Moving Beyond Under-Served

Something has been puzzling me lately and I haven’t come any closer to figuring out the answer. I appears to me that when there is discussion about populations which are under-served by the arts in the U.S. it seems to largely be in the context of race whereas when I see the same discussions going on in the UK, it seems to be in the context of class.

Earlier this month, The Conversation had an article about there being a class crisis in the arts, citing Welsh actor Michael Sheen. The authors of the piece were based at the University of Edinburgh and University of Sheffield and it was pretty clear that they were talking about the situation in the UK.

I have also seen a fair bit of social media discussion about a Guardian article on the subject. Much of the social media conversation is oriented on class:

I am not sure if it is a matter of demographics with Caucasians, which have for better or worse been defined as the norm, being 87% of the population in the UK versus 76% of the population in US, resulting in Britons  perceiveing degree of opportunity spread more along class lines.

Or if there has been such a history in the US of linking negative associations to race, including groups who later came to be regarded as “white,” that race has become the default lens through which to assess inequities in the US.

It is not that there hasn’t been recognition in the US that inequities are based in economics. Right now people are looking a little askance at how the wealthiest individuals and corporations are spending their money and paying their taxes. In the arts, there has been a recognition that people whose families can support them through unpaid internships are often more likely to succeed. Not to mention Martin Luther King was working to build a coalition of all poor Americans, was in Memphis to support all sanitation workers when he was assassinated, and was about to embark on the Poor People’s Campaign.

It strikes me that one of the ways the arts can work toward equity and inclusion is to decouple the concept of under-served from race based demographics. I am not sure what the most constructive terminology and frame might be. I can see the consequences of only using a single dimension like economic status allowing groups to hide the fact they are neglecting to serve people of different races and abilities.¬† You don’t want to adopt a position of “we don’t see differences, we serve people,” because differences do exist and need to be acknowledged in order to create a welcoming environment.

Probably the best approach would be if funders did not use measures or criteria which incentivize using race, economic status, ability, etc., as a definition of under-served. The problem is, funders can collect data about participation from these demographics to show they are paying attention and want organizations to work toward welcoming a greater range of their communities, but how do you combat the perception that the organization is being rewarded for reaching out to an “other” group?

It is also difficult as an arts organization seeking to perpetuate diversity, equity and inclusion to force funders to change their criteria even as they seek support from those funders. Obviously a small step is to write a grant proposal that doesn’t employ the term under-served at all, but applications and final reports are often formatted with a bias connecting under-served with race, ability and economic status.

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 ( 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. (

My most recent role was as Executive 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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