Person talking at a podium. Rachel DeGuzman (center), of 21st Century Arts, leads a discussion on "Equality Diversity Arts: A Call to Action in ROC" on July 29. (EMC photo by Annette Jiménez)

Artists of color seek to raise funds, awareness

ROCHESTER — Artists of color and the arts organizations they represent need to collaborate on raising awareness and uncovering new funding sources for their projects, according to local several local artists.

Funding is a particular challenge because arts and cultural organizations of all types and sizes in the community continue to be an afterthought rather than an integral part of society, according to Rachel DeGuzman of 21st Century Arts, which sponsored a two-part, small-group discussion July 29 and Aug. 18 about “From Diversity to Equity in the Arts: A Call to Action in the ROC.”

The discussions, which took place at the East Avenue offices of the American Association-University Women, followed up on a daylong symposium DeGuzman had organized in 2014. She said that at the earlier symposium, she had been surprised and hurt by the negative feedback she received from communities of color about inviting mainstream cultural organizations to participate

But when she looked more deeply at the concerns expressed, she understood her critics’ perspectives, DeGuzman added.

“Artists and arts organizations that focus on the art of people of color are disproportionately under-resourced,” she said. “In fact, at a time when there is heightened awareness about race and diversity, much of the funding for diversifying the field at all levels goes to white, mainstream organizations. In Rochester (those organizations) often have no artistic or administrative staff of color.”

Of the $1.3 million Monroe County allocated for arts/cultural funding in its 2016 budget (http://bit.ly/2cg1OjT), for example, $900,000 — or 70 percent — went to one mainstream organization, the Rochester Museum and Science Center,DeGuzman said. If an artist union or guild existed, perhaps there would be public pressure to increase funding for other groups, noted Rajeesh Barnabas, a producer and teacher at RCTV-15, who served on the July 29 panel.

For now, the best way to shift such lopsided allocations, DeGuzman said, is for arts groups to collaborate on boosting outreach to the general community and developing plans of action.

During the Aug. 18 discussion, panelists and participants audience members made suggestions about how to generate monetary and community support for artists of color and the and organizations they represent. The panelists were Mara Ahmed, an artist and filmmaker; Amanda Chestnut, communications coordinator for Genesee Center for the Arts & Education and owner of A Lynn Ceramics; and Annette Ramos, associate director of community education and outreach for the Rochester Broadway Theatre League and a founder of the Rochester Latino Theatre Company.

Among the ideas arising from the discussion were:

  • To provide opportunities and mentorship to young artists of color through paid residencies.
  • To create a directory of artists/cultural organizations.
  • To partner with an organization or the City of Rochester to conduct a study on diversity in the arts locally to generate data indicating where artists of color can be found in the community and track whether their numbers change over time.

Artists of color also need to continue creating their own institutions and collaborate more with mainstream organizations that are inclusive, DeGuzman said.

Some mainstream arts organizations attempt to diversify themselves by recruiting people of color to serve on their boards of directors, noted Thomas Warfield, an assistant professor at RIT and director of PeaceArt International, during the July 29 session. Warfield, Barnabas and Reenah Golden, cofounder of the arts-in-education agency Kuumba Consultants, served on the July 29 panel.

Putting a person of color on a board doesn’t necessarily empower the person, Warfield said. But, having served on several boards, he said a person of color can offer a voice that otherwise wouldn’t be heard.

He said he has had experiences in which he had to educate a board about artists the rest of the board members didn’t recognize. One time, Warfield said he had to defend an artist who was deemed as “too commercial,” which he interpreted as code for “not white.”

“If I wasn’t in the room to give a different perspective … where would they (artists) end up?” he added.

He once tried unsuccessfully to create a multicultural dance project on the city’s west side. But when he sought funding, Warfield said he was told that no suburban dance companies would travel to that part of town.

Artists and arts organizations of color should unify and support one another to boost the respect and awareness they’ve earned, she said. But obtaining more funding and resources remains the biggest obstacle, Golden noted.

“How do we all get into that fight where (arts supporters) are actually seeking out organizations of color so we have … patronage?” she asked.

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