“We Will Be Noticed: Race in Art”

By Narciso Argüelles
 

Recently an art friend of mine expressed feelings regarding his work with cultural diversity and art programming in Oklahoma City. Essentially he was commenting about how he was not getting rich, but felt a need to continue to help people. He made this declaration on a popular social media platform. My friend is a hard worker, curating exhibitions of Latino artists, starting a film festival for artists of color, working on after-school programs, all with the goal of giving a voice to artists of color. In his post he admitted that the organization he directs may never make money, but it provides necessary events to help promote diversity in Oklahoma City’s art world. His friends quickly replied with words of encouragement and support. I even threw in a few words of comfort. On this post, one of his friends commented, “There are those who understand, what is needed is for the artists, (particularly those of color) to come together, to get a gallery of our own, a performance space of our own, a storehouse, a meeting house, a cultural center, then I think we will be noticed (A.B.).”

“We will be noticed.” A slogan? A war cry? While the phrase may be a little melodramatic, it did catch my attention. I was encouraged that there are people who still fight the good fight of racial inclusion here in Oklahoma. At the same time, I was also saddened that in 2013 we still have to “fight the good fight.” Some may be surprised that there is a fight at all. Don’t be mistaken, this is a taboo subject. All artists of color have to make that decision whether to speak about “race” in art. The fear is to be perceived as “uppity” or “militant” or somehow “ungrateful”. There are members in the community that feel that people of color should be grateful and forget historical injustices and overlook current ones. I have been told by well-known and respected members of the art community that I should not make art about cultural diversity, that its too political, and that art should be fun. Maybe they think we live in a post “race” world. I wish it were so.

As an educator, I teach about 200 students a semester. I choose to teach in areas where I can have the most impact, in art and for the Latino community. As a Chicano, my responsibility is to assist my community. The Chicano movement was born from the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. Chicanos are politicized Mexican Americans; we celebrate all sides of our culture, the Indigenous part, the Spanish part, and the Mextizo (the mixture). From my students, I often get the question, “Do you think I can be an artist too?” I respond, “ Yes of course.”

But it was their observations that I found telling. They noticed that there were not many artists of color at the local art shows that I took them to, or that when I invited guest speakers from galleries and art organizations, there were not any people of color in positions of leadership coming into speak to them. Honestly, I had not really noticed this oversight until my students pointed it out. Just because the students have a perception that there are not people of color in positions of leadership at these organizations, does not mean these organizations are not culturally sensitive, in fact since I know a lot of people in this small art community, I know them to be culturally sensitive. But that really isn’t the point. In the 1960’s there was a popular concept called: self-determination. We want the power to determine our own future.

There are several questions I would ask the art leaders of Oklahoma City:

Are there any executive directors of art galleries or art associations that are African American? Latino? Or Native American?
What about in the other executive officer positions?
What about office managers or support staff?

Excluding my friend’s organization that specializes in racial inclusion and the arts, I made a personal list of other places I thought to be progressive. Out of my list of 11 art galleries and organizations, I could only count three people who describe themselves as people of color, one is a receptionist, one is a full time college instructor, and another is an assistant in an office.

We have to ask ourselves, is this acceptable? How can I tell my students that if they choose a career in art they may not get a job in art or that of the people who will decide if you will be allowed to exhibit, very few are of color? It should come as little wonder then that there are several artists who are talking about opening new galleries that specifically support artists of color.

So from my personal list of 11 non-profit art galleries and associations, I attempted to contact one for this article to ask them questions about how they are including people of color in leadership positions. I specifically chose what I thought was the most progressive gallery on the list: Individual Artists of Oklahoma (IAO). This organization has included some culturally diverse programming in the past. It is odd to report that the organization would not make one of their board members available for an interview. They requested I send them the questions in advance. The first set of questions must have scared them because they were not answered by a board member and the answers had an air about them similar to someone saying, “some of my best friends are black” or “my great grandmother was an Indian princess.” And the second set of questions were not answered at all by the time this article went to press. These were simple questions, not rocket science. I asked:

“Why can’t I speak to someone of color from IAO?”*

“How many people of color are employed at IAO?”

“How many people of color are on the board at IAO?”

“Do you feel that it is important for people of color to be in leadership roles at IAO?”

“It is 2013, When can we expect IAO to be culturally diverse and reflect the true makeup of Oklahoma?”

 

The questions were in line with a famous Guerrilla Girls build board where they questioned how many women artists were exhibited at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I was inspired by this art piece because one of my professors in Graduate School was a member of the Guerrilla Girls.

 

Photo from http://www.guerrillagirls.com/posters/nakedthroughtheages.shtml

Photo via http://www.guerrillagirls.com/posters/nakedthroughtheages.shtml

 

What other things can we do to get more people of color in leadership roles in the arts? While some of these organizations have teen advisory boards and teen training programs, what about a diversity advisory board? What about an executive training program for people of color? What about a paid internship program for minorities? What about a more proactive employee search that casts a wider net? We do not have to reinvent the wheel for this.

