Speakers discuss racial equity and prioritization in cultural institutions


Colin Boyle/Daily Senior Staffer

Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy.

Yunkyo Kim, Campus Editor

Speakers working in the arts sector emphasized the importance of cultural institutions to prioritize and commit to racial equity at a Tuesday event. 

The conversation, a part of Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy’s Anti-Racism in Thought and Action Speaker and Discussion series, hosted Makeba Clay, chief diversity officer at The Phillips Collection, and Calinda Lee, head of programs and exhibitions at National Center for Civil and Human Rights.  

Steven Adams and Stefanie Hicks, members of Change Makers Review Committee at Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, curated the talk along with political science Prof. Alvin Tillery.

Citing their experiences as consultants and workers in the cultural and artistic sector, Clay and Lee’s respective presentations theorized about how the cultural sector could deepen its focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Clay discussed her work as diversity officer at The Phillips Collection, an art museum located in Washington D.C. Diversity, equity and inclusion should be viewed as strategic priority, she said, and it requires organizations to think back to its mission and responsibility to the public. The Phillips, for example, is examining its institutional history with a “diversity, equity accessibility and inclusion” lens, Clay said.

“This is not an easy exercise,” Clay said. “This is going deep and wide across the institution and our collection. We need to lean into that.”

Clay said leaders of the institutions should be willing to adjust their finances to prioritize institutional equity. 

When asked how people could push back against institutional reluctance to self-educate, Lee challenged the audience to question organizations on their fundamental values. Clay also said artistic and cultural institutions are now faced with challenges of engaging with the community. 

This engagement doesn’t just include community programming, Clay said, but also reflecting the perspective of the constituents cultural organizations serve. 

“You can’t just call it an advisory committee or advisory board and say, ‘Okay, we’ve done our part,’” Clay said.

Instead of forming performative committees, people in critical positions must be able to share their power, Clay added.

Cultural groups need to establish enduring commitments, Lee said. To avert from performance and virtue signaling, Lee said, institutions need to implement accountability measures and initiatives that live beyond the moment. 

“What does it mean also to create space for liberatory energy?” Lee said. “That’s as least as equity producing.” 

Lee pointed out that there have been a lot of conversations about White supremacy in arts and cultural spaces. But that conversation also takes up space and energy, she added. Lee referenced an artist friend who does not create works that deal with White supremacy because it takes away from the space to talk about Black excellence. 

Closing out the event, Adams asked attendees to visualize their urgency levels around racial equity and reflect. 

“It’s these little steps along the way that assist us in doing the prerequisite reflection,” Adams said. “To achieve racial equity, we have to start with ourselves.” 

Correction: A previous version of this story misquoted a source. The Daily regrets the error.

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