Equity in the Arts Can’t Wait: A Public Statement from the AFTA Arts Education Council

The Arts Education council is standing in a group photo at a restaurant during their 2020 retreat
The Arts Education council is standing in a group photo at a restaurant during their 2020 retreat
Arts Education Council Retreat, January 2020

As leaders on the Americans for the Arts (AFTA) Arts Education Advisory Council, we stand in solidarity with our colleague Quanice Floyd to publicly voice our support for calls on AFTA to increase transparency, accountability, and progress toward racial equity in its role as a national leader in the arts and culture sector. As Ms. Floyd articulated in a November 11th op-ed, questions from this council about AFTA’s racial equity work have been met with resistance, claims of capacity issues, and defensiveness — including pointing us toward AFTA’s 2016 cultural equity statement as evidence of AFTA’s commitment to work with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. As AFTA moves to capitalize on recent attention and posture as a champion of racial equity in their response, now is the time to be fully, publicly transparent about the work we have done.

In August, in our capacity as leaders on Americans for the Arts’ Arts Education Council, we offered AFTA’s CEO Bob Lynch a series of strategic recommendations meant to address the urgent issues facing AFTA and the national arts community, namely the monstrous impact of the sector due to the COVID-19 pandemic compounded with calls for institutional accountability following the murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbrey, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and so many others. These recommendations came from a place of both recognizing the ways AFTA has failed to live up to its potential as a national leader and from a deep commitment, in our positions as advisors, to working with AFTA’s leadership to move forward. They were further offered to Mr. Lynch at his explicit invitation, following our council’s questions and suggestions on a July 13th council call with Mr. Lynch and COO Mara Walker. Until Ms. Floyd’s op-ed, which continues to have the full support of this council, the content of these recommendations and notes from our conversations had not been made public.

As leaders in our local and state arts communities who have each felt deeply the urgency of this moment, we have been exceedingly disappointed in AFTA’s response. Their toothless blog post in response to Ms. Floyd’s statement immediately followed an announcement of Mr. Lynch’s appointment to the Biden-Harris transition Arts and Humanities Agency Review team and immediately precipitated a national AFTA fundraising campaign claiming, “equity in the arts can’t wait” — timing that underscores AFTA’s treatment of racial equity in the arts as an opportunistic moment of interest convergence rather than an urgent issue affecting the lives and livelihood of BIPOC artists, educators, and community leaders. More than 3 weeks after Ms. Floyd’s statement, Mr. Lynch made his first comments to AFTA’s membership and then to the public, offering praise and appreciation for her views — though in private meetings for the past six months, such questions have been dismissed. Indeed, Mr. Lynch positioned AFTA as responsive to her points, when in fact it was AFTA’s inertia on these issues that necessitated a public op-ed in the first place. As recently as in a December 9 conversation with this council, Ms. Walker still moved to highlight “investing in self-education” as a primary strategy in concert with a newly formed Board task force, deflecting calls for more tangible action and alignment opportunities with BIPOC-led arts organizations already leading in this work. We agree that equity in the arts can’t wait, but AFTA has shown they are incapable of leading this effort.

Since the publication of Ms. Floyd’s op-ed, countless AFTA members and organization leaders have lent support to her claims and inquiry. Last week, a group of current and former employees, Mr. Jeff Poulin (whom this group worked with for years, both in his former capacity as the council liaison and in our current roles as field leaders), Ms. Kate McClanahan, Ms. Bridget Woodbury, and others who chose to remain anonymous, published revelations of an AFTA culture of sexual harassment, racial discrimination, workplace intimidation, and abuse that continued with the knowledge and complicity of senior leadership, including Mr. Lynch, Ms. Walker, SVP Marc Ian Tobias, and Board Chair Julie C. Muraco. This has opened the door for others to voice their support and solidarity and to publicly wonder as to the value of their membership dues and affiliations with the organization.

Public attention must continue to focus on these systemic issues. In light of these events, we feel it necessary to publicly lend our voices in support of Ms. Floyd, Mr. Poulin, Ms. McClanahan, Ms. Woodbury, and the countless other individuals, organizations, and current/former council members who have publicly called for substantive change.

Equity in the arts can’t wait. It is clear now that the time has long passed for “strategic recommendations” to an organization with no desire to change. As leaders within the membership of AFTA, elected by our peers across the country to advise AFTA on “programs and services that will build a deeper connection to the field and network membership… [and] connect the national work of AFTA to [their] members’ work on the local level,” we call on the Board of Directors to take speedy and decisive action to address the issues of failed leadership, lack of action, transparency, accountability, and representation, and the culture of gate keeping and harassment outlined above by us and others.

