Arts Organizers Convene to Confront Their Own Privilege

Shaw(ta) Smith-Cruz taking a poll during “Place, Race, Geographies, and Power” at Hand-in-Glove (photo by Sean Smuda)

Shaw(ta) Smith-Cruz taking a poll during “Place, Race, Geographies, and Power” at Hand-in-Glove (photo by Sean Smuda)

MINNEAPOLIS — On my flight back to New York from Minneapolis, I sat in silence processing all the heavy ideas and questions asked over the weekend at Hand-in-Glove, a national gathering for arts organizers “working at the crossroads of creative arts administration and studio practice,” as stated in the program. As an artist-organizer (and producer of arts conferences), I expected to talk about practical ways to sustain experimental programming. Instead, over the course of four days, almost every panel and informal gathering that I participated in acknowledged, and to some extent addressed, privilege, equity, and power.

Presented by Common Field, Hand-in-Glove was organized by Works Progress Studio, an artist-led collaborative, in partnership with The Soap Factory, an experimental exhibition space. The organizers’ efforts to drive participation did not feel superficial, but rather fostered collaboration, transparency, and trust. For example, speakers had the freedom to manage the content of their panels and reformat the structure, as well as lead conversations around difficult topics.

The conference took place on September 17–20 and kicked off with an opening debate, “Paradigms and Priorities: What does the field need?” rather than with a keynote presentation. Before the debate, a representative from the Healing Place Collaborativewelcomed us to the Dakota land of Minnesota, providing us with the historical, indigenous context of the place we were occupying. Afterward, panel host DeAnna Cummings stated she hoped “to get to the universal through the particular,” which seemed to guide the general sensibility of the event.

Hosted by Chaun Webster, “Place, Race, Geography, and Power” was the most thought-provoking and compelling panel. Moving beyond the standard, whitewashed discussion about the role of artists in gentrification, Webster framed the panel through a productive confrontation of privilege within our field. Panelists were tasked to address “defying colonial scripts” in their own work and, in so doing, they focused the conversation on the role of artists within the revitalization of neighborhoods (typically) of color. Panelist Shanw(ta) Smith-Cruz proposed the owning of property as a strategy through which people of color, specifically of African descent, could shield themselves from being displaced. Another panelist, Dylan Miner then asked, “What if we come from the position that ownership is violence?” He continued to explain:

The function of artists as gentrifiers actually operates as the same logic as settler colonialism […] Settler colonialism is based on the appropriation of someone else’s land and simultaneously, […] also the appropriation of the stories … removing them of any meaning, and then reclaiming those people’s stories.

The tension in the room was palpable, and you could feel everyone listening attentively. “What do you say to people who have never owned anything?” Webster asked, and the conversation gained momentum and continued to unravel. While there was no culminating conclusion, the panel expanded on issues of equity, displacement, and ownership beyond binary arguments. The discussion reinforced the idea that arts organizers need to consider and examine their own power when entering contentious neighborhoods. I spoke with Taylor Renee Aldridge, co-founder of ARTS.BLACK and Hand-in-Glove panelist, who reflected on the power of this particular panel:

… many individuals in the audience (who were mostly white) seemed to be transfixed on how to deal with their privilege. Ultimately, there was a lot of ‘clap back’ and ‘calling out’ — organizations and individuals were held accountable in a way that I had never seen before.

Hand-in-Glove attempted to unpack complex issues and questions in the field, and while I left with even more questions, there were instances when the conference felt less abstract. For example, at “Art Works?,” a panel focused on value and labor practice, an attendee asked the speakers if there were any advocacy groups challenging the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Wendy Clark of the NEA approached the microphone to respond, and recapped the work the agency does and which programs it supports, such as artist residencies and small museums. Panelist Lise Soskolne (Working Artists and the Greater Economy [W.A.G.E.]) immediately asked Clark if the NEA would be more likely to fund organizations that were W.A.G. E. certified, guaranteeing income to artists. Sociologist Alison Gerber, panel host, cited Canadian Artists’ Representation (CARFAC) as an example, whose success relies on the largest arts funding body in Canada, which only offers funding to organizations that pay their artists. Clark said she would take the idea back and explore it. The exchange happened in front of 350 attendees, and countless livestream viewers, testifying to the safe space that was created.

Hand-in-Glove challenged the traditional conference trope, culminating in a space for participants to reflect, support one another, and be held accountable. Lead organizers Shanai Matteson and Colin Kloecker (Works Progress Studio) focused on creating a platform that invited nuanced discussions among people of various backgrounds and ensured the presence of local artists and arts organizations, inviting them to contribute to different parts of the events, such as community lunches. Matteson and Kloecker write in their introduction:

We’ve made it a priority to invite people to this convening who will speak to the urgent and complex dynamics surrounding engaged artistic practice and artist-led culture today. Rather than structure sessions around the nuts-and-bolts, day-to-day challenges we all face — we chose to foreground questions of value.

Community and field building are fundamental values of Hand-in-Glove, which are in part driven by the visual arts organizing network Common Field, which launched public membership for the first time this year. According to Co-Director Stephanie Sherman, the first Hand-in-Glove gathering in 2011 revealed the need to connect practitioners from across the country and sustain that exchange, which Common Field facilitates. The Contemporary Director Deana Haggag, whom I spoke with after the gathering, expanded on the need for this sort of network: “People literally have different challenges unique to their place and practice […] I think it’s what makes the field so necessary — it’s a space that can actually and genuinely accommodate a wide spectrum of ideas and thinking.”

How do we continue to create safe, pluralistic spaces that help us to deconstruct systems of oppression? In terms of being equitable and diverse, there’s still work to do in our field. We may work in different contexts, but there is a shared urgency to respond to the unjust systems of our society and imagine new ones.

Hand-in-Glove 2015 took place at The Soap Factory and throughout sites in Minneapolis / St. Paul from September 17 to 20.

ReviewLynnette Miranda