The Cultural Disconnect in Arts Administration

by Nathan Lee

As a supporter of racial and cultural diversity in Oklahoma’s visual arts community, I am proud to see the strides being made to be more inclusive of minority creative professionals. They are not just being “tolerated,” they are being embraced.

But at what level?

I have watched Oklahoma’s arts community grow and morph into one that represents all races and cultures, but I have noticed when you get into the administrative world of art, it is monochromatic. There are few if any Latino, Asian, or African Americans in the roles of executive director. Even in the nonprofit sector of the arts.

Have we truly looked at why that dynamic exists?

I am seeing African American artists not only show work, but good work. Eyakem Guiliat is one artist that comes to mind. He is of Ethiopian descent, an incredible artist (one I wish to collaborate in the future), socially conscious, and he is embraced by the mainstream arts community. As an artist of African American heritage, I once had the perception that I would have to try harder to fit into a mostly White arts community. I had the chip on my shoulder and was ready for an anticipated and unfair struggle.

But this happened instead…

I got a solo show on my first try at IAO Gallery and have partnered with them through several leadership changes.

I got help from Studio 6 when I walked in for the very first time and met the wonderful and established artists that worked there and new friendships were formed.

I got ground floor support when I met Julia Kirt and her staff from Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition and they have been strong supporters of Inclusion in Art, the organization I work for.

I found strong art mentors that kept me from making many of the traditional mistakes young emerging artists make.

I’ll say this: I was proactive in the course of my art career. I took the first step forward and didn’t wait for someone to bring me the information. That takes me back to the original part of this commentary.

Why are there no directors of color in the Oklahoma arts community?

Many would say “Um, Nathan you are the director of Inclusion in Art, and you are Black.”  True, very true, but I have several day jobs. I am the quintessential “Slash,” and I don’t mean rock guitarist, I mean: Artist/Executive Director/Youth Program Facilitator/ETC. This is not to be venomous or make an accusation, it is to make a point. Everything is a process. How I arrived at the point where others considered me to be a professional artist, is basically the same as how I arrived to be director of Inclusion in Art.

I stepped forward.

I wonder how many qualified minority creative professionals have stepped forward for administrative career opportunities in the arts? Are they applying? If not, why?

My hunch is that they do not know about the jobs. There are no listings for openings for creative professionals in many culturally specific publications that minorities follow. Let’s go a step further. What if qualified administrators of color have similar ideas to artists of color in that they have a preconceived notion of what the predominately White arts administrative community thinks about them? Think about it if you go into a facility where everyone is Latino and they stop everything they are doing and look at you, and you aren’t Latino, it would be easy to assume they have a racial problem with you. What if that wasn’t the case? Would a person in that position stay long enough to find out why there was an abrupt silence?


But that has to happen for new doors to open. Sometimes the individual seeking must be the first to step forward. The fact that the organization could have and should have is irrelevant. I think it is human nature to get caught up in who is right or wrong instead of the goal and the desired outcome.

I have no idea how many non-Whites have applied for executive director positions, but the fact is there are few if any that lead the major organizations of Oklahoma’s arts community. However, I think it is important to eliminate the obvious disconnects. Arts organizations have media outlets that they disseminate job openings in. If employment opportunities are not in the print media that minorities traditionally read, those potentially qualified individuals remain oblivious. The first thing that could be done is to expand either the reach of the media currently used to relay information, or to work with publications in those minority communities to get those postings listed. It’s the same for online media as well.

Still it begins with a step forward. Whether it is by the organizations, or individuals who recognize this area of deficiency, proactive action must happen for any chance at better communication. Let’s eliminate the obvious before we look into the possibility of intentional omission. With the new social media revolution, it is easier to pass information along. Online publications can share updates with others. There are a number of ways to get the informed. It all requires a level of proactiveness. Once we address the visible divides, we can get down to the challenging details if need be.

But to the point, I believe there are a lack of minorities in key positions in the arts community. I do believe the problem has more to do with logistics, information outlets, and awareness as opposed to the idea that there are not culturally sensitive people in Oklahoma’s arts community. With that being said, I would like to see the initial areas of disconnect addressed.

I believe in Oklahoma’s arts community and it would hurt greatly to be proven wrong.


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