Dallas — When I was approached by Steve Bailey (co-founder of Jump Start Performance Network) in 2003 to see if South Dallas Cultural Center (SDCC) was interested in becoming a Partner in National Performance Network, it only took me a minute to say “hell yes!” I had followed this organization since its inception and watched it grow from one that many of us in the communities of color looked at side-eyed to one that demonstrated its willingness to face its shortcomings where racial equity was concerned. SDCC was voted into NPN in 2004 and has remained an active partner every since. In 2007, the organization tackled the difficult problem of engaging visual artists in its service constituencies, adding Visual Artist Network (VAN) as a pilot project.
I joined the Board of Directors of NPN/VAN a couple of years after SDCC was voted in and saw an opportunity to explore the issue of cultural equity on a national scale with colleagues who embraced the concept, even if not all with the same level of enthusiasm as I did. What concerned me most was the reality that our network was losing too many organizations of color, some of which had been around for an excess of 30 years. As we began to talk about why this was happening, I couldn’t help thinking back on my early days in the field of arts administration in the 1970s and how this phenomenon occurred across the nation when the first big recession hit. As we NPN/VAN board members grappled with the problem our partners were having staying afloat during the recession in the 1980s and now in the 2000s, I realized that we had to examine how we as a network had fallen down on the job by not providing a safety net that didn’t rely on some outside source. I observed that one of the greatest challenges organizations of color face is that cultural inequity was an ongoing problem that spanned not only government funding but private funding as well. I cited the numerous cases of arts organizations that produced high quality work on minimal budgets but that, no matter how hard they tried, could never seem to crack open the private funding doors nor garner the major government dollars.
Under my leadership as Board Chair, NPN/VAN board decided to commit to finding a solution for, if no one else, the partners in our network experiencing the threat of closure due to being under-resourced. We spent many long hours discussing what such support should look like and who were the likely cohorts that should be the recipients of this support. We knew that we didn’t want this to simply be another pot of money, but instead we saw an opportunity to create a program that not only infused a significant amount of cash into these suffering organizations, but that required them to make an organizational commitment to shore up administrative practices and deepen board commitment. Leveraging A Network for Equity (LANE) was created and after many hours of consultation with Kim Cook, former director of the Non-Profit Finance Fund, we put together a proposal that outlined the need and the potential outcomes and pitched several of our funding partners. The Mellon Foundation embraced the idea and made a major financial commitment to seed the project allowing NPN/VAN to be the first national service organization to put some teeth behind its commitment to cultural equity.
I am sharing this story because as Dallas begins its journey, once again, down the road of exploration for cultural equity, I hope it realizes that the only way this can be a productive journey is if at the end of it, organizations of color truly rise to the level of necessity that we seem to place all of our so-called major institutions. Dallas has to stop simply giving lip service to the notion of cultural equity and really understand what the term means. This means not just the Office of Cultural Affairs which has a governmental responsibility to ALL its citizens and therefore should from day one have been embracing this notion, but the private sector that supports arts & culture needs to jump on this bandwagon as well given that so much of the money that supports the arts comes from this sector.
It means that our citizens who consider themselves arts supporters need to come outside their comfort zones and really attempt to understand and, yes, appreciate cultural traditions that don’t match those they’ve grown up with. It means schools, both public and private, need to have curricula that thoroughly explores a multiplicity of cultures and not just those based in Eurocentric aesthetics. And finally it means Dallas has to own up to its history of racism that allowed the present hierarchy of arts funding to exist in the first place. I recognize that this is a tall order for a city that isn’t really invested in its artists much less its arts organizations of color but if Dallas is ever to reach the “International City” status it so covets, it better realize there is no other path to take!
In the coming months, I will continue to explore this issue from a variety of perspectives as Dallas starts yet another conversation about cultural equity (I’ve been down this road numerous times before over my 36-plus years in this city). It needs to slough off its thin skin where the issue of race and inequity is concerned and have an honest conversation with itself before it can hope to find viable solutions to this problem. It isn’t simply an economic issue but one of multicultural acceptance and exposure and yes, appreciation that can only come when people of color find their various cultures as valued and supported as those of people of European descent. I’d like to think that this “can do city” can do this but so far I’ve been sorely disappointed. Let’s see what this new millennium brings.
» Vicki Meek is a former arts manager, recently retired Director of the South Dallas Cultural Center, and a practicing artist and activist splitting her time between Dallas and Costa Rica. Look for her ART-iculate column, which will explore issues around race, politics and the arts, on the third Wednesday of the month. You can also keep up with Meek's musings in her blog Art & Racenotes.
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