We stand alongside the coalition of arts leaders across this country in demanding the following:

1. The immediate removal of CEO Bob Lynch, COO Mara Walker, SVP Marc Ian Tobias, Board Chair Julie C. Muraco, and any others against whom credible claims of sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, or other acts of workplace intimidation have been made;

2. The immediate retention of an external auditor charged with evaluating personnel policy and procedures, including staff hiring and compensation practice, through an equity lens and with investigating all claims of wrongdoing by current and former staff. We support a fair and expeditious settling of any pending EEOC complaints and we challenge AFTA to be uncomfortable with the idea of merely conforming to the standard for compensation among arts institutions. Instead, we encourage AFTA to set the standard for what fair compensation looks like, with particular attention to the workplace experiences of staff of color. We further challenge the notion that any leader of a member-driven organization should receive a compensation package in excess of 12% of the entire annual compensation budget, as the most recently available Form 990 indicates that Mr. Lynch has received.

3. Replacement of senior leadership with a CEO and COO who have a demonstrated commitment to equity and a deep investment in the ongoing work of creating an Americans for the Arts that is reflective of an inclusive definition of “arts” and a just representation of “America.” We expect to see a transparent process for recruiting, interviewing, and hiring new leadership that involves AFTA membership, including public interviews of leading candidates with the opportunity for membership to ask questions and offer a vote toward selection. If leadership is removed immediately, we would expect to see meaningful, public progress on hiring — if not final selections made by Summer 2021.

4. A restructuring of the Board that increases representation and transparency. AFTA’s Board must take meaningful steps to increase representation of BIPOC arts leaders; a list of suggested members was provided to Mr. Lynch in August by this council. Additionally, this transitional period necessitates transparency and accountability to AFTA membership. We request that while any audit is ongoing, the leaders of each member-elected council be invited to the table as non-voting members of AFTA’s Board of Directors.

5. A reallocation of wealth on meaningful outreach to create a membership in which Black, Latinx, Indigenous, queer, trans, immigrant, and disabled arts leaders, artists, and community members are represented. This must include the hiring of a full-time position dedicated to membership needs, as well as the articulation and implementation of an engagement strategy to further ensure that barriers to participation by these groups are removed and that as a member-driven organization, AFTA remains accountable to membership.

Finally, we urgently call on the incoming Biden-Harris administration to remove Mr. Lynch from their Arts & Humanities Agency Review team. At present, Mr. Lynch is the only task force member explicitly representing the arts and culture sector — a community of artists, culture-bearers, organizations, educators, and leaders he has proven his inability to meaningfully represent. Moreover, the arts and culture sector, which has been decimated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, should be a central piece of our country’s recovery efforts. If President-Elect Biden truly intends to “build back better,” we urge him to look to one of this country’s many BIPOC arts leaders who have shown us throughout the pandemic what real leadership looks like. Following an election that was largely decided by the efforts of BIPOC organizers, to leave Mr. Lynch in this position following the credible accusations leveraged by Ms. Floyd, Mr. Poulin, Ms. McClanahan, Ms. Woodbury, and others would be nothing short of shameful.

This council wrote to Mr. Lynch in August in the spirit of collaboration and with deep belief in the AFTA’s potential as a national leader. We stand today with the same hope for the future of Americans for the Arts. We also do so with fear for our colleagues and friends who are currently on staff at AFTA; accusations of retaliatory work practices give us cause to worry for their job security in the midst of unprecedented economic upheaval. America’s creative sector deserves a national leader that represents their communities, their constituents, their interests, and the diversity that has always been at the heart of the arts and culture. Mr. Lynch’s AFTA has failed at this task in every way. This moment calls for new leadership.

Unless the demands outlined above are addressed in a substantive, public way, this council is prepared to sever all financial relationships with AFTA, including renewal of membership and attendance at conferences/convenings. We are further prepared to cease our public support of AFTA’s outreach in the arts education field and intend to communicate our positions to the constituencies whom we support.

We look forward to the swift, decisive response from AFTA’s Board of Directors. Equity in the arts can’t wait.

Signed,
Erika Atkins
Rhoda Bernard
Kymberly Cruz
Quanice Floyd
Jenna Gabriel
Alex Gartner
Ashraf Hasham
Lauren Hess
Michael Jones
Kelly Pollock
T. Sandifer
Ahava Silkey-Jones
Nathan Street
Margaret Weisbrod Morris

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