June 16, 2021 Editor’s note: Since this story’s publication in print, Andy Saladino of Amplify Arts reported that the Kiewit Foundation did not grant the expected funding for his organization to continue managing ArtStock into the future. Saladino said “We’re still committed to the mission of what that program was about (sector unity, growth, and progress), but need some time to figure out a game plan moving forward.”

The Reader

An April 9 blog by Union for Contemporary Art founder and executive director Brigitte McQueen challenged local arts and culture power-brokers to do better when it comes to equity. Her eloquent exposé took to task a covert group, Arts Omaha, composed of white executive directors of large area institutions. She argued this exclusionary club enabled by entrenched white supremacy represented larger systemic racism issues. Following her impassioned testimony, the group disbanded. Some members issued statements of regret and apology.

“It made really big waves,” said Kaneko’s executive director, Stephan Grot, who bailed from the group in February. “I think the strength of the language used certainly put a big exclamation point at the end of it.”

Some work to create a more equitable art and culture scene in Omaha is already underway. ArtStock, a long-standing cohort program now managed by Amplify Arts, offers an inclusive convening space for arts administrators and artists to vision and enact positive change in the arts-culture sector. Amplify Arts’ executive director, Andy Saladino, said, “It’s a really diverse room. Organizations of all sizes and artists of all identities are able to have a seat at the table.” Since Amplify Arts took it over from the Peter Kiewit Foundation, he said ArtStock has “restructured to purposely combat some of the things problematic about Arts Omaha.”

Andy Saladino, executive director of Amplify Arts. Photo courtesy Amplify Arts.

“It’s purposely transparent, which is why there’s a website, a blog and a list of different projects people are working on. The hope is there will be multiple points of entry for anyone who would like to take an active role in building a stronger sector.”

McQueen going public has centered area equity discussions, which the Union has consistently done over its decade lifespan, most recently with the Undesign the Redline exhibit.

“What I appreciate about Brigitte is that she put it all out there in the open,” Saladino said. “Yes, it’s messy right now. There is a lot of hurt and mistrust. But it allows us to have candid conversations about what’s holding Omaha’s arts and culture sector back from full activation and success.”

The Rose Theater’s managing director, Julie Walker, credits McQueen for “calling it out and calling people into the work.” Rose artistic director Matt Gutschick said, “That’s made us better.”

Undesign the Redline, which opened prior to the pandemic, is one example of Union for Contemporary Art’s efforts to center equity in the community discussion. Photo courtesy UCA.

There’s more to be done, McQueen emphasizes.

“Arts Omaha was just the tip of the iceberg. There’s also inequity in philanthropy in the way funding is divvied up in support of different cultural institutions. Especially when you look at neighborhoods,” she said, “there are discrepancies. We have to figure out what’s working and not working in what have been traditionally, historically oppressive systems. Organizations committed to serving BIPOC communities are not supported in the same way as larger endowed organizations with generations of history and successes to highlight. Until there is greater financial equity for BIPOC-focused and smaller community-based organizations, this will continue to be an issue that impacts our city.”

Part of the petition presented by the members of Arts Omaha, through the Omaha Community Foundation, to the Douglas County Commissioners for CARES Act funds to cover COVID related expenses.

While encouraged some Arts Omaha leaders have “committed to making changes within their organizations, within themselves to be better supportive of BIPOC staff, artists, patrons and community stakeholders,” she feels some “people are in this push to appear equitable, but not pausing to acknowledge the past harm done and the still faulty system in place.”

“Until we unpack those things,” she added, “any rush to add brown faces to a website, to put up a statement of equity are hollow acts. It’s not enough. That’s the conversation I’m trying to have.”

The Rose’s Gutschick said organizations like his, which left Arts Omaha, shouldn’t expect a pass.

Artistic Director of The Rose Theater, Matt Gutschick.

“Our institutions need to continue to be held accountable to the transformation they’re committing to. Accountability is such a huge piece of this. The staff has an enormous role to play in that.”

