Perhaps the greatest take-away for me from the Alliance of Artists Communities conference I attended last year has been the recognition of the gap between diversity and inclusion. As an administrator at an artist residency, this is an ongoing area of concern and need for growth. While we have the tools (that we must choose to utilize) to increase diversity of race, nationality, economic status, sexual orientation and identity, disability, age, discipline, etc., the important word we often overlook is inclusion.
Conference keynote speaker, performance artist Barak adé Soleil, who also happens to be an artist-in-residence where I work, spoke to us about the politics of space. As a wheelchair user, he asked us simple questions: How were you welcomed into this space? Did you enter the hotel through the front entrance? Did you go up the five steps? Nod at the bell hop? Enter through the grand revolving door? Look up at the high ceiling with carvings and paintings before making your way to the reception desk? Or were you directed to the back of the building? Where you entered next to the dumpster? Where you weaved through service hallways and dodged housekeeping carts before finally reaching reception?
That was all he needed to say – we all understood. In all honesty, prior to that moment I had never deconstructed word “accessible” and how it can be used without any regard to the feeling of inclusion. I continued to learn about this topic in the follow-up session, “Disability Access and Inclusion” with Beth Prevor, co-founder and Executive Director of Hands On. As Beth pointed out, disability is the only category of diversity that we can and likely will all join at some point in our lives – all the more reason to address it. She underlined the points made by Barak – that in order to achieve equality, everyone must actually feel equal. An important component here is to communicate with the person who has the disability, to be clear about exactly what you mean when you describe access, and to work toward inclusive solutions with that person.
The second keynote speaker, Cree singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, discussed the exploitations she experienced throughout her career, including unintentionally selling the rights to her hit song Universal Soldier. She encouraged us to provide even more support to the marginalized, to teach artists to protect their rights, and to remember that as well-intentioned gate keepers, often the solution is as simple as reaching out. She shared the lyrics of her song, My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying:
"The past it just crumbled, the future just threatens;
Our life blood shut up in your chemical tanks.
And now here you come, bill of sale in your hands
And surprise in your eyes that we're lacking in thanks
For the blessings of civilization you've brought us,
The lessons you've taught us, the ruin you've wrought us
Oh see what our trust in America's brought us."
In the session, “Who Are We Serving and How?,” the conversation continued. Alliance Executive Director Lisa Hoffman repeated the call that we need to pursue inclusion with more urgency; that if we do not take immediate and intentional action, then we are complicit. As institutions, we need to delineate our terms of diversity and inclusion, and we need to question notions of meritocracy. When we talk about improving our reach to certain communities, we must actually go to those communities and ask them how we can serve them better, and be receptive to their response. We need to question our staffing, our Euro-centric definitions of art excellence, the underlying paradigms in our structures, and the transparency of our processes. We need to be willing to shake things up when an entrenched norm has unintentional consequences.
I spoke to Lisa afterward and thanked her for her urgent call, evident in her own speaking, but also in the programing of the conference. I am thankful that this push is coming from the top of the organization, as it is often challenging to push up from the bottom. This leads me to my own field of Jewelry/Metals and the greater Crafts field, which I fear has yet to address me and my peers with a similar call to duty. I have seen a lot of fantastic work out there addressing social issues, but we can all look around at our conferences and in our publications and see that there is an inequity of representation. We are predominantly white, college educated, middle class background, cis-gendered, and non-disabled.
We must begin to question – if nowhere else than at our conference this year in one of the most multicultural cities in the world, New Orleans – Who is included here, who is not, and why?
One thing I have noticed is a tendency when addressing social issues to point to individuals and question individual action. But when there are such visible and palpable overarching disparities, that means something in the system, in the framework, is wrong. To my fellow metalsmiths, jewelers, craft artists: It’s time to look at ours.