A ‘Cultural New Deal’ Calls for Arts Organizations to Correct Racist Legacies

The Cultural New Deal is a manifesto and a guide for arts organizations to combat racism from within. (iStock)

All across the country, arts organizations large and small are wrestling with their complicity in institutional racism.

Employees, artists and patrons have taken to social media to call out discrimination at museums from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to SFMOMA, the latter of which recently saw the departure of a top curator and deputy director in the wake of accusations of racism and censorship. Similar reckonings have taken place in the realms of theater, food, media and virtually every facet of public life.

As these organizations attempt to unravel a culture that diminishes people of color and their contributions, they’re also under tremendous financial pressure. Layoffs and furloughs have been common at large museums and small concert venues alike. In California, over 230,000 arts and entertainment workers have filed for unemployment.

Painful as these times are, they also offer an opportunity to imagine how arts organizations, as stewards of culture, can rebuild with a vision of equity and community service. To that end, a group of artists, scholars and activists teamed up to craft The Cultural New Deal, which functions as a manifesto, a list of demands and a roadmap for arts institutions to address racism and inequality from within—not just pay lip service to those ideas. To the authors, that means going beyond simply featuring more work by artists of color. It means prioritizing the leadership of Black and Indigenous people, paying them and funding organizations made for and by people of color.

The collaborators on the Cultural New Deal include Michele Kumi Baer, Jeff Chang, María López De León, Tara Dorabji, Kassandra Khalil, Lori Pourier, Favianna Rodriguez, Nayantara Sen, Carlton Turner, Roberta Uno and Elizabeth Webb, and they represent the organizations Center for Cultural Power, ArtChangeUS, First Peoples Fund, the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture, Race Forward and Sipp Culture.

We spoke with one of the authors, scholar and writer Jeff Chang, about how arts institutions can emerge from this moment of crisis.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Cultural New Deal feels really timely. We're seeing a lot of cultural institutions posting things to publicly align themselves with social justice, but they're not always adhering to those values internally. Can you talk about the impetus behind the project?

I think when we began quarantine, a number of us got together, folks who are working at the intersection of arts and cultural justice, to start having discussions about what's been happening in the arts sector and the cultural sector. This is before a lot of museums or different places started posting—before May 25 [when George Floyd was killed by a police officer], in other words. One of the things that we were reflecting on is that it's literally centuries of racism, of racial injustice, that have gotten us to this point.

At that particular point, we were seeing the coronavirus, which still is devastating our communities, and trying to think at the same time about what it meant in the arts sector. [Hundreds of thousands of people] had lost their jobs and everybody was losing money. Layoffs were happening at large institutions, and small institutions were closing. And so we were thinking about this and trying to figure out, what can we ask for? What can we offer, in terms of thinking about what a recovery would look like? And then, of course, May 25 happened and it drew us into deeper conversations about the centrality of what we do and what that means to communities of color.

The Cultural New Deal starts off with a statement about the fact that we're in a moment of a pandemic where racial justice movements are at a height, where we're experiencing an economic crisis, an environmental crisis. And what we're asserting is that artists and culture bearers are central to the healing of our communities and the healing of society. The Cultural New Deal really is a call for us to sustain folks who maintain our imagination, who bear culture and who hold the key to being able to to bring our communities together in this particular moment to survive and be resilient in the face of all these crises.

A group including four of the authors of the Cultural New Deal: Roberta Uno (seated, in white shoes), Lori Pourier (seated, in grey top), Jeff Chang (at right) and Favianna Rodriguez (second from right). (Center for Cultural Power)

The Cultural New Deal goes beyond individual artists. It's geared towards the people who program and fund the arts. Why is that?

What we've seen in arts and culture is that our leadership has ignored questions of racial inequities and cultural inequities for so long that we keep coming back around to these questions of underrepresentation. [That’s] both in terms of the works that we're seeing—whether it be theater or art pieces or dance or music or that kind of stuff—but also underrepresentation in terms of people of color, particularly women of color, queer people of color, disabled people of color in decision-making positions in the arts and culture sector.

And so that's why we are calling on folks to be able to look at representation, to lift up leadership of Black, Indigenous and people of color, to be able to invest in these ecosystems that are so central to our community health, and to be able to look at how we can reverse these long-term inequities in funding, hiring and resourcing. And then also for folks to be accountable to this work with integrity, and to be in it for the long run, not just because of the moment.

Absolutely, because bigger arts institutions often talk about how they want to attract younger, more diverse audiences, and while they might make gestures towards including some more diverse programing, it seems like there's a deeper work that's historically been missing.

