Misguided Means to Unintended Ends: Portland’s arts diversification plan

This article came across my Twitter stream this afternoon and immediately piqued my interest.  On the surface, a city like Portland linking funding for arts organizations to racial diversification of their boards, staff, contractors, and eventually audience sounds like an innovative and progressive idea.  Diversification of voices around the table is a good thing and we should all invite a variety of voices to the conversation.  However, linking vital public funding to blanket benchmarks can’t be healthy.  While I understand this policy is still in its infancy and “years from completion,” the information covered in the article is plenty to make me wary.

Here are some of my concerns:

  • Arts organizations, their missions and their audiences, are as diverse as the city itself.  Suggesting that every organization should be striving for the same benchmarks goes against the very reason they are distinct organizations in the first place.
  • What about organizations that are not producing work that speaks to a large and diverse audience?  We, as an industry, have decried funders dictating programming for decades.  Is it OK here because diversity for diversity’s sake is seen as a good end result?  There should be room in a vibrant arts ecosystem for niche companies and each of those will serve a different audience.  You can’t force an audience to be interested in a type of programming and you shouldn’t force an organization serving a distinct audience to turn from its mission in order to secure public funds.
  • Requiring a certain level of spending (30% of their budget is the “ideal” mentioned in the article) on communities of color is misguided.  How would this play out?
    • Do the Mayor and City Commissioners understand that each dollar an arts organization spends is already stretched to the limit and that few companies can simply divert funds in this way?
    • Does this mean a forced quota for staff, artists, and contractors?  What happened to allowing companies to hire the best person for the job, regardless of ethnicity?
    • Throwing marketing money at underserved communities may be the antithesis of actual engagement of these communities
  • Why just enforce ethnic diversity?  I’m willing to bet that there isn’t a direct correlation between the gender split of the staff and boards of Portland’s arts organizations and the population of the city as a whole.  What about gay voices at the table?  The disabled community?  Religious beliefs?  Socio-economic status?  Diversity comes in all shapes and sizes and each organization daily contends with reaching out to those audiences who could be interested in their work.

Instead of making arts organizations jump through ever more hoops to reach benchmarks unrelated to their mission, how about some of these ideas:

  • Rewarding organizations for diving deep into the communities to which a company’s programming speaks?
  • Judge an organization on their dedication to fulfilling their mission and the steps they take to engage and broaden their audience in ways that make sense for them?
  • Celebrate diversity in all its forms within the arts community

I applaud the Portland city leadership for looking for ways to encourage diversity.  I just fear they are heading down a path that will be detrimental for all involved.  As always, I’d love to know what you think.  Please continue this conversation in the comments below.

3 thoughts on “Misguided Means to Unintended Ends: Portland’s arts diversification plan

  1. Before I respond, I will start by telling everyone who may read this that I used to live, work and perform in Portland, OR, and, in fact, worked in the Mayor’s office for 2 and a half years under Mayor Adam’s predecessor. The City of Portland has done so much work to be inclusive, to work to find ways to operate and govern for a community rich in diversity. As the article from the Oregonian points out, the city is much more diverse than most people who live there realize. And on more than just a racial level.

    However, one of the things I think that the City, and Mayor Adams specifically, tends to do is to take a well intentioned idea and put it into action before it is fully conceived or the reality of the consequences it may incur is fully vetted.

    One of the things I always loved about RACC is that they funded things that might not otherwise happen, that were maybe just a little weird or odd or simply fantastically unique. Portland is a city where art FLOURISHES in ways you would not believe. Artists may mostly have “day jobs” to sustain themselves but the art is diverse, eclectic and so very passionate in a city that you might not expect it to be.

    I agree with Amy in her comments above that there are maybe better ways to encourage diversity than benchmarks. In a city where so much diverse art ALREADY HAPPENS, we should be encouraging groups who do cultural specific work; groups who are already working to diversify their boards, staffs and the art presented; groups who WANT to do more diverse work but can’t afford to without extra funding like that from RACC. It seems backwards to fund groups for a diverse leadership when, as the article points out, that leadership often comes from the audience. And you can’t diversify your audience without encouragement to do works that might bring in new people. It is the same problem every arts group faces – how do we attract the people who already aren’t coming? Which came first – the audience or the leadership?

    I think it’s great that Mayor Adams has been a champion for the arts and for RACC for so many years. But, as described in this article (and I will say that from having worked in this world I know that this one article from the Oregonian is not telling us the full picture) this plan is going to create more headache and more struggles than it is going to have success. Why can’t we encourage what is already there? Why must we make rules that may, in the end, make it harder to get art to people who need it? And why, in a city that celebrates diversity of EVERY SINGLE KIND, are we suddenly only benchmark on race? That alone is a step backwards in this city.

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