Arts & Entertainment

Arts commission holds town hall for ideas on increasing arts equity, diversity

A line stretched out the door for a town hall event at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach.
A line stretched out the door for a town hall event at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach.
Priska Neely/KPCC

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More than 100 artists, arts advocates and others gathered at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach Monday night to share their ideas for expanding the audiences of arts institutions - and injecting more diverse leadership into museums that a national study shows desperately need it.

"We've gotta put arts, music, dance, theater, back in the elementary schools or we will not have audiences, artists, musicians in the next generation," Fred Allen, of the San Pedro nonprofit Grand Vision Foundation, said, banging his hand on the table for emphasis. 

Many echoed that sentiment. Much of the conversation centered around increasing arts instruction in schools and exposure to the arts for kids to create a pipeline to careers in arts institutions. 

Laura Zucker, executive director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, which convened the town hall, said arts instruction is one of the biggest themes that emerged consistently in 12 meetings held across the county -- from Santa Monica to Santa Clarita, Pomona to Pasadena.

The goal: to help shape the county's strategy for making arts institutions more inclusive -- bringing more minorities and younger people into the spaces as leaders and consumers.

"We wanted to make sure that anyone who wanted to have a voice in this process was able to have that voice," Zucker said. "And also by casting a really wide net we hoped to get the widest possible of net we hoped to get the widest possible range of ideas and strategies."

The final town hall, held in partnership with the Arts Council for Long Beach and the Museum of Latin American Art, attracted the biggest turnout.

Attendees sat a round tables and responded to prompts about the barriers to access and inclusion in the arts -- and ideas for tearing them down.

Carlos Guijaro, 21, a student at California State University, Long Beach, said arts organizations need to engage audiences early in the creation process.

"You can't just say, 'Here's a program of arts, now do it.' I think it has to be community driven," he said. 

Yessinia Pitones, 22, made the point that arts institutions need to change their image.

"I think that’s where it’s difficult, we’ve created this culture that art is for the luxurious people who can afford it,” she said. "Like even looking around [at the museum town hall] I was like, ‘Oh wow, am I dressed up enough?’ "

Then there's the issue of the county's sheer size.

"We are a ginormous metropolis of intersecting cities and neighborhoods. And we all love our neighborhoods," said Zucker, of the County Arts Commission. "One of the huge themes that’s emerged is that people want resources and access to the arts in their neighborhoods."

The town halls were set up after the L.A. County Board of Supervisors passed a measure on arts diversity in November. It directed the County Arts Commission to assemble an advisory committee to facilitate County-wide conversations on how to improve diversity in leadership, staffing, programming and audience composition for cultural organizations.

Board supervisors cited a national study from the Mellon Foundation, which found that among museum leaders, only 4 percent are African American and 3 percent are Hispanic and that there is no significant pipeline in place for minorities to reach museum leadership positions. 

The town halls doubled as data collection missions for the arts commission. A consultant sat at each table jotting down notes.

Attendees participated in instant polling -- using their phones or computers -- with responses projected onto a screen.

The arts commission will meet with an advisory committee before presenting recommendations to the Board of Supervisors in December.

This slide from the town hall presentation shows the steps in the initiative.
This slide from the town hall presentation shows the steps in the initiative.
Courts of L.A. County Arts Commission

Among the more than 30 members of the advisory committee are Tim Dang, artistic director of the Asian-American theater group East West Players, and Gregorio Luke, former president of the Museum of Latin American Art. Luke said that in his decades working in the arts scene in the L.A.-area, he's never seen an initiative like this. 

“It looks very promising," he said. "I hope that it gives us a good diagnosis, but more importantly I hope that it translates into actions that help the county to promote it’s arts better and give more opportunity to the artists.”

At the end of the evening, this poll question was posed to the audience: Do you feel more or less optimistic about Cultural Equity in Los Angeles County? Forty two percent felt the same as before the town hall and 49 felt more optimistic. 

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the number of town halls the arts commission held in L.A. County. KPCC regrets the error.