Will we survive? It’s up to us

Philly’s pandemic-era arts reckoning gives leaders a choice

7 minute read
Time for everyone to look inward: a huddle from PlayPenn’s 2016 conference. (Photo by John Flak.)
Time for everyone to look inward: a huddle from PlayPenn’s 2016 conference. (Photo by John Flak.)

Philadelphia arts organizations are undergoing a reckoning in addition to the crisis of the pandemic lockdown. Earlier this summer, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts made news when leaders asked faculty to keep their school affiliation away from public support of a local Black Lives Matter petition. Philadelphia Museum of Art employees are trying to unionize, fighting the stratification of their union between “essential” (curation) and “nonessential” (member services). And, more recently, PlayPenn founding artistic director Paul Meshejian resigned in the wake of allegations of long-standing sexual harassment and racism within his organization.

How did we get here?

Other arts administrators know that even without their own media exposé, they face a reckoning as well. How did we get here? And how can arts organizations survive a global pandemic?

The simple answer to the first question is that because of social-gathering bans, arts organizations are barred from doing the only thing we all agree they’re supposed to do: program art for social consumption. Suddenly, arts organizations in this city are unable to execute their mission.

Another answer to “how did we get here?” is more complicated. From where I sit, having worked in arts organizations and in community-driven art for six years, there has been a long-standing, growing rift within the arts community in direct opposition to arts leaders, who believe that their role is to bring artistic experiences to the people, that their judgment is the bridge to culture, and that in order to survive, the arts must adapt to a commodified model.

Arts leaders judge the price of the experiences they curate based on their own metrics, and then ask the public to pay for it. Meanwhile, there are, and always have been, many administrators who question the very foundation on which those assumptions are built. Art is a subjective, personal, universally human experience—so how exactly can an organization justify a price of, say, $24? Is that too low? Is that too high? And—here’s the pandemic that existed before the novel coronavirus—might there be a problem when most of the people making the executive decisions about what art is worth, who it is for, and what has artistic value, are older white men who are willfully ignorant about their own race and class privilege?

An irrational takeover?

So why is our reckoning happening now? Precisely because of the simple answer above: pandemic closures. With no in-person programming, arts organizations must pause. And in that pause, in the absence of the hustle, in the absence of programming, in the absence of the funding cycle, priorities are suddenly clear. There are no distractions, no excuses. Silences become deafening, and suddenly staffers have the space and the time to think more deeply about the impact the arts have and the impact they could have. When George Floyd (and Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, and Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, and, and, and, and, and) was murdered, many arts organizations could no longer point to their programming and offer it as their contribution to the cause (though I would go ahead and ask marginalized folks exactly how much artistic programming in white institutions was contributing to the cause).

This moment, to an outsider, or perhaps to an arts leader, might look like a runaway mob, an out-of-control beast that is out for blood. Are community members synthesizing their frustrations about employment uncertainties in a global pandemic and using the flag of anti-racist work to get out their aggression? (People have literally said this to me). Arts leaders in Philadelphia (who are predominantly white) feel an anyone-could-be-next energy, watching what is happening at PlayPenn, the PMA, and PAFA and seeing the controversies not as buoys in the waters of social change but as irrational takeovers without control.

Where it started

Look closer for a moment and you’ll see that the situations at PMA, PAFA, and PlayPenn have something in common. These radical changes didn’t happen in a vacuum. In all three organizations, internal pressure started first: employees sought ways to create change from within the organization. Staffers spoke to leadership, made suggestions, and gathered examples of ways that their organization either implicitly or explicitly participated in racist and sexist harm. The transformation of PlayPenn in particular did not start on Facebook—former and current employees documented their attempts to address inequities that started internally long before the pandemic.

Unfortunately, these processes of attempted transformation are perceived as direct threats— insubordination, a disruption of the way things work, a slap in the face to leaders’ wisdom—by many in positions of leadership in the arts world. As if these leaders are born with innately superior judgment, as if they’re leaders because they deserve to be, and not because a number of factors have contributed to their rise—perhaps their ingenuity, but also, in some cases, their race, gender, or wealth.

The choice

When leaders hear alternatives to the way they run their organizations, they face a choice. They can open the door to a conversation in which they admit that they are flawed human beings, or they can shut down the conversation entirely, arguing that this is the way things work, they’re powerless to make change, or it is beyond their staff’s role to think strategically about anti-racist transformation. And when they perceive these conversations as threats, they ensure that they do in fact become threats. What a terrifying, self-fulfilling prophesy. What an absolutely self-destructive way to live your life.

I have very little sympathy for arts organizations on the brink of destruction because internal and external pressure have pointed out all the ways in which they have failed their Black and brown communities. If those pressures are enough to take them down, then their missions and budgets were already flimsy on the best, most equitable days. Not every arts organization will make it out of the pandemic alive. For some, who make good work that is relevant to the most vulnerable among us, any demise will be due to the dismal state of the arts in this country: meager government resources, and everyone at the mercy of the same foundational and individual funding game.

And yet, I have a feeling that these worthwhile organizations are agile and creative enough to find their way out of this global health and economic crisis. I don’t have funding facts to back this up, but I do know of many arts organizations in Philadelphia whose mission is driven not by Eurocentric measurements of artistic superiority, but by making work that feels relevant and accessible to their communities. In those organizations, funding is a means to an end, and not the primary way an organization demonstrates its worth. And the tide is turning for institutional funders: they’re less interested in how famous a contemporary artist is in Europe than they are in asking how does this work speak to and impact the community we live in?

The connections

So how do we survive both the pandemic and our arts-industry reckoning? Arts leaders must start listening to their staff. In the situations grabbing headlines in Philadelphia (and beyond, like at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit or the PuSh Festival in Canada), staff pushed internally first, trying as hard as they could to address inequalities, often being shot down to the point where escalations were inevitable.

Perhaps you’re an arts leader who helms an entirely white-staffed organization (as PlayPenn was). What should you do? Likely there is someone on staff who sees the lack of diversity as a problem, and has suggestions for how to address it. But if there isn’t anyone, you can start by listening to the artists around you demanding better. They also have very good ideas. They’d love to have your ear.

The connection between the COVID pandemic, your organization’s long-term viability, and racism is crystal-clear to many in our industry. In case it’s not crystal-clear to you by now, let’s distill it again: you have been participating in racism, whether you meant to, wanted to, or intended to or not. When the pandemic hit, the community had time to ask you to do better. You can either listen to their suggestions, or you can tighten your hold on your own power, ultimately strangling yourself and the organization you lead in the process.

Image description: a circle of 22 people in chairs on an empty stage under the PlayPenn logo projected in white on the wall above.

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