A Workable Plan for Arts Access in Los Angeles
L.A. County’s sweeping Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative isn’t just another wish list—the County Board of Supervisors actually mandated it
In April 2017, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission (LACAC) announced a monumental new Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative (CEII), which includes 13 recommendations to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors intended to “ensure that everyone in L.A. County has equitable access to arts and culture” and to “improve inclusion in the wider arts ecology for all residents in every community.”
The initiative wasn’t just a hopeful shot in the dark on the part of activists—the county itself called for it, back in November of 2015.
The recommendations cover areas such as cultural policy, the use of inclusive language, internships and training, workforce development, and equity and inclusion in arts funding, programming, audience development, and arts education.
“Everyone is very hopeful of moving the needle, so to speak,” says LACAC executive director Leticia Buckley of the initiative and its recommendations, “and ensuring that there ends up being more accessibility for folks to engage in the arts in every neighborhood across the county.”
The CEII’s full 116-page report was the result of an 18-month process conducted by an advisory committee of 36 diverse community leaders, led by three co-chairs—Tim Dang, Helen Hernandez, and Maria Rosario Jackson—well-known arts leaders in L.A. The committee conducted 14 town hall meetings in locations around the county, during which a total of 650 participants shared their experiences with, and ideas about, county arts programs.
The advisory committee also formed working groups to further discuss and hone ideas about equity and inclusion in five key target areas: the boards of directors of cultural organizations, arts organization staffing, arts audiences and participants, arts programming, and artists/creators. More data and information were captured through the first-ever L.A. County–wide demographic survey of the arts and cultural workforce, which measured the diversity of boards, staff, volunteers, and contractors.
Finally, to determine best practices and assess the current state of knowledge about inclusion and cultural equity, the committee consulted with peer groups in cities like New York and San Francisco, and conducted a full literature review.
The public process that LACAC conducted to formulate the CEII’s recommendations was critical to its completion, but even more important was what Buckley calls “the perfect storm” of county support for the initiative, which promises to give it a real and practical impact. After all, since it was the L.A. County Board of Supervisors who originally directed LACAC to conduct the study and formulate a set of recommendations, the initiative marks a rare opportunity for effective policy to emerge.
“Above all,” says Buckley, “we actually wanted to walk away with real, actionable items. It was very important all along that this was not going to be another gathering of arts and culture folk having a conversation about lack of diversity or anything else with nothing to show at the end of it.”
Political realities are political realities, however. The practical steps associated with the 13 recommendations imply an increase of $20.5 million in county arts funding in the first year. In June, the Board of Supervisors, citing “budget uncertainties at the state and federal levels,” approved funding for only five of the recommendations, dedicating a bit more than $1.1 million to establishing a cultural policy for the county, requiring county arts grantees to adopt equity plans, expanding paid arts internships for community college students, developing work-based arts learning opportunities for teens, and placing artists in paid positions as creative strategists to solve social problems.
While the allocations fell far short of the CEII’s recommendations, the LACAC remains hopeful that the county board will work toward realizing what are, after all, its own equity and inclusion goals by funding additional recommended programs in future years. “What’s important is that this conversation isn’t about the arts only,” says Leticia Buckley. “It is about access and equity for residents and citizens in L.A. County. With the idea that the arts are embedded in everything we do, it’s important to know that this is another tool in the tool kit to ensure that people are receiving equitable distribution of resources and access.”