At the start of 2023, an email popped up in my inbox. It was an invitation to participate in this year’s edition of the Tribeca Film Festival’s (TFF) Artist Award Program. The program, supported by Chanel, engages a group of diverse artists to donate an artwork to be presented as an award to winning filmmakers across 10 categories, acknowledging the intersection between creative fields. I contributed a print titled “No Regreso” (2020), and I was especially proud to be a part of this year’s iteration, which marked the program’s first all-female artists cohort. The focus of this edition revolved around diversity, representation, and the exploration of art’s significance in relation to the advancement of women in the arts, a discourse that intersects with my artistic journey and daily life.
But my initial excitement was tempered by a mix of emotions when, a few weeks after the festival ended, I learned that TFF did not provide cash prizes to filmmakers this year. Traditionally, the festival has had a well-established award system in which selected filmmakers receive cash prizes ranging from $2,500 to $25,000; in 2021 and 2022, for example, the festival awarded a total of $165,000.
In response to my inquiry about the absence of cash awards, a TFF spokesperson said that the festival’s “primary function is to support artists by successfully exhibiting their work, providing networking opportunities with other industry professionals, and facilitating discovery — Tribeca is a festival, not a contest.” Indeed, TFF and other major festivals offer an opportunity for filmmakers to get in front of distributors, audiences, and key industry figures. Many participants in these events understand that they may not receive direct compensation. In its 22nd edition, the TFF spokesperson added, nearly 70% of competition films were directed by women and 36% of feature films were directed by BIPOC filmmakers.
While acknowledging these signs of progress, I found myself pondering the implications of the lack of tangible financial compensation for artists in 2023 and reflecting on how institutions can genuinely embrace diversity.
During my time at the festival, I had the opportunity to engage with various thought-provoking content that sheds light on the underrepresentation and lack of support for women and nonbinary artists. One documentary in particular, Uncharted (2023), focuses on Alicia Keys’s She Is The Music songwriting camp, exposing the alarming scarcity of women in high-level roles in the music industry — a reality not unlike that of the visual art world or many other fields. Keys, however, highlighted the problem and offered a tangible solution by creating a program to empower women and nonbinary people. Another impactful documentary, Invisible Beauty (2023), explored Bethann Hardison’s relentless efforts to challenge the unequal treatment of Black models in the fashion industry through her creation of the Black Girls Coalition, which exemplifies a possible solution for equal representation and advocacy for minority group artists.
These documentaries compelled me to wonder: Where are Bethann and Alicia’s counterparts in the visual arts? While individuals unquestionably toil toward change, the bureaucratic complexities entrenched in the art industry hinder these efforts from manifesting as substantive transformations. The Guerrilla Girls’s 30th anniversary retrospective in 2015 revisited the question initially posed by the activist group in 1985: “How many women artists had one-person exhibitions in New York City museums last year?” The answers had hardly progressed in the three-decade period: In 2015, only one woman artist had a solo show at the Guggenheim Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Whitney Museum of American Art; only two at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Though a cursory search of MoMA’s website suggests slight progress this year, with five solo exhibitions dedicated to women, research shows that acquisitions of works by women and nonbinary artists lag behind that of works by men, despite museums embracing temporary exhibitions of these artists. It is discouraging to search for information on how women and nonbinary artists are thriving economically and discover that they are not profiting as much as their male counterparts.
As the rallying call of “representation matters” gains momentum, we must not overlook the aftermath once the 15 minutes of fame have passed. The distinction between genuine support and tokenism is not as blurred as some might believe: While financial support is the primary way to avoid tokenizing artists from minority groups, something as simple as sharing community currency can significantly impact the trajectory of an artist’s career. Institutions could play a crucial role in promoting connections between artists and stakeholders by arranging exhibitions or panel discussions where community members can network and collaborate. To make financially sustainable support possible, organizations could consider making cuts in certain areas, such as exclusive dinners or events. Alternatively, hosting opportunities for emerging voices to share their insights in a more intimate setting — round tables, open studios, or salon talks — can help foster meaningful conversations. Addressing in advance how an organization will portray the artists and their work, with established and clear inclusion goals, is vital. Institutions must understand why and how they want to promote diversity: Are artists being remunerated or adequately recognized for their time and expertise?
The crux of this conversation lies in fostering respectful environments and upholding basic human dignity. It has been disconcerting for me to experience and witness a dissonance between the professed commitment to representation and diversity by many cultural institutions, as evident in their statements and social media posts, and the genuine frustrations of numerous minority group artists while navigating these spaces. How are we genuinely acknowledging their efforts? What does actual progress and equality in the arts and cultural sector entail?
A recent social media post from the New York Latino Film Festival cited the departure or removal of four Black women executives from diversity departments at major entertainment companies: Latondra Newton from Disney, Karen Horne from Warner Bros, Vernā Myers from Netflix, and Jeanell English from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Simultaneously, cultural institutions that present a progressive image of diversity to the public have been criticized in recent years for their treatment of artists of color. In March 2023, British-Ghanaian multidisciplinary artist Heather Agyepong was asked to leave an installation at MoMA designed to encourage Black people to rest. In the same month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art expelled Cambodian artist and choreographer Sophiline Cheam-Shapiro for praying to her ancestral gods. These incidents are occurring alongside historic strikes by writers and actors who have halted production in a collective act of defiance. Moreover, the recent anti-rights verdicts targeting various minority groups handed down by the Supreme Court paint a distressing picture of social regression.
In the face of these challenges, silence is not an option. As artists and storytellers, we wield significant influence, and we must recognize that both our work and our silence carry profound political implications. The struggles we encounter within the art world are intrinsically connected to the broader battle against inequality and the perpetuation of performative allyship. Through our collective efforts, we can shape a more inclusive, respectful, and sustainable future for artists of minority groups and all across society.
I want to honor and invite readers to get to know the artists who were part of this year’s TFF Artist Awards Program: Ana Benaroya, Beverly Fishman, Christie Neptune, Lisa Lebofsky, Natia Lemay, Renee Cox, Sheree Hovsepian, Shinique Smith, Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz, and me, Patricia Encarnación. And take a moment to express my gratitude to Racquel Chevremont, an Afro-Puerto Rican curator dedicated to creating opportunities for artists from minority backgrounds at various career stages with an inclusive vision. A solid first step we could take as community and culture supporters is recognizing and celebrating the artists around us.