When George Floyd lost his life under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, it was all too much. The nation was thrown into turmoil, and everyone chose a side, even arts organizations. There were black squares on social media, and various pledges for this or that. But what they all come down to are four basic questions:
— What are they in fact doing?
— Is it nonsense virtue signalling?
— What should the be doing?
— Is any of it working?
These stories kicks off the first in an ongoing series that will look at Chicago arts through those four crucial parameters.
“The current push is absolutely new and different from previous years,” says Julie Rodrigues Widholm, recently departed as the director of the DePaul Art Museum and who was, before that, an MCA Chicago curator. “We are seeing deep structural change and a call for transparency that is unprecedented. We are in an era when even the Art Institute publicly declares that ‘museums are not neutral.’”
Asked to elaborate, to explain why she said “even” the Art Institute, Widholm — who took a new posting this summer running the University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive — explains it was about the cultural hegemony that a museum like that has represented.
In the midst of a summer of racial reckoning, Lyric Opera asked its audience: How do we combat racism? And they answered: Bring diversity to the main stage, foster a space that is inclusive and accessible, make the recruitment process public and ensure there’s diversity on the inside, too.
Arts organizations are implementing a myriad of practices to promote diversity and inclusion in their spaces, from creating oversight committees to increasing diversity in their programming. But many of these efforts are still sitting in the planning stages, and it remains to be seen how audiences will perceive those changes — as virtue signaling, or the start of real change?
Major American orchestras – which are among the country’s most tradition-bound and least diverse cultural institutions – are wrestling with how to catch up to the current moment.
How to make revered, age-old ensembles better reflect the demographics of the cities in which they’re based. How to build audiences and staffs and boards that embrace and celebrate the diversity of American life.
But at least one orchestra has been championing these goals for more than three decades: the Chicago Sinfonietta.
Founded in 1987 by the late conductor and activist Paul Freeman, the Sinfonietta was designed from day one to welcome people of color, onstage and off. So as America’s orchestras in recent years have been struggling to do the same, they could learn a great deal from the ongoing experiment that is the Sinfonietta.
As an industry, Hollywood has been saying the right things when it comes to improving diversity. But diversity alone isn’t enough if the workplace remains a hostile environment for Black people and other people of color. Without meaningful cultural change, movie studios and TV networks are only engaging in surface-level efforts and giving the appearance of inclusion without addressing the messier reality that racism is endemic to the way Hollywood does business.
John Boyega spoke to this in a recent interview, describing his “Star Wars” experience as a bait-and-switch that allowed Disney to disingenuously pat itself on the back.
“What I would say to Disney,” Boyega told British GQ, “is do not bring out a Black character, market them to be much more important in the franchise than they are and then have them pushed aside.”
Six years ago, Jina Valentine and Heather Hart decided they would rewrite the history of American art. Or rather, wait, to revise that slightly: They would write the history of American art that should have been written the first time. No, no, let me put that another way: They set out to write the history of American art that included the Black artists often at the margins of art history, if at all. Sorry, sorry, but to amend that slightly, too: Jina Valentine of Chicago and Heather Hart of Brooklyn, N.Y., working with a legion of fellow artists, would not do all of this work themselves exactly.
They would edit it into Wikipedia.
They would reassemble the history of American art using the online encyclopedia, adjusting and reworking, adding one new Black artist Wikipedia page at a time. And to do this, they would invite artists, students, teachers — anyone inspired by their Wiki-correcting initiative — to help out.
Chicago theater artists can’t go back to the way things were before the novel coronavirus. From pay discrepancies, unsafe working conditions and monolithic artistic leaders, it’s not just Chicago artists calling for change.
In response to social unrest earlier this summer, BIPOC theater-makers founded a nationwide collective called We See You White American Theater, highlighting the daily racism they say they face in the industry.
We asked Chicago theater artists what changes they would like to see at theaters. Here’s what they replied over email. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
For Jackie Taylor, the founder of the Black Ensemble Theater and a woman who has seen calls for greater diversity, equity and inclusion in the Chicago theater come and go over the years, this moment seems different.
“This has been a fight for more than 400 years,” Taylor said. “So it’s not exactly new. And we had all the demonstrations and the marches and the same conversations in the 1960s. But there has been a change in the wind. And I think, in terms of things clicking in people’s minds about racism, it is suddenly now happening on a deeper level.”
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