Cultural Equity: An Opera In Three Acts

Cultural Equity

When arts funding favors elite white institutions, both artists and communities suffer.



an Francisco prides itself on diversity and liberality. But recently, both claims have come under fire from artists who say the way the city spends its money tells a very different story: that even as people of color make up an increasingly large majority of the population, elite white arts institutions benefit more and more disproportionately from public investment.

The story has all the elements of grand opera: broken promises, insults and apologies, behind-the-scenes intrigue. It brings up a Gordian knot of issues. Who owns culture and who has a right to a share? What is the public interest in art and why does it warrant taxpayer funds? And when the funding pie gets sliced unequally, who’s being divisive: those who complain about getting only crumbs, or those who don’t want to share their full plates? The scene is set in San Francisco today, but the same issues are being contested in every city that supports the arts.

Prelude: Here’s The Story

San Francisco supports artists and organizations through three channels: direct funding to cover operations for the city’s largest institutions—museums, the opera house, and so on; an Arts Commission that makes grants and commissions public art; and a program called Grants for the Arts (GFTA), funded with revenues from a tax on hotel and motel rooms.

In March 2014, at the request of District 1 Supervisor Eric Mar (a former Asian American and Ethnic Studies professor and past president of the city’s Board of Education), San Francisco’s Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office released a study on Grants for the Arts allocations to diverse arts organizations—those serving primarily people of color, ethnic minorities, women, and LGBTQ people. The findings show that the proportion of funding to these groups has remained steady for 25 years. For example, since 1989 an average of 23 percent of GFTA’s total ($11.8 million this year) has gone to organizations serving primarily people of color, who now make up 58 percent of the city’s population, a proportion that has risen each year.

The remaining 77 percent goes to largely white organizations, mostly according to a “them that’s got shall get” formula based on a percentage of the successful applicant’s annual budget. For 2014-15, the Symphony and Opera received $633,000 and $660,000 respectively, while the Ballet and Museum of Modern Art each received right around $400,000—in each case, dwarfing other grants in their categories. There is some diversity within the universe of grant recipients, but the disparity in funding is roughly the same as those charts we’ve been seeing lately, graphing the growing polarization of wealth in the U.S.

Advocates of equity have been unhappy about this situation for a long time. By mid-June, with city allocations for cultural funding on the Board of Supervisors’ agenda, they were tired of waiting. A long line of artists and allies testified on June 20 in favor of increasing allocations for the Arts Commission’s Cultural Equity Grants (CEG) program. On June 25, led by Mar, a majority of Supervisors did something unprecedented: they voted to shift $191,000 that had been earmarked for Grants for the Arts to the Cultural Equity Grants program. The Supervisors said that GFTA had failed to change its policies to support “fragile” organizations as promised the previous year.

Act One: Who Owns Culture?

If bigger slices go to those whose shares have previously been smallest, the heftiest eaters would have to settle for less.

“Cultural equity” is one of those phrases like “gender parity” or “income inequality” that stands in for a decades-long struggle to right injustices that not everyone finds unjust. Those seeking “gender parity” want equal pay and opportunity for women and those opposing “income inequality” want to reverse the economic polarization that enriched the wealthiest at the expense of the poorest. Those seeking “cultural equity” want both: a fair share of funding for artists and organizations rooted in communities of color, serving primarily women, and/or LGBTQ participants. In each case, the opposing sides either think things are just fine the way they are, or call for faith in gradual progress if only everyone works together.

The gap between these positions has to do with risking loss. In many cities, the pie isn’t going to get larger anytime soon, as economic stresses make arts funding an even lower priority. If bigger slices go to those whose shares have previously been smallest, the heftiest eaters would have to settle for less. So far, no one has volunteered to give up their own privilege in defense of equity. But when it’s a public entity such as a city doling out the portions, the political process may force a redistribution.

Cultural equity advocates assert that every group helps to weave the cultural fabric that gives a community its distinctive flavor, adding their traditions, imagery, sounds, artifacts, stories, and other creative expressions to the tapestry. They reject a notion they perceive as elitist: that the art presented in large-budget prestige institutions that serve predominately white, formally educated, and well-off audiences represents the best of culture, with everything else relegated to the “subculture” category.

Instead, they say, everyone owns culture, and public policies should reflect that in the distribution of public funds.

San Francisco’s Cultural Equity Grants program was created 20 years ago to provide support and build capacity within historically marginalized communities. Here’s how CEG guidelines describe the initiative:

Grants from the Cultural Equity Endowment Fund provide support for the enrichment of San Francisco’s multicultural landscape and are intended to ensure that:

  • all people who make up the city have fair access to information, financial resources, and opportunities for full cultural expression, as well as opportunities to be represented in the development of arts policy and the distribution of arts resources;
  • all the cultures and subcultures of the city are represented in thriving, visible arts organizations of all sizes;
  • mid- and large-budget arts institutions whose programming reflects the experiences of historically underserved communities flourish.

