A few days ago this Instagram post by Raashan Ahmad of Vital Spaces, a nonprofit arts organization based out of Santa Fe, New Mexico, hit my newsfeed. The screenshot of a letter he received at work said:
I am writing from [—] with an inquiry. We have just opened a new nonprofit gallery [—] here in Santa Fe. [—] is an exciting new endeavor for us. In the next several weeks we will be professionally photographing the works in the gallery and I would like to capture photos of a diverse group of people viewing the art, including BIPOC individuals as an important aspect of our mission in equity and inclusion in the arts and community. My colleague [—] suggested I get in touch. I am new to Santa Fe [—], but not certain where to direct this request or if this is an opportunity you would be interested in sharing with your [—] artists.
We are a nonprofit and would not be able to pay the models for their time, but I can arrange for gift cards for each participant. And of course we could share copies of the images to the individuals photographed.
Raashan used this letter as a teaching moment for the community. He removed identifying information from the post so as not to publicly shame those who were inquiring, but at the same time invited his followers to comment on why this ask wasn’t ok, knowing those who sent the letter would likely see his post (the Santa Fe art world can be small, y’all).
Ninety-six comments later, some takeaways were:
- If you are serving the community you say you are committed to serving, you won’t need to ask another organization to send that community over to pose for photos. They will already be connected to you.
- If your space and environment isn’t attracting a diverse community, the problem is not with the diverse community, the problem is with your organization.
- Stop asking people/artists, and in particular BIPOC people, to do work for free, for exposure, or for … gift cards? (By the way, if this organization is the one I think it is – did I mention the Santa Fe art world can feel small? – and connected to a Form 990 that shows an 8 figure total revenue line, it is truly mind-boggling to think they could not prioritize paying a handful of people for a few hours of their time.)
- Diversity is greater than optics, and if diversity work is only being done for performative reasons it’s going to fail and likely, get called out.
Listen. Blogs, white papers, and social media posts about the need to diversify the arts and nonprofit community are not groundbreaking at this point. Unfortunately, letters like the one we see above aren’t shocking at this point, either. They are all too common, even in (or especially in? <insert grimace emoji>) Santa Fe, a community that is regularly ranked as one of the top three art markets in the US, is home to some 250+ galleries and many incredible museums, and proudly markets itself as a uniquely multicultural and artistic community.
Interestingly, the very same day of Raashan’s post, Vu Le’s latest Nonprofit AF blog came out outlining the (ongoing) reasons many nonprofit organizations are still unable to diversify their board, staff, fundraising committees, etc. It of course mirrors so much of what was said in the comments section of Raashan’s post. Here’s an excerpt, but I hope that you read the entire thing to read and digest his suggestions (sidenote: if you work in the nonprofit sector, you really should follow Vu because he’s informative and hilarious):
What advice do you have for my organization as we try to diversify our board, staff, etc.?
Whenever people ask me the above question, they tend to want some action-oriented answers such as “publicize job postings in ethnic media,” “provide childcare and transportation for board meetings,” “have a clear equity and diversity statement,” “provide more than just hummus, baby carrots, and a few cans of La Croix at meetings, especially if it’s around dinner time!” etc. These technical things are necessary but they’re not sufficient. Diversity is complex, and making a few technical changes is not going to cut it.
Diversity is complex and so is nonprofit arts work. Arts nonprofit work can also be tiring. Arts organizations sometimes assume they are already doing the work of diversity and social justice as they are typically advocating for art and artists to be taken seriously in a country where arts are always the first line to be cut from budgets, and, more often than not, artistic ventures are categorized on the progressive side of the spectrum. But “progressive” does not equal “diverse.”
The good news is that striving to do better in both areas is not impossible. The really exciting news is that learning about and working toward diversity and inclusion brings better results.
Exhibit A: Only a few days before I read Vu’s blog and Raashan’s post I had read this story from PBS NewsHour about a small museum in the Pacific Northwest that is doing better than ever, even while their doors have been shuttered during the pandemic. I found it really inspiring from a nerdy arts administrator point of view and the opposite of what the new gallery in Santa Fe appeared to be doing. So what’s the museum’s secret sauce? A combination of things that all point toward diversifying their work. They changed their leadership model. They recognized that the community they work in and serve is multicultural but that their museum was only sharing the stories of European Americans (aka white people). They asked the community for honest feedback, took it to heart, and ultimately invited the community to tell their own stories through the museum.
But back to Santa Fe. Earlier this year Prospera Partners held an 8-session “Dismantling Systemic Racism in the Nonprofit Sector” workshop via the Santa Fe Community Foundation. This was created in response to the inequities that were (and still are) being revealed within the sector as amplified by the COVID-19 situation. The workshop was open to nonprofit staff, board and/or volunteers located in New Mexico. Fifty to 60 participants from all over the state regularly logged on and participated. But out of those, how many were affiliated with arts organizations in arts-centric Santa Fe? Approximately two. If the arts are a reflection of our culture, what was this lack of participation by those who are running the arts scene a reflection of, Santa Fe?
As my colleagues say, moving yourself and/or your organization toward being more inclusive, just, and diverse is an ongoing practice, it’s not about perfection. It can be intimidating. It’s going to be hard and at times, really uncomfortable. But if you don’t even attempt it, you’ll continue to stagnate and, in my opinion, eventually be left behind. So dear Santa Fe arts and nonprofit community that I love, I invite you to commit to the work and include all of the voices of your incredible city in an authentic, not-just-for-photos-we-can-use-on-our website way. You’re perfectly poised to be an amazing model for the rest of the nation. Will your boards, staff, and volunteers lead the way?
If you’re interested in knowing more about Prospera Partner’s upcoming Dismantling Systemic Racism in the Nonprofit Sector workshops (the next one will be open to nonprofits around the US – we know this isn’t just a New Mexico issue), you can subscribe to our enews here. If you’d like to know more, or have our team facilitate a workshop for you or your organization, drop us a line.