A man talks on a panel on stage.

Five Community-Driven Actions for Change in Arts and Culture Organizations

Cultural researcher Matthew Jenetopulos recaps a series of convenings across Massachusetts focused on turning research into action.

This spring, my colleague, Jen Benoit-Bryan, president of Slover Linett wrote about Massachusetts findings from the national Culture & Community in a Time of Transformation research supported by the Barr Foundation. She shared how vital arts and culture organizations are to communities in Massachusetts, who have high rates of arts participation, and that most Commonwealth residents want to see arts or culture organizations change to become even more relevant to, and reflective of, their communities.

This post shifts our focus towards action. I’ll share five data-driven action options for arts and culture organizations and practitioners reflective of community priorities that we developed in collaboration with our team of advisors across the state. I will also provide an example from a Massachusetts-based organization on the leading edge of action in each of these areas. These examples and insights were initially shared during Massachusetts regional convenings (video clips featured below) that paired community research findings with reflections from local arts and culture leaders about how they’ve worked in each action area.

1. Become an anti-racist organization and combat systemic racism

A main finding in our study was that a substantial minority of Massachusetts residents believe that systemic racism is present in arts and culture organizations—from 20% to 47% depending on the type of organization in question. In the Berkshires convening, we heard from Gwendolyn VanSant who is the founding director and CEO of BRIDGE (Berkshire Resources for Integration of Diverse Groups through Education). She has partnered with many arts and culture organizations on cultural competence training and internal work toward equity and inclusion. Gwendolyn emphasized how critical internal anti-racism work is to do in order to engage authentically in this work with communities.

“Being able to have an equity frame constantly at play in all of the little and big decisions you make is the way to move forward. There’s never a quick answer to this work, you’re in this work for the long haul once you’ve committed.” – Gwendolyn VanSant

2. Seek deeper community participation and collaboration

Two-thirds of residents in Massachusetts wanted to see arts and culture organizations collaborating more deeply on programming with their communities. During our South Coast and South Shore presentation, Margo Saulnier, Creative Strategist at New Bedford Creative (and an advisor on this study), shared about how their team updated the Wicked Cool Places Grant after seeking, receiving, and acting on feedback from the community. Originally, the grant was designed as a place-making grant program, but they found it was overlooking members of the community who were already contributing to community spaces. They simplified the application process, shifted their focus more toward community organizers and artists, and reframed their purpose towards place-keeping as well as place-making.

“[The way we originally positioned this grant] was incredibly insulting if you were a resident of New Bedford, especially if you were a resident that had been and has been contributing to your neighborhood and community for years. This came to light when we did a series of conversations with BIPOC artists…and through these conversations we made several adjustments to our process to make it more equitable.” – Margo Saulnier

3. Support all people in feeling welcome to your space, programs, or events

When asked what the most important qualities of arts and culture organizations are, nearly two-thirds of Massachusetts residents (62%) said it is to be welcoming for all kinds of people. In our Boston presentation, Ben Hires, CEO of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center (BCNC) reflected on the work BCNC had done during the pandemic to host Covid-19 vaccination clinics for their community. They were able to leverage their position as a familiar and welcoming space for the Chinese-speaking community to increase the comfort of community members while getting their vaccines.

“What was special about [the vaccination clinic] being at our arts center is that being a welcoming known location to the Chinese-speaking community is important. This was really important at a time when language access and accessibility was a challenge for non-English speakers. Community members had no doubt that they would be welcome and would have a smooth process here.” – Ben Hires

4. Explore your digital frontier (and the new audience it brings)

Another key finding from our study was the vast number of people who were engaging with arts and culture online (74%) and how, for many organizations, people were engaging online that had not visited in person in the past few years. When we presented in Worcester, we heard about digital experimentation from Zach Coombs and Issa Coulibaly, co-founders of Crocodile River Music, an organization that brings African music, art, and dance to schools and educational settings. After operating entirely in-person for 10 years, the pandemic forced them to shift and create digital teaching tools—not to supplant the in-person work they did, but to supplement that work. And one of the benefits they talked about was being able to reach audiences in parts of the country that they would never physically travel to.

“We were just in person for 10 years and we kind of felt like, without being in person there was no way for our work to be successful. And then the pandemic hit and we realized “We don’t have that option” so now it’s not just what we can do in-person but it’s also: How can we augment with the digital and double down on that so what we’re doing in-person can be a part of it, but not all of it. And if there’s someone in Kansas City we’re never going to go see. We go up and down the East Coast but we’re not driving west, but we have something they need an digital is the way we can get it to them. ” – Zach Combs

5. Find your role in social change

We found that more than three-quarters of Massachusetts residents (77%) want arts and culture organizations to step up to address social issues—especially systemic racial injustice (46%), income inequality (37%), and climate change (35%). In our Western Massachusetts conversation, we heard from Carlos Uriona, Co-artistic Director and Ensemble at Double Edge Theater. He spoke about the ways they start every new planning process in their organization with values-based questions and exploration, opening themselves up purposefully to different perspectives and views both from within and from the community as well. This supports the creation of art around the social issues that are important to them and brings in new perspectives that help them broaden and grow their priorities.

“We never start envisioning something from a funding or monetary perspective. The first question that we always ask ourselves is: what are our desires? And then the plan comes from the responses that we all give to that question. What actions are we willing to commit to and are we willing to show up for these actions to sustain them over time?” – Carlos Uriona

Which of these action areas does your organization already reflect and prioritize? For a set of thought-starter questions about how these action areas may (or may not) be reflected in your organization that you could use to spark discussion on your team, please check out the Massachusetts Culture & Community report (pages 55-61).

Explore the report

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