These are ideas that have been modeled by other organizations, take for instance the Oklahoma Art Council’s Leadership Arts program. The applicants, for whom the training fees are waived, are taught about community and economic development through arts, arts education, and art events. Those who are encouraged to participate range from working artists and businesses leaders to community citizens who want arts events in their own neighborhoods. This program is a step in the right direction for building communities where art is not only valued, but where all children have a chance to become involved in arts education opportunities, learn how to develop themselves into working artists, and finally go onto see success. Let’s face it: their success ultimately becomes the community’s success.

We can go to the streets to be noticed too. I am happy to say that from my personal list of art organizations and galleries I have already met with the heads of three of the groups with the goal to talk about Latino issues. They were happy to talk to me and tell me about their activities to meet the needs of the Latino community. I hope this will eventually translate to people of color working for them. I am slowly meeting with each of those groups on my list and I hope to report on this progress in a future article. We all can contact our local gallery or museum and ask them what they are doing to mirror the diversity that exists in Oklahoma. We can call our local schools and ask that history include the Native American perspective and to include Chicano Studies. We can also financially support groups like Inclusion in Art. “We will be Noticed!”

 

 

 

[*Editor’s Note: When I asked Narciso to write for us, I thought this was a fair subject to approach given that many events in the Oklahoma City metro are arts driven. One need only look to the number of regularly occurring art walks, art and music festivals, and the like. It’s also worth taking into account that the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce made a promotional video earlier this year, “Be A Part of a City On the Rise: Oklahoma City,” about the city’s exponential growth this past decade. It boasted of Oklahoma’s diversity and spoke to how each of the cultures depicted bring a kind of vibrancy to the creative scene and that this creative scene drives innovation, which then leads to job creation. I wanted to know from artists of color if they thought this was a true portrayal of what it is like to be a minority who is trying to become a full-time working artist or at least one with a strong voice in the community.

If we’re going to be open and honest with ourselves, I think it is fair to say that people still put barriers between themselves and others for various reasons. And it’s not always related to race. Perhaps this is not done with malicious intent, but these issues still exist no matter the form they take, be it small exclusionary tactics or something more institutional and insidious. Look to any point history if you need examples. In this current chapter of Oklahoma City’s existence, what are all people doing to live up to the ideals they say the value?

To that end, this is the letter we got from Kendall Brown, the Executive Art Director of Individual Artists of Oklahoma Gallery (IAO) in response to Narciso’s questions. This letter didn’t arrive by Narciso’s deadline, but we also had some technical difficulties that delayed the publication of his article. I feel it is fair to print what was sent. So while they didn’t provide him with a board member to speak with, they did eventually respond.

“Narciso,

 

I spoke with Helen at OKC NET regarding your article. She described it as a piece on the need for role models of color within the arts community. I think the topic is an excellent one, and I applaud you for writing about such an important topic. To that end, I recommend that you speak with Nathan Lee at Inclusion in Art as a source. As I’m sure you know, IAO works with Nathan and Inclusion in Art quite often, and will be hosting a film festival focusing on minority filmmakers on August 10. Each year we host multiple community events featuring culturally diverse artists and leaders of color, including the exhibition last August in which you were a featured artist.
 
Regarding your specific questions about IAO, we do make a conscious effort to have a diverse leadership team. The organization only has one full time paid position (myself) along with a part time administrative assistant, but our Board of Directors, as well as our committees, are formed of wonderful people of diverse backgrounds, including several people that identify as PoC. We are thrilled to be working with Nathan and Inclusion in Art, and hope that the minority film festival is something that can happen more than once.

 

Thanks again for reaching out to us. Please let me know any follow up questions you have.

Best,

Kendall Brown
Executive Director
Individual Artists of Oklahoma”

 

I will admit, I am perplexed as to why no one from the board wanted to speak directly to Narciso – it’s a Public Relations opportunity the way I see it – but I think after watching this exchange, perhaps it is not so silly to think that racial issues are still tricky subjects to navigate, and that emotions on the subject can become charged. From what I understand, the IAO Board wanted to issue a joint statement and have Ms. Brown act as their PR liaison. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it makes me wonder from an outsider’s perspective if they would send a person of color to speak with minority students about their gallery if requested. I look forward to reading more of Narciso’s exploration on this subject as it relates to Oklahoma. In the coming weeks he will be conducting more interviews with arts organizations about inclusion and building stronger art communities.]

4 Comments
  1. Wow, I can’t believe you would publish an article so blatantly defaming a specific arts organization (IAO is not a gallery, but a non-profit organization). Especially an article with very few facts and lots of conjecture – “It makes me wonder from an outsider’s perspective if they would send a person of color to speak with minority students about their gallery if requested.” – What exactly is the intent of this statement? It’s very muddled.

    Does it really not make a difference to you that the IAO has exactly 2 employees (both white, but both queer women)? Yes, there’s a board, but the board members are unpaid and often busy with other endeavors. And yeah, the board is actually really racially diverse.

