According to the Americans for the Arts (AFTA) website, they are a national arts service organization whose mission is “to build recognition and support for the extraordinary and dynamic value of the arts and to lead, serve, and advance the diverse networks of organizations and individuals who cultivate the arts in America.” But they have been anything but transparent and accountable to its members in aiming to fulfill this mission. Immediately after the George Floyd murder, AFTA’s leadership expressed their commitment to Black and Brown lives in an Instagram post. However, since then, members of AFTA have demanded transparency and accountability on multiple occasions only to be given the runaround from senior leadership.
Most recently, members, including me, have requested a formal review by AFTA in response to challenges the arts field has been dealing with since the beginning of COVID-19 (and even before). Members have asked for AFTA to: invest in a paid membership position to build relationships with Black and Brown arts organizations; recruit people of color to serve on the board of trustees; engage current membership as a brain trust so we can support their preparation for the 2021–2023 strategic plan; create a space for members on the board to act in an ex-officio capacity; and overall transparency and accountability from both AFTA as an institution and their board members. We think that these are the best methods for “advanc[ing] the diverse networks of organizations and individuals who cultivate the arts” in this nation.
Members of multiple councils have asked to meet with senior leadership to discuss our thoughts of how AFTA could better support its members. In response they relished the fact that they created a cultural equity statement back in 2016 and that they were “on the ground doing.” When asked about what that means and what progress has been made their response has been: “We need time to think more intentionally about it.” The arts education council (on which I sit) wrote a letter to President and CEO Bob Lynch, and COO Mara Walker in August and didn’t receive a response until six weeks later because of what they claimed to be “capacity issues.”
This is disheartening because we are over seven months into a global health crisis during which artists and organizations have been struggling to sustain themselves, and we are seven years from the inception of Black Lives Matter. We look to service organizations like AFTA to help support us as we support our communities. However, we can no longer wait for them or organizations like them. These requests are not made to hurt the organization, but to serve the people it exists to serve: the entire national arts community.
Similar issues are plaguing other arts organizations around the country such as the Guggenheim, the Broadway League, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, however our call for change is no longer for those institutions. The arts field prides itself on being progressive however the same issues that we see playing out in national media are the same issues we deal with in the field every single day. According to AFTA’s 2018 990 tax filing, the President and CEO’s salary was almost $800,000 per year. AFTA sits on a $16M budget and over $100M in endowment and we have yet to see that being invested into the arts community. For decades, senior leadership of primarily white institutions (such as AFTA) have acted as gatekeepers, hoarding power and blocking pathways for professional advancement in the field for BIPOC arts leaders. These same institutions are the ones that continuously get awarded resources from the philanthropic sector over and over again while community-based and grassroots arts organizations who are actually doing “the work” struggle to keep it together.
As a field, we’ve waited far too long for these institutions to get on board with the movement towards racial equity. So now the call is for us: Black, Indigenous, and people of color artists, leaders, and the organizations that serve us. We must come together, build agency, support one another, shift the current systems that have alienated members of our community since their inception, and invest in ourselves when these organizations will not. Let’s continue to support organizations like Women of Color in the Arts, International Association of Blacks in Dance, First Peoples Fund, Asian American Arts Alliance, National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures who have continuously been for us and by us.
Thank you so much for this thoughtful and powerful piece! AFTA’s willful and shameful practices to uphold supremacy culture have persisted for far too long. Thanks, too, for including the numbers re: endowment and salary, and given their resources, it’s worth noting that AFTA applied for the NEA CARES funding, under the guise of advancing equity. Many BIPOC leaders (and a few white folks) have called on AFTA privately to do better for decades, and I’m so glad to see this move to the public sphere.
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