Art Institutional Rhetorical Gatekeeping

If you’re looking for someone to tow the company line, I am not that guy.

Generally speaking, I have been omitted from consideration for upper level management, academic tenure, and other such positions primarily due to my penchant for speaking my mind.

In this particular context, I have been a persistent challenge to major arts institutions that purport itself to be inclusive, disrupt the usual narrative, and tell stories that reflect the lives of marginalized and oppressed peoples.

I just attended the Kennedy Center Arts Summit in Washington, DC, and found myself once again challenging the overarching themes of storytelling, disruption, community, inclusion, public spaces, and so on.

The truth is, though there is an effort to bring marginalized and oppressed artists into the fold, major arts institutions will only go so far to deal with challenging, disturbing, and uncomfortable narratives, which means they will never grow beyond their sphere of exposure and influence.

In other words, for all their rhetoric, they are content to stick with the status quo, fearful that funders will run away if such an abomination in their minds do occur, as well as predominantly white affluent audiences that come to said spaces to be entertained, not to be confronted.

Mind you, I believe in beautiful art, so by no means am I saying one’s season should be dominated by radical theater, dance, spoken word, music and visual art. What I am advocating for is true equity, representation, and inclusion, where local artists are brought in to fully participate in the conversation of what it means to be a citizen and a human being in this society through their expression.

On its surface, it is not much to ask, but fear of the other always rises its ugly head.

Which is what I believe this is really about. In the effort to maintain a controlled environment, the artistic natives will be prohibited from sharing the stage. It will be under the guise of a packed schedule, inadequate vetting, lack of funding, or not in alignment with the venue’s aesthetic.

Trust me, I heard it all before.

Personally, I have attempted to work with a number of major arts institutions in Baltimore over the years. My phone calls, emails, and press kits have been ignored, and later I learn about the artistic and executive directors on panel discussions speaking about serving the community and showcasing art that speaks truth to power.

Understand that I am one of many who has dealt with this, so this is not a gripe session of a lone disgruntled artist. This is a systemic practice of major arts institutions that preach one thing and do the other.

On the other hand, yes, I am too much of your guy.

So at the breakout session I attended, there featured talented artists who shared their work and consciousness. At the end they opened the floor to the audience. I was the last to ask a question, framed within a commentary of the need for major arts institutions to produce work that is uncomfortable to audiences, and what they thought should be done about it. The session abruptly ended. I learned that the moderator did not like my commentary nor my question.

Once again, I am too much of your guy.

I find that major arts institutions spend a lot of time during summits and conferences bestowing awards and patting each other on the back for work that simply did not accomplish anything relevant or substantive.

Meanwhile the people that actually accomplish the daily rigor are absent, either because they cannot afford the cost of fees, transportation, and accommodations, or because they were not invited to speak, or a combination of the two.

So the usual majority affluent suspects are dominating the conversation, the audience participation, and the ensuing celebration.

This phenomenon is not new; for decades major arts institutions have engaged in this practice. The only thing that has changed is the technology by which it is delivered.

Major arts institutions must drop their fear of the other and create authentic pathways of inclusion, restructure their seasons to reflect the heart of the locations in which they operate, and conduct the conversations that citizens and artists truly want to have.



Ron Kipling Williams