    I would like to point out that the Guerrilla Girls contacted the MoMA, arguably the biggest gallery in NYC—one of the most influential galleries in the U.S., North America, and even the entire planet. They contacted this gallery specifically after it had an exhibition that was supposed to be a cross-section of contemporary global art. It in reality had 13 female artists of 169. Mr. Arguelles contacted the Individual Artists of Oklahoma, a non-profit, rather off-beat organization that strives to promote artists who are just starting out and build community amongst artists.

    And it’s staffed by 2 people !!! Sorry, I can’t get over the way you guys swept this fact under the rug in this piece. It is baffling to me that someone would think they could get a realistic idea of how represented people of color are in an art scene by contacting one tiny organization with 2 paid employees. Did Mr. Arguelles even attempt contacting a larger gallery? (There’s a really big one a few blocks from IAO.)

    I will say though the intent of this article is great. I completely agree with the first 7 paragraphs or so. Just the actual result of this makes me so sad for the future of art in Oklahoma! I really hope we can all take a more professional and mature approach soon. Maybe Mr. Arguelles or the other artists he references here would be willing to hold a discussion or voice their opinions? I don’t know, but targeting the IAO like this is pretty gross.

    In case you’re like “who’s this guy,” I’m just an artist and frequent volunteer with IAO, but I have seen a lot of what goes on “backstage” at IAO, and these people are trying their best to affect positive change in the community. Please ask some other galleries the same questions!

    • I didn’t think it was defamatory; it’s certainly pointed, but I think this is a valid conversation to have. This is an op-ed and the author’s thoughts are his own. It’s reasonable to expect people to have strong reactions on this topic, and if anyone would care to write a response, I’ll publish that also.

  2. Hi Garret,

    Thanks for taking the time to read Narciso’s article. If you haven’t read it, you may want to check out Nathan Lee’s In COLOR Film Festival piece that went up today as well. It speaks positively of IAO’s collaborative efforts to promote diversity in art.

    Back to Narciso’s article: I think it is a subject that people have a hard time talking about, and I think having watched it play out, that people’s emotions are charged as if an accusation has been made that they (IAO) are not inclusive, when Narciso’s real task was this: find out the composition of arts organizations and what ideals they use to promote diversity in leadership. There’s really nothing more to it than that.

    As an editor, I am genuinely curious as to why no one who identifies as a person of color wanted to talk to Narciso. I’m starting to get the feeling, at least on IAO’s end, that there is some discomfort in talking about the racial composition of their organization.

    At any rate, I regularly contact organizations for interviews and for the most part I have no problem getting interviews with specific members, be it phone, e-mail, or in person. For Tulsa’s Center of the Universe Festival, their press contact I spoke to doggedly made sure both of the founding organizers answered my questions via e-mail and for one organizer, she set up the date and time of our phone interview. And they got all of this info to me by deadline.

    Narciso was over his deadline by about four days by the time he submitted his final draft. He told me that he was meeting resistance to his query, and I basically said send me what you have. I received Kendall’s letter (addressed to him, myself and another) hours after his submission. I was prepared to run what he had given me, but there were two things going on: website issues that forced us to work on the site instead of articles, and obviously getting this 11th hour response. I decided to include the last exchange because they did get back with him.

    I know Kendall works very hard and that she has one other assistant. That’s actually in her response. But I get the feeling that talking about the lack of communication between IAO’s racially diverse board and Narciso is like waving a red flag of condemnation, instead of just being read for what it is: trying to get the facts. It does make me wonder if they aren’t willing to speak to him about this, then maybe they wouldn’t send someone to one of his classes if he asked that one of the PoC members come talk to his students. I mean if you tried to contact someone and they didn’t want to speak to you and fielded it through their director, do you think they’d send a racially diverse representative to speak for their organization too? This is not unreasonable to question.

    They are free to contact us at okc.net or him to follow up on this particular point, because the door to talking about race and opportunity in my mind is never closed. But in the meantime, it is my job to make sure the whole picture is being presented. He asked specific questions and this is what he got in response.

    Narciso will be talking to other organizations. The questions he posed to IAO will be asked of others too in what will become of series of discussion about race, diversity in art, and economic development.

    It was never our intent to single out IAO in the way you are describing. IAO tends to be an organization we regularly promote on our 365 Things to Do in OKC FB page, and have written numerous articles in the past regarding their shows. Not all of those articles have had fawning things to say, but they didn’t defame anyone either.

  3. I completely agree with everyone here that stated that conversation and questions about race and diversity and inclusion are very necessary, as well as, asking questions is not always an offensive gesture. If we are not asking, we are not learning (and in my opinion, probably not creating either). There are many reason that equity in the workplace is still lacking today and frequently it is not necessarily related to bigoted, negative behavior or thought; there are processes and systems operating that are not readily seen, especially by people who are favored by them. I also really like the perspective you gave on the different voices influencing whether or not a diverse individual creates art related or about that diversity. The issue of identity pride vs. fostering a color blind society and which will be more effective in building equity is a hot topic indeed, one that I struggle with as well. I would like to speak with the author and any one else who is interested in this topics. I also encourage you to post any diversity related events on our site: http://www.diversityconnex.com/events. Please email me or call me (918-581-8900) at your convenience!

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