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State Arts Agency Takes a Stand for Diversity in the Arts

African-American Shakespeare Company | Courtesy of California Arts Council
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If you’ve ever seen a performance of the African American Shakespeare Company or heard your child’s poetry because of the Poetry Out Loud program rolled out in high schools across the state, you’ve been an unwitting beneficiary of the California Arts Council’s work.

The California Arts Council — made up of 11 council members appointed by the governor and legislature — plays a huge role in community programs throughout the state. With taxpayer dollars, the agency supports arts infrastructure and programs with grants, initiatives, and services. Last year, the agency had more than 1,300 grants across the state, according to Caitlin Fitzwater, Director of Public Affairs of the California Arts Council.

The agency supports programs like the Los Angeles-based dance company Viver Brasil, which addresses African diasporic themes of racial equity, inclusion and social justice through free weekly Afro-Brazilian dance workshops; Trails and Vistas, a nonprofit organization that produces art events in nature with other organizations and artists in the Truckee/Tahoe area in Northern California; and the Mariachi Master Apprentice Program in the city of San Fernando that connect youth with Grammy Award-winning artists for after school classes on how to play mariachi.

The California Arts Council released its last strategic framework in 2014 outlining the state agency’s goals, objectives and steps for the arts to thrive in the Golden State. Since then, the agency has grown exponentially, increasing grants, its ranking, and overall investment in the arts field.

Viver Brasil | Jorge Vismara
With support from the California Arts Council, Viver Brasil provides free, weekly Afro-Brazilian dance workshops in Los Angeles  | Jorge Vismara

City of San Fernando Mariachi Master Apprentice Program | Frank Andrade
With support from CAC, City of San Fernando Mariachi Master Apprentice Program connects youth to Grammy Award-winning musicians in after school programs to learn beginner to advanced mariachi folk instruments.  | Frank Andrade

This year, the California Arts Council released another 67-page strategic framework in February with a new mission statement that recognizes the vital role of arts in communities throughout the state. "Arts are not an optional add-on. They are vital to the success of our state and the success of our community as individuals," Caitlin Fitzwater, Director of Public Affairs of the California Arts Council, told KCET.

Their latest strategic framework, called “Creative Impact: The Arts & the California Challenge,” guides how the arts will look for the next five to seven years. It was developed “to be bold and innovative with a forward-thinking approach” on how to best make decisions that includes everyone while addressing barriers in the arts for all living in California.

Two things stand out the most to Fitzwater and other art leaders: the racial equity statement and the decision support tool — two key elements that have long been missing from the strategic framework of previous years.

“By prioritizing attention to racial equality, everyone will benefit because racial justice is the most pervasive and entrenched form of injustice permeating the institutions and systems that everyone must access,” the report says.

Diversity and inclusion have long been an issue within the arts. A recent study involving 18 U.S. museums found that 85.4% of the works in their collections are by White artists and male artists. Works by African American artists were at 1.5%; Asian artists at 9%; and Hispanic and Latino artists at 2.8%.

The agency is prioritizing racial equity as “the most pressing social inequity and as the most pressing systemic structure that needs to be examined,” Fitzwater said.

Kristin Sakoda, the director of the new Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture, said the concentration on equity in the framework stood out to her.

"That was one thing that was certainly distinctive in the framework that they put forward, and it will be interesting to see over time how that comes into play in their work," Sakoda said.

“As California’s state arts agency, the California Arts Council is committed to racial equity both internally through our work environment, and externally through our programming,” says the opening statement. It then goes through seven levels of commitment, which outline just how far their commitment to diversity and equity goes.

It includes everything from having a diverse staff – both in the agency and other partners – with different backgrounds; equitably disbursing resources; ensuring all policies are fair while considering implicit bias and discrimination; to making sure their programs serve a diverse population including communities of color, racially and ethnically diverse individuals, tribal communities, immigrant and refugee communities, and non-English speaking communities.

"[It] will benefit communities and will allow communities to be represented in the process," Fitzwater said of the report.

transcenDANCE Youth Arts Project  | Courtesy of California Arts Council
transcenDANCE Youth Arts Project provides a professional dance theatre program for underserved youth in San Diego with support from CAC.  | Courtesy of California Arts Council

The other unique addition to the framework is the Decision Support Tool created to help the state’s agency slow down their decision-making when creating new programs, policies, or practices. “Implicit bias research indicates that when we slow down and take the time to walk through a guided tool and series of standard questions, we are less likely to revert to the kind of thinking that activates our biases,” the report says.

The Decision Support Tool is a systematic process including a tool checklist and five tiers with a set of questions determining a project or policy's timeline, staffing, impact, equity analysis, and how it will be communicated to those it will impact.

The strategic framework is meant to prioritize community participation and allow diverse communities to be represented in the process of creating programs or policies that will affect all in California.

With the COVID-19 epidemic laying waste to arts efforts throughout the country, the decision to stand behind diversity and equity is even more crucial, said Fitzwater. "It's more important than ever as decisions about equitable distribution of funds and programming are made by our agency." The framework could also be a valuable guide for others in how to center equity in their plans.

“It's really for the people of California,” Fitzwater said. “It's a tool for the people of California to benefit from, to participate in, and understand.”

Top Image: African-American Shakespeare Company | Courtesy of California Arts Council

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