Reflecting on the Arts and Overcoming Systemic Racism
There is no way for me to look at the work that I do outside of my lived experience and the skin I’m in. I am a black man who also serves the community as president of a large arts institution. Over the past few weeks, since the murder of George Floyd, by a now former Minneapolis police officer, I’ve spent large amounts of time in isolation, in reflection, acutely aware of wearing the mask so eloquently described in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1895 poem, We Wear the Mask.
I thought of how my dad told me stories of the racial violence he witnessed growing up in Polk County, TN. How my grandmother talked, heartbroken, about the murder and funeral of Emmett Till. How my parents tried to help me process the beating of Rodney King. How the murder of Amadou Diallo welcomed me to graduate school at NYU. How the only way I could cleanse my mind of the grief I felt at the murders of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, was to just paint and paint, and cry. And now, here I am struggling to explain, in the midst of a pandemic disproportionately affecting African Americans and Latinx communities, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade . . . to the next generation of my family.
We all are grappling with the impacts of systemic racism. Recently, ArtsBuild hosted a Zoom presentation focused on Racial Equity in the Local Arts Sector. The conversation was educational, heated at times, often revealing, and ultimately hopeful. Afterwards, I took stock of my emotions, both as a black man and as an arts organization leader. I felt triggered to hear ArtsBuild called out by name, but also felt a deep connection to those expressing their exhaustion with the system. During the call, I sometimes felt defensive, emotional, joyful, pained. I checked my emails afterward, and received one that said, “Thank you for seeing me.” and I knew that as an institution ArtsBuild had made the right decision to host an open and honest discussion. As long as members of our arts community feel unseen, then we must provide space where we can pause, focus, and re-evaluate our direction, our impact, and our intent. Every day I wake up fully aware that I am one of the only black people at the helm of a large Chattanooga organization, and when I walk away from ArtsBuild I will have failed if I haven’t opened doors and done my part for justice in our local arts sector, in addition to furthering our mission.
Since becoming President of ArtsBuild six months ago, I have visited with arts organizations both large and small and all of them have shared how they are working for more diversity and inclusion in their organizations and programs. I know that the arts leadership in Chattanooga recognizes that there is no way forward without the local arts sector engaging all of our City’s demographics. I continue to see the progress, and always offer to help. Systems change is hard work.
For many of us the current heightened focus on racism and racial equity is new, for some it is uncomfortable, and for others who have spent lifetimes pushing up against structural and systemic racial barriers, it feels like old news . . . tiring even. ArtsBuild, itself, has a long history, and has been complicit in not always working for racial equity in the work that we do, and we acknowledge this. In fact, this is the narrative of many organizations. For the past five years we have focused on access to the arts and are working hard to center racial justice in the work that we do. We recently mapped all of our grantmaking and programs to begin looking at areas of the county that we have consistently overlooked, and we’re working to make our grantmaking more equitable. This is a journey, but the times and the number of lives affected demand that we approach the journey urgently.
As a black man, who has experienced racism, I can acknowledge that I am tired. As an American I acknowledge that I am witnessing history. As an arts leader, I acknowledge that there is no time like the present to push harder and address the racial inequities in our own organization and our sector — equitable funding, access, hiring, promotion, leadership, decision making, board diversity, just to name a few. This is also the time to amplify, resource and engage the smaller organizations in our City led by black and other people of color, who are often overlooked, under-resourced and, sadly called on often only when we need a dash of diversity. In fact a recent national study noted that the median percentage of donations coming to minority led organizations from individuals was 5%. The norm is about 60% for big mainstream arts organizations. The same study of funding for African American and Latinx organizations, found that there was only one black led institution consistently with a budget of $5 million or more, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Small and mid-size arts organizations led by people of color are often closest to societal problems. They may be able to dream up and initiate more effective solutions than groups led by people who lack that lived experience.
The uprisings for racial justice across our country and the world present the perfect opportunity for arts disciplines and arts institutions to dig deeper — beyond the solidarity statements, quick new partnerships, and #BlackLivesMatter hashtags — and truly address our place in perpetuating systemic, structural racism in America. I am committed to ArtsBuild being a partner in this work and a co-creator of the more equitable, inclusive arts sector of the future. Like one of my favorite writers, Toni Morrison said, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear.”
James McKissic is the President of ArtsBuild. His painting, featured above, is entitled, “Blues Song for a Brown Boy: for Trayvon” (Photo Credit: Mark Song)