How do we go beyond talking?

A conversation with Roberta Uno about arts, equity, and demographic change

Roberta Uno
Photo courtesy Ford Foundation, © Simon Luethi, 8SP.

Roberta Uno leads Arts in a Changing America, a five-year initiative based at the California Institute of the Arts. She and her team partner with other organizations, host conversations, design participatory artist-led workshops, and share stories that look at the relationships between the nation’s changing demographics and the arts. She mixes artistic, community engagement, scholarship, and activist practices to foster unexpected conversations and encounters.

Roberta Uno, what do you think artists and arts organizations—white-led, people-of-color-led, and Native-led—need to pay attention to with respect to cultural and social equity?

How do we go beyond talking? How can we get beyond the desire of wanting to do something to get to the actual work of doing? These are questions that organizations, including our own, need to ask wherever we organize and build relationships. What does it look like, for example, to recognize that we’re on indigenous land in a real way? One that rises above simply asking Native people to come in and lead a prayer at the beginning of a conference. We can do better.

As our nation’s demographics shift, terms like minority and majority begin to mean different things. Does that point to a shift in language, in identity politics?

This is at the heart of our project. One of our goals is to reframe and offer a new way to think about the arts sector—and our broader society. We’ve been pointing out how inadequate and oxymoronic our language is when it comes to terms like majority and minority. Instead, we say the potential new American plurality.

I mean, think about a term like underrepresented. Underrepresented according to whom? If you’re standing in your white-led boardroom, yes, people of color and Native people are underrepresented. But if you’re standing in the community, people of color and Native people are quite represented. We encourage our white allies and their organizations to say historically underfunded instead, because that’s what they’re really talking about.

What else about our white allies? I’ve always believed there need to be conversations and spaces for people to gather, whether it’s as women or as ballet dancers. Constitutionally and otherwise, we as a nation have to protect a group’s shared identity. But we as an organization have always created an intersectional space. It’s very intentional work building this system of core partners across budget size, across race, across geography, across disciplines.

We also recognize that the largest partners we have are white institutions like the Kennedy Center or the Brooklyn Museum. We want to know what they are doing to walk equity and to change and transform their institutions. These are the kinds of questions that [we] don’t often get to [ask] as peers.

White people are definitely part of what we do! Just take a look at our list of cultural organizers and artists. They’re at our leadership table, they’re in our audiences, they’re programmed into the work. But we’re very careful to not make space that’s about white tears and holding hands and somehow flipping all the issues to center around whiteness. If white allies need to have that kind of healing space for themselves we encourage them to do that, but we don’t exist to do that.

The bottom line is we’re one of the rare artist-driven organizations. In my mind, part of this comes from our vulnerability and our ethos as artists. Our profession asks us to be brave; the type of work we engage in demands that we have rigor and that we have courage. And so we expect that from others who want to go into this artist-driven work with us. Today, we are all in a brave new world where we all have to have courage. We demand and expect that of our allies. And we expect to create a loving, open space where change is possible.

Does arts-based community engagement need new tactics to be effective in an environment where old rules don’t apply? What needs to stay?

This is where the learning that we’ve done with our partners comes into play. I will say that building on an artist-centered and artist-driven organization informs how we identify new tactics. Traditionally, the ways people learn have been shaped and dictated by educational institutions. The ways, for example, that philanthropy convenes people usually stick to a certain model. You know, a plenary. A panel. A breakout session. That type of thing. We wanted to get out of that mindset, which is how we got into immersive participatory learning.

When we design programs, we usually start off with hands-on artist workshops—and not just visual artists, photographers, painters, and poets. We also have people doing food-justice work, beat boxers, standup comics, farmers, and other craftspeople. It’s required for all attendees to sign up for something. Of course, almost everyone who has an administrative background wants to sign up for the writing workshop, because they’re very comfortable being in their heads. That’s safe.

But because we’re so demanding of attendees, we push and encourage them to maybe think about that standup workshop instead. We ask people who come to our events to take risks and be open to learning in different ways. What might you learn if you engage more of your body than you normally do? What might you learn if you put your hands into the soil?

Do you see more artists of color and Native artists getting public art commissions? What resources would you offer to artists looking for opportunities?

Good question, one I’ll have to think about some more, but an initial thought I have is about how to build better connections between individual artists. I think one of the greatest things an established artist can do is to share their connections with emerging artists who are looking for commission work. That said, it’s also critical for commissioning institutions to be more thoughtful when it comes to promotion. It’s a big opportunity for organizations to do the outreach work to make sure that public art projects reflect the communities they are created in.

Venessa Fuentes is a writer and artist who lives in Minneapolis. She was published in A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (Minnesota Historical Society, 2016).

Featured in Public Art Review #56.