The historically underserved communities named in these guidelines—Native American, Asian American, African American, People with Disabilities, Latino, L/G/B/T/Q, Pacific Islander, Women—have been so identified by the Cultural Equity Endowment legislation with the specific purpose of directing funds to grant programs that support these communities.

Act Two: The Public Interest in Art

Why does a city provide funding for artists and arts organizations? It’s a question of cultural policy, just as city-funded clinics are expressions of health policy or city-funded schools embody educational policy. In many cities, there’s not much more to cultural policy than simple pie-slicing: some form of arts organization subsidy has been around for a long time, underpinned by vague allusions to civic vitality and tourism, and how it’s parceled out matters much more to the beneficiaries than anyone else.

In others, cultural policy is carefully considered, expressing the public interest in art in four main ways:

  • It is grounded in an assessment of a community’s character and identity, down to the granular level of neighborhood diversity. It is based on a rich account of cultural infrastructure in all its particularity, of what is strong and what needs development, of what is enduring and what is endangered, of what has been mainstreamed and what has been marginalized.
  • It regards the entire cultural landscape as an ecology. It addresses cultural development in a way that’s analogous to economic development. Just as economic development initiatives address blockages in the flow of prosperity, cultural policy seeks to mend and strengthen frayed places in the cultural fabric: places where members of certain communities have been made to feel less than full cultural citizenship; places where rich cultural resources exist without adequate mechanisms to nurture, express, and extend them to the full community; blockages to participation in community cultural life, and so on. Interventions may be made in any sector—commercial culture, nonprofit organizations, independent artists, education, health, parks, libraries—always with attention to how each works as part of the whole.
  • It uses many tools and skills. It has many instruments, including funding, research, regulation, training, providing facilities, providing technical assistance, generating public dialogue, building capacity, and others. Grants matter a lot, but it isn’t only about the grants.
  • The entire community is its intended beneficiary; it is accountable to all. Artists and arts organizations are important constituents for cultural policy, and support for them helps to enact it, but policy isn’t conceived as a special-interest initiative designed just for them. Instead, the ultimate goals are full cultural citizenship for everyone: a diverse, vibrant, and participatory cultural life; ample opportunity for creativity, participation, exchange; and a civic landscape that richly embodies the cultural heritages and contributions of all community members.

San Francisco’s policymaking falls somewhere between the two poles. Some programs, such as CEG, have explicit goals of building capacity, increasing social inclusion, and supporting diversity. Others run on tradition: the city has always supported certain institutions and doesn’t require them to justify their funding in terms of larger policy aims. The Opera gets more than $600,000 a year from GFTA regardless of ticket prices, audience demographics, or any other such consideration.

The current controversy began to pick up steam in 2011, when the San Francisco Arts Commission found itself enmeshed in a scandal. The then-Director of Cultural Affairs was forced to resign following the disclosure of unauthorized expenditures, abusive actions toward staff, and large amounts of putative work-time spent at his vacation home in Brazil. An audit was requested from the City Controller’s office, and the resulting “Financial Management Review” made controversial recommendations with respect to Cultural Equity Grants, including cutting funding for half of its initiatives and eliminating simultaneous grants to any recipient.

The protests against targeting a program designed to redress long-term marginalization were loud and long. A website called Cultural Equity Matters popped up in 2011 to come to CEG’s defense. Through the site, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, a renowned performance artist and MacArthur “genius” award winner, protested that:

THE FUNDING OF COMMUNITY ARTS IS UNDER ATTACK! The establishment is closing ranks and, I dare to say, would even consider unthinkable that the city’s large white arts organizations fairly share the ever-shrinking funds for the arts. And they will use audits, lawyers and the mainstream press to state their case.

If this trend continues, soon, not only the experimental and politically-minded artists will be expelled out of the city but the many non-profits of color that give SF a special character will have to close their doors due to insufficient funding. Then, the city will become what so many wealthy people and white politicians secretly wish: A bohemian theme park…minus the bohemians. And all the middle and upper class people will wake up one day to a world of unbearable sameness.

