlier this month Ian David Moss wrote a piece challenging the arts and culture community to evaluate the language and mindset in which we frame artistic and cultural expression and practice.

He make a case that:

Separating our concepts of “mainstream” and “white” could allow us to treat European art forms as just one of many types of cultural expression within a mix of organizations and communities, instead of privileging them as the historical default.

Starting this post off with that may raise a sense of defensiveness in readers and a reluctance to continue reading which is probably why Moss doesn’t bring it up until the last quarter of his post. Nonetheless it is an issue that is becoming increasingly relevant.

Moss says there is something to consider in response by Justin Laing, a former senior program officer at Heinz Endowments, to a post last year about cultural equity,

Moss provides further context noting:

…The logic on researchers’ part is that “culturally-specific” organizations explicitly target a specific demographic population, whereas “mainstream” organizations target everyone.

[..]

But many cultural equity advocates see orchestral music as unabashedly and irredeemably white: it originated in Europe, the vast majority of composers presented (even by Latin American and Asian orchestras) are European or European-descended, and most of the people who enjoy it are of European origin. To them, when we talk about culturally-specific organizations, that includes symphony orchestras–and ballets, and operas, and encyclopedic art museums. And it’s not at all obvious to them why certain culturally-specific organizations should continue to receive such a disproportionate share of public and philanthropic support compared to other culturally-specific organizations.

Moss acknowledges there are arguments to be made for the universal appeal of these forms, citing Venezuela’s pride in El Sistema and the fact that many arts organizations have been successful at attracting attendance from Black and Latin communities.

This week Artsjournal linked to a Dance Magazine piece talking about how Philadelphia was a hub for black ballerinas from the 1930s-1950s. (Article has video interviews with some of the women that trained as dancers during the period.) There is a sense of hope that there is a trend in this general direction again.

He points out that while there is crossover appeal, it is also clear that opera, ballet, symphony, et. al are by no means the most popular art forms in the U.S. and are perhaps more appropriately labeled as culturally specific rather than mainstream if they are indeed not serving everyone.

This is where the concept of divorcing “white” from “mainstream” comes in. (Moss’ emphasis)

Were the field to adopt this new understanding, an unavoidable question would face every organization celebrating European cultural heritage in the midst of a substantial nonwhite population: is our foremost loyalty to our art form or our local community? In answering, boards and executives would need to realize that true commitment to the latter could mean dramatic changes, changes that would make their organizations unrecognizable to the individuals who founded them. Yet reaffirming a primary commitment to an art form with clear ethnic roots–which, I want to emphasize here, is an equally valid choice under this paradigm–would be a signal to the world that the organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts can only reach so far. And yes, that may make it untenable to go after large sums of money from foundations and government agencies on the premise of being a local “anchor institution.”

So much of this paragraph reminded me of a post I wrote last year citing a similar piece on the topic written by Ronia Holmes where she writes,

All that being said—I don’t think arts organizations are bad entities filled with bad people doing bad things…They really do believe in diversity, equity, and inclusion, and really do want to offer meaningful, authentic moments of connection.

The problem is that most organizations are not built to do that, and are constantly struggling with it because of expectations that they should be something they are not. Every year, organizations jump through hoops to secure restricted grants that necessitate yet another outreach program or diversity week or community partnership, hoping that if they impress the funders enough they will be given money that can be used for what the organization actually has a mission to do.

If real, authentic, genuine community building isn’t central to your mission, if it isn’t your raison d’être, then you shouldn’t be doing it. Because chances are that not only are you doing it badly, you’re doing it at the expense of your real mission. The mission of most arts organizations—the real mission—is simple: to present an art form. And that’s ok. We need organizations that prioritize preservation, development, and presentation of an art form, and I for one don’t think any organization should be penalized for it.

Both Holmes and Moss are acknowledging the existence of the same dynamics. I can’t imagine they are the only ones thinking along these lines which suggests that perhaps there is both potential and need to have additional conversation and thought in this direction.

It may be uncomfortable to discuss and acknowledge much of what is involved and needs to change, but the general framework of this paradigm is a fair and generally constructive way forward.

(I would suggest, however, that being completely forthright and declaring your mission is to preserve and perpetuate European cultural heritage is not going to be constructive on oh so many ways.)

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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