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New report says many grant-giving arts agencies across the U.S. are falling short

Stephanie Wolf

A new survey of arts agencies across the country finds their grant-making practices directly contribute to a lack of diversity on stages.

The national report, released Tuesday by the labor union Actors’ Equity Association, surveyed about 45 of the country’s biggest state and local agencies that distribute funds to arts and culture organizations.

Key findings include:

  • Less than 10% of the surveyed arts agencies required groups to pay performers living wages as part of the process in applying for funding. 
  • 69% of the groups had grant requirements that actually suppresses diversity.
  • More than 80% of the granting agencies used a grant-scoring rubric, a way to evaluate applications, that incorporates diversity and inclusion criteria. 
  • Less than 12% of the surveyed groups mandated a commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity efforts in order to receive funds.

This is the third study on diversity and inclusion in the performing arts released from Actors’ Equity since 2017.

Kate Shindle, an actor and president of Actors’ Equity, spoke during a press conference, live-streamed from the National Press Club in Washington D.C.

“Live performing arts is a fiscal engine that drives communities, large and small, all across the country. Yet we lag behind other industries when it comes to paying living wages and other worker protections,” Shindle said.

Speaking during the press conference, Broadway Advocacy Coalition board president Britton Smith said, “people of color are magical.”

“We possess a set of skills. We possess gifts. We possess style that is innate, it’s ancestral, it’s beautiful,” Smith said. “And the challenge of this magic is that when it’s placed in places that are white dominant, like our industry, it creates a lot of discourse, that becomes a secret to just participate in this space.”

The report comes at a pivotal moment for the performing arts sector.

After more than 18 months of theaters being shuttered and many cultural workers going without employment, arts groups across the U.S. try to find a way back to putting on live performances.

But Smith said things cannot simply go back to the way they were pre-pandemic.

“When George Floyd was murdered, our nation erupted in a way that I’ve never seen before,” Smith said. “And this eruption mirrored a reckoning in the theatre industry that we heard for the first time whispers of inequality from everyone of color in our industry. And for the first time, publicly, out loud on Instagram, everywhere, we saw the powers that be be challenged.”

The racial justice protests in the summer of 2020 led to a flurry of social media posts from cultural institutions, claiming solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and pledging to do better.

“But we knew that we had a lot more work to do than just a statement,” Shindle said, adding that the last few years have required self-reflection within the union, “recognizing that our own foundation was not free from white supremacy.”

“Our industry’s bread and butter is beautiful moving words, but our people needed action and safety and the ability to rebuild trust in institutions that had failed them so many times… Whether that inequality comes in the form of harassment, discrimination, access, insensitivity, governance structure or something else, everything has been on the table,” she said.

Even before the pandemic, theater professionals were pushing the industry to face its own widespread problems with sexual abuse and assault.

The report includes Louisville’s Fund for the Arts in its survey, noting that the Fund doesn’t have diversity or fair compensation requirements in its grant applications. It did report that the Fund takes into account diversity and representation as part of its grant-scoring rubric when reviewing applicants for its Sustaining Impact Grants, which provide operational support for organizations.

Louisville’s two union theaters, Actors Theatre of Louisville and StageOne Family Theatre, receive money from Fund for the Arts.

The Fund’s president and CEO, Andre Kimo Stone Guess, said staff at the philanthropic nonprofit was “pleasantly surprised to be included among the company of agencies reviewed, as the majority of those agencies included are government-run.”

“But the findings are important for funders everywhere, and we hope that this report is considered for both its findings and recommendations,” Guess said in a written statement.

The report looked at entities, at the state and local levels, with the largest budgets that distribute grants to arts and culture organizations.

“In all, grant applications, guidelines and evaluation rubrics for 45 state and local agencies were reviewed to gain a sense of what diversity and equity requirements and guidelines, if any, the agencies have for grantees,” the methodology section in the report reads.

When it came to arts granting agencies with more than one program, the report focused on “the grant program(s) designed to provide operational support to large, well-established arts organizations.”

Changes being made to the Fund’s granting practices since 2018, such as tiered funding and more transparency, “are in alignment with the recommendations in this report,” he said, and will continue to audit their practices.

“We’re equally excited by the report’s recommendations that do not yet lie in our processes, particularly the recommendation to strengthen compensation criteria. Consistent findings across agencies in this area demonstrate the need for further exploration… Creating criteria that upholds a standard for equitable pay is a vital component for funders to consider as we move forward,” Guess said.

The report offered a number of recommendations on how arts agencies could make their process more equitable, including:

  • Ask potential grantees about diversity and inclusion efforts and hold those organizations accountable. 
  • Require potential grantees to pay livable wages to its artists and workers as a condition of receiving funds.
  • Reduce requirements for matching funds and minimum budgets.

WFPL has also reached out to the Kentucky Arts Council and Indiana Arts Commission, but they did not have an immediate comment.

While not named in the report, distributing public funds to arts organizations in the regions they serve is within the scope of the agencies’ roles. And KAC provides support to Fund for the Arts.

Stephanie Wolf
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