On the Road to Cultural Equity in L.A.

Los Angeles is one of the country’s most diverse counties in the nation. Its residents hail from more than 180 countries and speak 140 different languages. Since the late 1980s, “people of color” have made up the majority of the county’s population. Latinos or Hispanics now account for 48 percent of the population; Asians and Pacific Islanders, 14 percent; and African Americans, 8 percent.

Despite the diversity of races and ethnicities in the county, a 2016 survey conducted by DataArts found that the workforce of participating Los Angeles County arts nonprofits still tended to be more White than the county at large (60 percent versus the county’s 27 percent). And while nearly half of the county’s population is Latino or Hispanic, this population only represented 14 percent of the staffs, contractors, volunteers and board members working in the arts nonprofits of Los Angeles. Asian/Pacific Islanders made up only 10 percent of the arts workforce and African Americans only 4 percent.  

CEII | Gennia Cui
Gennia Cui

The arts are an expression of the human condition, and the county is missing out on the voices that make up a significant part of who we are in Los Angeles. In an effort to remedy this, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission has come out with a landmark report on the Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative (CEII), an 18-month public process that led to the development of 13 recommendations to the LA County Board of Supervisors to improve cultural equity and inclusion for the staffs, boards, artists, programming and audiences in our region. CEII was in response to a Board resolution in November 2015 directing the LA County Arts Commission to conduct “a constructive Countywide conversation about ways to improve diversity in cultural organizations” and ensure that everyone in LA County is able to create and access arts and culture.

“It is our responsibility to ensure that all the benefits of, and opportunities provided by, the arts are available and accessible to all residents, no matter who they are or where they live,” said County Supervisor Hilda Solis in a statement.

On April 4, the County Board of Supervisors not only unanimously endorsed the 13 actionable recommendations, they also instructed the County’s CEO to report on  recommendations to fund them. This is what will potentially set Los Angeles’ effort apart. Similar efforts have been undertaken in New York City, Seattle, Nashville, San Francisco and Charlotte, North Carolina, but actual investments in programs have been relatively small. The county’s efforts could translate to almost $29 million in investments annually, but it’s important to note that no funding allocations have been made yet.  

There are thirteen recommendations laid out in the report. When taken together, they work seamlessly to create a region where the arts are not only one of our largest economic drivers, but are woven into the fabric of every part of our lives.

See how Laura Zucker in her role as Executive Director of the LA County Arts Commission has led policy changes that have made the county and the field-at-large more colorful and inclusive

This journey begins with quality arts education for the 1.6 million students in public schools in L.A. County – a topic discussed in every one of the 14 town halls held as part of the process. Participants reasoned, rightly, that if students don’t experience quality arts education, they’ll never realize that creative occupations are a viable career path, never create programming that reflects their cultural traditions, never integrate the consumption of culture into their lives, and certainly never becomes stewards of the arts.

From there, the recommendations proceed logically to the importance of putting teens on the pathways to careers, bridging their world from school to real jobs, and then providing additional opportunities when they’re in community colleges through paid internships. It’s envisioned that there would be a work center to connect emerging arts leaders to resources that would advance their careers, creating a smooth arc that prepares them for jobs in arts organizations ready and willing to employ them.

The report also addresses changes that have to be made institutionally within arts organizations by encouraging them to think about how diversity issues relate to their mission and to adopt board-approved policies and plans that address cultural equity and inclusion. And organizations will be even readier if the Arts Commission’s grant program, which currently funds close to 400 predominantly small and mid-size arts organizations, expands enough to provide critical resources for staff positions. 

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Existing arts organizations, however, can’t be the sole provider of programming throughout a region as large and complex as L.A. County.  New strategies will be required to reach deeply into diverse neighborhoods, another theme that resonated throughout the town halls. The report proposes addressing this through a radical decentralization of arts funding utilizing the region’s 88 municipalities to provide services on the ground for the 8.8 million people living in cities within the county. It also calls for the development of a new funding stream through implementing a One Percent for the Arts requirement for private developers in the unincorporated areas. In addition, the report envisions providing more funding and technical assistance to enable parks and libraries throughout the region to ramp up both the quality and amount of arts programming.

CEII | Gennia Cui
Gennia Cui

But, all the programming in the world won’t do anything if no one knows it’s happening. There are two recommendations that address this critical issue: the first would enable individual arts organizations to extend their reach through grants; the second envisions marketing our region’s robust cultural calendar, which lives on the DiscoverLA website, to those who may not be aware of this great resource to find cultural events in every corner of the county.

All of these recommendations are geared toward system change, building on what we already know works well (like the internship program or programming in libraries) or thinking of new ways to move the needle (like re-granting to cities and the intra-county marketing campaign), but to really effect change in a large complex system over time requires a policy that spells out the values and goals that will cascade through every aspect of what the county does. This recommendation for a countywide cultural policy would lead to the full integration of arts and culture in the lifeblood of all county programs, embedding artists as creative strategists to bring fresh eyes to our most intractable challenges.

CEII | Gennia Cui
Gennia Cui

The recommendations in the report are distinctly L.A. solutions, but there is much that local arts agencies can take from the report.

First, of course, is the process, which included a 35-member advisory committee that truly reflected the diversity of LA’s arts community, including representatives from every generation — in other words, not just executive directors. Then there were the town halls in parts of the county not usually on the cultural radar. Listening and making sure people knew their voices were heard was at the heart of the town halls. Responses were recorded and posted. We realized that addressing inequity isn’t about tweaking an outcome but systemically creating myriad entryways and opportunities. So we asked artist/urban planner Rosten Woo to design an arts experience that would allow people to “Tell us what you really think.” The community’s input wwas the foundation of the report’s recommendations.

CEII Tell Us What You Really Think booth by Rosten Woo | Gennia Cui
"Tell Us What You Really Think" booth by Rosten Woo | Gennia Cui

Though the county still has a long way to go before we can claim true cultural equity, the good news is that we have a lot to build on in L.A. County: a robust blueprint for arts education in our public schools that is working in 65 of our 81 school districts and poised to go to scale, a 20-year track record of an arts internship program that produces an amazing cadre of new arts leaders, long-standing and wide-ranging free programs in diverse parts of the county, and perhaps, most importantly, a grant program-slash-diversity fund that does not disproportionately advantage the largest arts organizations. So, the recommendations do not represent a drastic shift in the way L.A. County has thought about supporting our arts ecology. In fact, we are uniquely positioned to be able to accomplish what many throughout the country would have a much tougher time doing.

But while LA County has invested in the arts for more than a century, there is significant and different work to be done so that all residents have equal and meaningful access to the arts and the benefits they provide. The work of CEII and the ongoing commitment of the Board of Supervisors is a starting point towards significant change. The 21st century will be about the democratization of culture.

The executive summary and full report are available at LACountyArts.org/CEII-report.

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