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Advancing cultural equity in the arts
By Daniel Kertzner / November 2, 2015 /   Loading Disqus...
Last month the Foundation, through its Civic Leadership Fund, partnered with the Alliance of Artist Communities, the City of Providence, the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, and the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts to present the 2015 Senator Claiborne Pell Lecture on Arts and Humanities.

The annual lecture honors the late Claiborne Pell, who represented Rhode Island in the United States Senate from 1961-1997 and is best remembered for being a champion of education, the arts and humanities.

This year’s lecture featured a panel discussion focused on advancing cultural equity. A key issue in the arts sector nationally, the panel was moderated by Patrice Walker Powell, former Deputy Director of the National Endowment of the Arts, and explored critical elements in developing a more equitable arts ecosystem. Joining Patrice on the panel were Jeffreen Hayes, principal and artistic producer for bridge/arts; Clyde Valentin, Director, Ignite Arts Dallas; and Raymond Two Hawks Watson, Executive Member, Eastern Medicine Singers.

The program also celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Expansion Arts Program (EAP) in Rhode Island, with its mission of promoting the cultural practices and traditions of our state's diverse peoples. Recognizing the important support EAP provides small organizations, Patrice acknowledged the Foundation and its partners for staying the course and continuing their commitment to the oft times slow and complex work of advancing cultural equity. The Expansion Arts Program is a central component of the Foundation’s focus on audience engagement and fostering diverse participation in the arts. 

Noting the complex history and evolving nature of the work, Patrice began the panel with a reminder that it’s okay to have conversations about cultural equity repeatedly. While not sufficient in and of themselves, such forums do help move forward issues of cultural equity in significant ways.

She challenged the panelists to reflect deeply on their own aesthetic practices: Concepts of community engagement, programmatic accountability, and cultural respect emerged repeatedly throughout their conversation.


Each spoke to the need for collaborating organizations to understand the cultural context of communities and individuals of color that they seek to partner with. This includes being open to the value that an organization or community of color might bring to the partnership beyond the material and monetary, i.e., increased ticket sales. It also means not representing the cultural traditions and practices of another without fair compensation or in some way benefiting the culture or community being represented.

Finally, the panelists acknowledged the challenge of building bridges between marginalized communities and established arts organizations. They agreed that such efforts are more likely to succeed when they are part of a sustained effort and not simply connected to one particular performance or exhibition.

Highlighting the importance of the work of informing and educating people about the richness of diverse cultures, Raymond Two Hawks referred to his own Native American culture. “We have a tendency to be placed in the history books as if we are not in this conversation,” he said. “We’re still here.”

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