The Changing Face of the Arts

Diversity, equity and inclusion dictate the need for a creative conversation

On a recent Wednesday afternoon in a conference room in downtown Wilmington, representatives from more than a dozen local nonprofits gathered to discuss the future of arts and culture in Delaware. The gathering brought together a veritable “Who’s Who” of leaders from institutions both big and small. It was organized by the Delaware Arts Alliance (DAA) as part of its “Creative Conversations” series, which launched last year to provide a forum for arts institutions to share knowledge and work toward common goals.

The future of the arts in Delaware, as the room envisioned it, could hardly look more different from the past. As the nation diversifies, so too must the fine arts. The nation’s youngest generations are the most diverse: more than 40 percent of millennials and post-millennials are non-white, and one in four is Latino. By mid-century, the United States will be a majority-minority nation.

It seems inevitable that some arts organizations will find themselves irrelevant and put out to pasture. What will ultimately differentiate those that thrive from those that merely survive will be the willingness to pursue systemic change: reaching beyond a traditional group of donors and stakeholders, embracing diversity and inclusion as core components of their respective missions, and building community partnerships to make that mission a reality. 

“I think the arts naturally engages people of diverse backgrounds, but we need to move intentionally so it doesn’t become tokenism or appropriation,” says Arreon Harley, vice president at the DAA and director of music and operations at Choir School of Delaware. Harley led the meeting alongside Jessica Ball, executive director of DAA.

In other words, Harley suggested at the meeting, no more “one-and-done” events designed for people of color or those who are differently abled. From now on, diversity and inclusion must be as fundamental to each organization’s mission, for example, as the preservation and display of historical artifacts is to a museum or historical society.

“Is there a reference to diversity in your mission? Raise your hands,” asked Harley, and most hands went up.

“Do you offer sustained programming that serves underrepresented communities?” he asked, and again, most hands went up.

Then: “How many of these programs have consistent attendance from that target audience?” Fewer hands this time.

“What about diversity among the staff that’s providing that programming? Does it reflect your target audience?” Fewer hands still.

Common Goal, Unique Challenges

If the first conclusion of the “Creative Conversation” was that arts organizations need to diversify along with the rest of the country, then the second was, despite commonalities, each institution faces unique challenges when it comes to incorporating diversity and inclusion into their daily operations and best practices, from greeting folks at the door to how hiring decisions are made.

Institutional change on this scale is no small feat. It must come from the top down, and it’s going to be expensive. Developing new programming that celebrates local culture will require close collaboration with community partners to ensure that programs are reaching the right audience and having the intended impact.

“We are trying to make sure that communities that are underrepresented are also at the table and partnering with some of these larger organizations so there are meaningful conversations happening and outcomes that can be sustained rather than once-off programs,” says Harley. “It means being strategic. Diversity, equity and inclusion cannot be a checkbox. It has to be a constant.”

These are exactly the types of changes that started going into effect at the Delaware Art Museum (DAM), beginning about five years ago

“There was a sense that the museum was not well-perceived, not connected with the community,” says Sam Sweet, executive director of DAM. He points to the tenure of his predecessor, Mike Miller, for orienting the organization toward more meaningful community engagement.

“For this to be a successful turnaround for the museum, we needed to change those perceptions and regain the trust and confidence of the community, and go beyond that,” says Sweet. “That vision is for this museum to be one that everybody in this community feels is their museum, that our collections reflect their cultures, their history, their tastes.”

So what has this transformation at DAM looked like?

It began with self-reflection—do we have the right staff and the appropriate skill set to meet our goals? The answer was no.

The Teenth of June, pt. 1, by Lauren Woods, is also on display at the Delaware Art Museum’s “Posing Beauty in African American Culture” exhibition this month. Artwork courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum

The Empathetic Museum

Increasing staff diversity became a top priority, as did professional development for the current staff. According to Saralyn Rosenfield, director of Learning and Engagement at DAM, it started by reaching out to an external consultant—an organization called The Empathetic Museum, to provide training on implicit bias, recognizing microaggression, internal power structures and other systemic issues.

“It’s not enough to do one new program and say you’re being diverse,” says Rosenfield. “Museums need to develop the practices and behaviors on staff to have a more authentic connection with your communities.”

Opening these dialogues allowed the museum to incorporate diversity and inclusion into everyday thinking. It’s no longer the “checkbox,” as Harley would say.

“A lot of times, we inadvertently filter biases in such a way that diversity is filtered out,” says Sweet. “I want our staff to think about how they can filter diversity in, which is thinking through how we post a position, what we asked for as qualifications. I think we’ve been more successful at diversifying our staff, and beginning to diversify our board more effectively, because we’re looking at diversity as an important factor in a person’s qualifications.”

It also has meant a shift in content, such as art on the walls, to how the community can engage and interact with that content. For instance, DAM launched the Connected Series, which allows anyone to propose programming that ties into either the museum’s permanent collection or traveling exhibitions.

Black Survival Guide

The content also has concentrated more critically on Wilmington’s complicated social justice legacy, beginning with the 2015 exhibition “Dream Streets: Art in Wilmington 1970–1990.” In 2018, DAM was the primary organizer of “Wilmington: 1968,” a community-wide reflection on the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the subsequent National Guard occupation. The year-long program included partnerships with more than a dozen local nonprofits, and in addition to four exhibitions, including the much-talked-about “Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot,” the partnership included community conversations, performances, lectures and even an oral history project focused on those who experienced the riots and occupation.

Sweet recalls a comment he received from a visitor who had just seen the Wilmington 1968 exhibitions: “A few years ago, the museum would not have been participating in this, and now to think the museum is one of the leaders.”

Community programming also makes exhibitions more relevant. In 2016, DAM expanded a traveling exhibition, “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art,” to include a storytelling performance called “My America, My Journey,” which featured Latino Delawareans sharing their personal stories about family, community, identity, culture and migration. The program was free. The museum also arranged for bilingual tours of the show. This year, the exhibition Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago included tours in Spanish as well as Haitian Creole, on the recommendation of a special advisory committee. 

Plastic Bodies, by Sheila Pree Bright, is also on display at the Delaware Art Museum’s “Posing Beauty in African American Culture” exhibition this month. Artwork courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum

Last year, DAM and the Grand Opera House partnered to host “Step Afrika!,” the world’s first professional company where dancers perform using their bodies as instruments. The shows sold out, and it generated widespread discussion, including among public school students who were treated to an exclusive performance.

This year, DAM is bringing yet another traveling exhibition that should prove to be the talk of the town. “Posing Beauty in African American Culture” explores how Black beauty has been fashioned, and self-fashioned, in popular culture from the Jim Crow period to Michelle Obama. Consisting of 104 photographs, the exhibition has been on the road since 2013.

The community will be invited to submit wall labels describing how the artwork connects to their own experiences, and an outreach program funded by Delaware Humanities and developed in partnership with YWCA, Girls Inc. and other local nonprofits will invite young girls and women to learn about female creatives and build self-confidence.

“It’s really making this museum multi-dimensional,” says Sweet. “By making it about collections and community, we want everybody to feel that they can come here and think of this as their place, that there are things in this museum that speak to their community.”

There’s still more work to do, but the arts in Wilmington seem to be finally at a point where progress has become visible, like the wake behind an ocean liner as it changes course, and heads to a new destination.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.