But mostly, people weigh in anonymously. This is a common phenomenon in arts funding debates, where some critics fear that their outspokenness will be punished with a cut in funding. Nothing was posted at Cultural Equity Matters between December 2011 and June 19, 2014. On that day, an urgent call for activism appeared. Citing the Budget and Legislative Analyst’s report, new entries urged website visitors to let the Board of Supervisors know it was time to act on GFTA’s neglected commitment to change its grant-making to reflect cultural equity:

Those changes did not happen and when paired with the Budget Analyst report the Supervisors might take action. This issue is about cultural equity and accountability. If people are claiming cultural equity is important then shouldn’t it be important now and not later? When should it be addressed? At GFTA it’s been over 25 years. Exactly when is it most convenient for those who might feel the pinch to address cultural equity?

Act Three: Who’s Being Divisive?

The San Francisco Arts Alliance, self-described as “a coalition of the 15 largest budget arts organizations that has been in existence for many years,” responded to this exhortation under the banner of yet another anonymous website—San Francisco Arts Town Hall—condemning protesters as “fringe” elements:

We write to strongly urge you to increase funding for the arts, specifically cultural equity programs. We do not support a divisive and damaging proposal being advanced by fringe members of the arts community that would cut funds from the arts in order to fund the arts.

This was perceived as deeply offensive to cultural equity advocates, so much so that it occasioned an apology on June 23 from the executive director of Theatre Bay Area, a large-scale service organization for theater in the region, who wrote:

Last Friday I asked that an email action alert, received from a prominent San Francisco arts advocacy group, be forwarded from Theatre Bay Area, under my name, seeking action and support from Theatre Bay Area’s San Francisco members.

That letter contained some unfortunate—and untrue—language about ‘fringe members’ of the arts community. I am deeply sorry for not noticing this language in the original template and for forwarding this assertion to our San Francisco members.

A second Arts Alliance apology letter laid blame for the “fringe” language on a lobbying firm the Alliance employs. In the process, the letter revealed the extent of efforts by those who receive the lion’s share of support to keep it that way. That inflamed the situation. When cultural equity advocates investigated the Alliance’s lobbying arrangements, they saw the haves ganging up to pursue their self-interest at the expense of the have-nots.

The Arts Alliance apology letter—as with all the documents it has issued pertaining to this controversy—was framed as a call for unity:

As we move ahead as an arts community, we hope we can work together to solve the important issues facing all artists and arts organizations. These are incredibly tough times, as we face the devastating impacts of the affordability crisis after years of state and city underfunding. By standing together, we can turn the tides in San Francisco and protect the arts.

Reading between the lines, cultural equity advocates understood this as a call for compliant silence in the face of injustice:

If cultural equity is SO important to the Arts Alliance then why not drop the lip service… and get on the side of the disenfranchised. Equity in the arts is not something that came up yesterday. These large institutions could have been working alongside the rest of the arts community all along, but they have never seen it as in their interest to do so. As revealed in the Budget Analyst’s report this has been the state of affairs for over 25 years.

Why are people upset? Every year during budget season the arts community is told not to make waves, that equity will be talked about later. But every year nothing happens. And as the years go by the inequity deepens and communities of color are pushed further and further down the equity ladder. These communities don’t have lobbyists, all they have is their voice, their pain, and their human and civil rights to demand justice. Restorative justice. This year with the great leadership on the Board of Supervisors including Supervisor Mar, Supervisor Breed, Supervisor Avalos, Supervisor Chiu, Supervisor Campos, Supervisor Kim, Supervisor Yee; and the other supervisors who have not have a chance to speak on the issue; there is a chance for change—not just lip service.

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors took a first step toward actualizing that change when they shifted nearly $200,000 out of a program that has consistently funded white prestige arts organizations at the expense of others, redirecting the funds into increased Cultural Equity Grants. This is widely perceived as an opportunity to advance cultural equity, moving city arts support more in line with the diversity and liberality of San Francisco’s reputation.

In this David-and-Goliath opera, I predict more arias by the beneficiaries of current policy calling for unity and community; and more arias by cultural equity advocates calling for fairness. If the city’s policy becomes more equitable as a result of these events, it will be of keen interest in other municipalities across the country where the same questions are live, but haven’t yet ripened into action. I know I’m not the only one who’s eager to see who’s left onstage at the final curtain.
The Women’s Building of San Francisco is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-service center for women and girls. The photograph accompanying the article is a detail of Maestrapeace, a mural painted by Juana Alicia, Miranda Bergman, Edythe Boone, Susan K. Cervantes, Meera Desai, Yvonne Littleton and Irene Perez. Copyright 1995, 2000, All Rights Reserved.


Arlene Goldbard is a writer, speaker, consultant, and cultural activist whose focus is the intersection of culture, politics, and spirituality. Her two most recent books, The Wave and The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & The Future, were published in 2013. She is Chief Policy Wonk of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture and President of The Shalom Center. Find more of her work on her website. Follow her on Twitter.


1 Comment

  1. I wonder if this type of inequity happens in other cities, and to what extent?

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