It's really trying to move the arts and culture sector beyond this sort of business aspect of noting that your demographics of the folks who are in your seats and the demographics of the cities you're working in don't match up anymore. It's a powerful business case to be made, but it's much more than that. It's a moral case.

We took a lot of inspiration from movements like the Harlem Renaissance, artists who were organizing during the Great Depression and particularly people of color and women of color in the ’60s and ’70s. Langston Hughes has an amazing manifesto called The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain. You can look at the 1960s and you can look at the Black Arts Movement. You can look at the the movements around the Chicano arts, the mural movements, the muralistas. You can look at Asian-American filmmaking that goes back to the 1970s. You can look at Indigenous Native cultures all the way through, thinking back thousands of years, and how these bodies of knowledge were embedded in the basket weaving, the carvings, the paintings or in the oral traditions.

All of these deeply informed our work. Those were the kinds of conversations that we ended up having. They weren't just about putting artists back to work, which was the foundation of the WPA [during the Great Depression]. We realized ultimately that the WPA programs created a whole different vision of America. Actually, they funded two generations of artists, from Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston to Dorothea Lange and Orson Welles and Ansel Adams, who gave us a much more inclusive image of America, even in times of economic crisis, during times of of war, during times of deep infighting between different folks over racial justice issues.

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We’ve seen high-ranking officials step down at arts institutions across the country during these reckonings with racism. Do you think what audiences want from these institutions is changing?

What we've seen is the demand from communities that institutions be much more cognizant of representation issues and of cultural justice questions. And so across the board, what we've seen is there are a whole bunch of different ways in which communities have been expressing the need for change. What we're trying to do with the Cultural New Deal was to really offer a kind of a blueprint or a template for folks to be able to recognize the issues happening in their communities and adapt it to the needs of their communities.

The Cultural New Deal also emphasizes investing resources into organizations that are culturally competent or already have Black, Indigenous and people of color leadership. A lot of those tend to be more grassroots organizations. Why is it important to think beyond major institutions?

Well, when you look at the broad scope of funding in the nonprofit sector, institutions that are run by and for communities of color get less than half a penny on the dollar in terms of funding. In other words, something like 55 percent of the funding goes to institutions that already have budgets of more than five million dollars. For literally hundreds of years, a lot of cultural organizations in communities of color have gotten by basically on goodwill and volunteerism.

These are the institutions that lay down the foundation for communities to be able to be resilient. And yet the nonprofit sector has largely overlooked these organizations. What would happen if we imagined these institutions being resourced at the level of what they're able to give to the communities? That's the kind of thing that we're trying to point towards in the Cultural New Deal. We think that there should be a transformation of society. And we think that there would be a much richer, more lively, multicultural, multiracial democracy.

Why is it important to look at the sources of funding? Specifically, I'm thinking of the point in the Cultural New Deal that talks about philanthropists who derive their wealth from industries that don't promote the common good.

I'm not the first to make this critique—this is something that I think has been an ascendant idea over the last five years. We have people like Edgar Villanueva and other people who are talking about philanthropy and what it means to communities of color. We're talking about people who have been making money off of communities in ways that don't necessarily advance the communities, and oftentimes hurt the communities. And then in turn, they might give some money to arts organizations as a way of saying, "We'll take care with this hand the things that we’re crushing with this hand." It never really works out to the benefit of the community. So we're asking people to be very cognizant, be very critical of the ways in which we think about how all of these resources circulate within society.

Arts organizations of all sizes are struggling right now and laying people off, including YBCA, where you’re a board member. How do you see the arts landscape, especially in the Bay Area, changing over the next couple of years?

We're facing horrible, horrible times. I read today that the economy contracted by 30-plus percent. One of the things that I love about where we live and why I call this place one of my two homes is that we have the ability to make things right here. We have the ability to be able to say that we want our money to go in the right direction. We really have been an area that's deeply invested in the arts. And we're asking folks, if you care not just about artists, not just about the arts, not just about culture, not just about being entertained, but if you care about society, this is the time for us to prioritize and make sure that we're thinking about the future.

Are there any ways in which artists or arts institutions are rising to the occasion right now that's giving you hope?

A lot of the conversations that have begun. Just in the days that the Cultural New Deal has been up, I’ve become aware of so many folks who are having these conversations across the U.S. in exactly the same way. The thing about arts and culture—we do it because we have to, we’re driven to do it. We have something that's deep in our souls that we have to be able to express and that we know other people need. So as artists, as folks who work in the arts, we're drawn to this, and we'll do it no matter if we're getting paid or not. It’s going to continue. What we want is for these conversations to flower and for communities to be able to to join us. The New Deal is an invitation for folks to be able to say, "We want to change the way that we've been looking at these kinds of questions." And we want to be able to make sure that we move forward together around these kinds of things.

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