Doug Shipman was the founding CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta and today ends his three-year tenure as president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center.
Three years ago, I came to the role of CEO at the Woodruff Arts Center to continue the diversification of audiences and offerings that was already happening across the campus. I vowed to work in collaborative ways that would lift the entire arts community across Atlanta. As I move forward in this time of demands for systemic change and deep communal uncertainty, I want to outline a handful of thoughts on how the arts can build a more inclusive and just future.
Atlanta should be a leader in the fight for racial justice in the arts. We inherit a legacy of Black excellence and leadership, a deep well of social justice work, tangible examples of white political and business leaders being invested in the arts and racial justice, and a large community of talented BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) individuals and organizations. All the elements exist in Atlanta right now to build an arts economy where new voices are showcased and funded, where leadership looks like our community, and where special investments are made in people and perspectives long marginalized and excluded. So what tangible steps do we take now to get there?
BOARDS MUST MAKE this work central to organizational strategy and leadership metrics.
Now is a perfect opportunity for board members to step more fully into the work of anti-racist change. All board members can and should insist that engaging topics of race and ethnicity and growing BIPOC audiences, staff and board members become strategic imperatives for their organizations.
The work starts by asking more questions, rewriting job descriptions and strategic plans, and creating incentives for change. For example, leaders’ compensation should depend on metrics like board and staff composition, the prevalence of BIPOC artists showcased and purchasing rates from MWBEs (Minority and Women-Owned Businesses). Arts org boards should leverage all the tools of governance to bring anti-racist work to the center of the agenda.
FUNDERS MUST MAKE funding conditional on outcomes, not intent.
We have seen some business investors divest from companies that lack adequate diversity on their boards and management teams. Imagine if arts funders began exercising the same requirements: no funding unless boards, leaders and audiences met certain diversity thresholds.
We have been fortunate at the Woodruff that some of our funding has been tied to growing Black and Brown audiences and diversifying our artistic practices, and I have seen the unleashing of change and creativity that can result. Excluding school visits, which are even more diverse, the High Museum now has an annual visitation of 50 percent BIPOC patrons. We achieved this through diverse, compelling exhibitions (Virgil Abloh, Yayoi Kusama, civil rights photography, Romare Bearden, Salvador Dali, Kara Walker and many more) and a coordinated marketing strategy. It can be done, especially in Atlanta — but it will be done much more quickly if our funding community makes a clear and consistent demand.
PUBLIC FUNDING MUST finally match our community’s potential.
Now more than ever, it’s time to balance our city’s tax incentives for the private sector with serious, targeted investments in the ascending communities, businesses and organizations that are the foundation of our economy. The truth is, we’re behind on this, especially in the arts. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms increased the Office of Cultural Affairs’ grants by $1 million, but Atlanta is still $8 million to $10 million short of equivalent funding we see in similar cities. Elsewhere cities have found ways to support arts orgs through construction programs (Denver, Miami), support artists of color specifically (San Francisco) and focus on smaller arts organizations that often create new works and new jobs (Charlotte, Pittsburgh).
We must take a hard look at why we dedicate so many public dollars to tourism, real estate and job relocation when the cities listed and many more are using similar revenue streams to expand their investments in the arts. Our industry continues to be included in Atlanta’s promotional videos and talking points, but the lack of real public investment remains a huge impediment to growth and disproportionately holds back our BIPOC artists.
WE MUST PROTECT ARTS in the curriculum and keep field trips on the schedule.
With budgets being cut across the state, the arts are being eliminated as teachers are furloughed and schedules are impacted. If you are a teacher, administrator, parent, student or arts professional, please advocate to protect arts in the curriculum at your school. Given the growth of creative industries in Georgia and beyond, we also need technology and entertainment leaders to become vocal advocates for arts and culture. We are underinvesting in the arts, even though the arts develop the skills of the future.
I hope the companies and individuals who are building entertainment and technology wealth will quickly become the funders for arts education — I fear the traditional support of corporate Atlanta alone cannot match the task ahead. The future of the arts and the entire economy rests on the experiences of today’s students.
WE ALL NEED to fully embrace “political” works.
There is a persistent belief in the Atlanta arts community that “political” work doesn’t draw audiences and thus is often avoided. This is, of course, nonsense that only reinforces exclusionary artistic choices. You can tell something’s up by the way “political” gets used to signal so many different things: controversial work, work that focuses on issues of race and identity, work that tackles social commentary, etc. The arts are no different from other consumer goods — whatever we choose to buy, we’ll see more of that offered.
In order to answer this moment and elevate the voices of long-excluded artists, audiences — especially white audiences — have a vital role of showing up again and again until it becomes the norm. Each of us can make the decision to go and see the new work, the controversial work, the “political” work on display or being performed. In the same vein, white audiences should be directly supporting Black arts groups in all the work they do, controversial or not, with time, tickets and donations.
The global pandemic poses an urgent threat to the arts in Atlanta. Working between inadequate public funding and a thriving business environment, artists and organizations large and small had become very adept at earning money. With Covid-19 continuing, though, we all face massive shortfalls in revenues from activities.
Now is the time for bold action by boards, funders, patrons and political leaders to ensure that our arts and artists continue to live and work in Atlanta. But it is essential that we also seize this opportunity to build anew an arts sector where BIPOC artists thrive and anti-racist leaders lead.
The pandemic has forced a defining moment upon us — let’s get it right. Atlanta has a unique Black legacy, and many milestones achieved through authentic interracial collaboration. Rather than lagging behind, we can be national leaders in the new era that is being born, but we cannot wait. We all have a role — let’s get to work.
In times like these, when we are separated by necessity, ArtsATL is needed more than ever. Please consider a donation so we can continue to cover Atlanta’s creative community in this unprecedented time.