So do artists, said Saladino. Witness recent pressure brought against Nebraska Shakespeare to embrace diversity. Amid staff resignations and public criticisms, it cancelled its summer festival.

At McQueen’s urging, the Rose held listening sessions with staff. She’s called on leaders to take racial equity and anti-oppression training. Many have, but she makes clear organizations are left to their own devices.

“I can make suggestions and ask them to do things, but there is no one to hold them accountable in their work. Each can move through this the way they decide they want to. One of my things is — own what you were a part of.”

Arts affinity groups of color may be one check against undue white influence.

“I think there is a need for greater unity and a coming together amongst organizations of color,” said McQueen, “because the issues that face our organizations historically are different. There is a need for that focused support, camaraderie and partnership.”

Saladino expects some affinity groups may emerge from ArtStock. McQueen said if they do they must “be part of a larger conversation of how organizations are supported and uplifted and where that focus is put.”

Union for Contemporary Art. Photo courtesy UCA.

She lauds the example of Charlotte, North Carolina’s Arts and Science Council in disclosing its history of inequitable grant giving and implementing a restorative justice remedy.

“That’s the level of work I’m asking from philanthropy. What can we be doing to balance that in some way so that culturally significant institutions in my community have an opportunity to shine and thrive.”

Lack of BIPOC arts administrators locally is another concern McQueen said needs addressing.

“If there are no people of color on your leadership team, what is at play within your organization to keep the people of color you are employing from moving up? What is the level of professional development you have in place to move them forward?”

–Brigitte McQueen

In some institutions, she asserts, staff of color are limited to front desk or security jobs.

Gutschick believes one key is recruiting more diverse board members.

“If you’ve got more BIPOC leadership on your board, they can change the organization’s identity and the way it structures itself in very impactful ways.”

He suggests “a primarily white institution won’t remain that way long if it recruits a mostly BIPOC-led board.”

“At the Rose we feel we’re addressing the board piece with a fair amount of swiftness and intentionality,” he said.

“Prioritizing more racial diversity in our staff and board is a top priority for Opera Omaha right now,” said its general director, Roger Weitz.

Priorities like these were catalyzed by McQueen’s article, which Weitz said “shined a light where that light was needed.”

Stephan Grot, executive director of Kaneko.

Kaneko’s Grot said McQueen pointed out “the errors we don’t even see are in front of our faces.” He added, “We need to step back and rethink the way we are creating our decisions and the groups we are meeting with and understand these systems in place and how not to participate in them again.”

Gutschick said there’s new awareness by him and colleagues that “centering equity” must extend to all decisions an organization makes.

“We are not quite at a point where equity is the center of every single conversation we have. That’s the next phase for us.”

McQueen appreciates the reflection and education occurring.

“I feel like those conversations, particularly in philanthropy, have been very uplifting and have given me a sense of hope for what is to come for this sector.”

“Unfortunately,” Gutschick said, some donors resist “pursuing this work…That’s a flaw in the system — where people of means seemingly have a huge piece of the agenda.”

The solution to that outsized influence, he said, is that organizations like his “simply need to be braver.”

“We need to trust the community will catch us if we fall from folks who don’t share that value system and aren’t going to write us checks — that somebody’s going to pick up the slack if we are doing the right thing.”

ArtStock, Saladino said, helps undo Omaha’s “closed-door, top-down decision-making” that tends toward “elite and exclusive.”

But Saladino said ArtStock is only part of a solution to “building a better sector where everyone has a voice in promoting unity, innovation and progress.”

For real change to take hold, Gutschick said, “personal transformation and institutional commitments and action-tracking need to be in balance — the journey individually and institutionally need to be linked.”

McQueen agrees, saying, “I believe the work of making the sector more equitable begins with a commitment made by each organization to embrace a DEIA philosophy that runs throughout every aspect of the work they’re doing. I believe it needs to start from within our organizations and move outward to encompass and support the sector, our artists, patrons and stakeholders.”

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