Towards an Equitable NYC Cultural Policy in 2017: What We Can Learn from Seattle and Nashville

Monday, January 9, 2017

Towards an Equitable NYC Cultural Policy in 2017: What We Can Learn from Seattle and Nashville
by Michele Kumi Baer, Program Associate, The New York Community Trust

In case you haven’t heard, New York City will have its first comprehensive cultural plan this year, and the planning process is well underway. This is a big deal to many in the cultural sector because it presents an opportunity for arts leaders and cultural workers to have their priorities reflected in City policy.

The question on many minds right now is: How do we get the City to more deeply embrace the values of cultural equity, and enshrine those values in the plan?

This is certainly the case at the New York City Cultural Agenda Fund in The New York Community Trust, where we seek to strengthen advocacy, influence policy, and advance equity[i] in arts and culture in the City. Our working definition of cultural equity is “fairness in opportunities (such as access to information, financial resources, or programming) for cultural organizations, workers, and participants.”

Last November, we hosted a gathering to bring together arts advocates, funders, administrators and policymakers to discuss current research and policy efforts as they relate to advancing cultural and racial equity in New York City. We also invited the leaders of municipal arts agencies in Seattle and Nashville to share their experiences managing programs aimed at advancing racial justice in their cities’ cultural sectors. By providing examples of equitable cultural policy, we hoped to inspire local solutions for the City’s cultural plan.

You can check out the full program video. Meanwhile, here are three lessons that can guide New York City policymakers in more fully embracing equity.

  1. Rethink how to give money to artists and cultural groups. A refrain among many of our grantees is that the City needs an alternative funding model for more fairness in resources distributed to historically marginalized groups (such as African, Latinx[ii], Asian, Arab, Native American, disabled, immigrant, and LGBTQ communities). We can learn from peers around the country. At our gathering, we found out that the Metro Nashville Arts Commission took advantage of a provision in the municipal purchasing code for magicians, petting zoos, clowns, and other “entertainment acts” to distribute funds to artists that were not registered as tax-exempt organizations. That change removed the social, cultural, and economic barriers of a traditional grants application process. The resulting program addressed needs that emerged in conversations with Nashville’s historically marginalized communities.
  2. Invest in cultural workers who understand, and work to promote, equity. Seattle has supported frequent opportunities for the sector at-large—grantees, funders, and policymakers alike—to understand racism and how it affects cultural institutions and cultural workers. Trainings have been tailored to the specific needs of various groups (such as workshops on White Privilege for White people) and provided opportunities for cultural workers to move from learning into action.
  3. Frame equity as a strategic—not moral—imperative. We learned that these policies are more effective when the goals of equity are presented in terms of their strategic value to individuals and groups. While moral appeals speak to our values and emotions (and motivate some people), they have proved less effective in promoting widespread policy shifts and behavioral change.

New York City’s cultural advocates seek equity.  The cultural plan presents an opportunity to ensure that groups led by and representing the individual artistic expressions and community cultural practices of historically marginalized people have an equitable share of City resources.

[i] At the Fund, the pursuit of cultural equity has meant working to ensure that small, community arts groups; groups led by African, Latinx, Asian, Arab, and Native American (ALAANA) people; and culturally and economically diverse artists are as valued for their contributions to the City’s cultural ecology as larger institutions.

[ii] I use “Latinx,” which is the gender neutral alternative to “Latino,” “Latina,” and “Latin@”.

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