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Art Workers Rise Up

On Gatekeepers and Toppled Statues

July 15, 2020

On Tuesday, June 2nd, while Black Lives Matter activists were organizing protests challenging state and police authority, music industry executives organized Black Out Tuesday. As is often the case when executives in the arts industry try their hands at radical political action, both the plan and purpose were unclear. Black Out Tuesday’s official literature declared, “in observance of long-standing racism and inequality” in the music industry, the day was called to put a stop to “business as usual.” To that end, the Black Out Tuesday executives encouraged anyone “impacted by the recent events” of the Black Lives uprising to “take a break,” because “sometimes we all just need a minute.”

What entitled these executives to issue this strange call to a day of inaction? “As gatekeepers of the culture,” they wrote in their widely circulated statement, “it’s our responsibility to not only come together to celebrate the wins, but also hold each other up during loss.” Let’s leave the second half of that sentence aside, since it was never clear what wins and losses they were referring to. The “gatekeepers” part, on the other hand, is crystal clear. The bosses of the music industry, those who control the money and the means of production, think they get to decide how that industry will or won’t rebel against the racist police state.

What the Black Out Tuesday executives didn’t understand is that part of what makes this uprising for Black Lives so powerful is that it’s an uprising against the gatekeepers. One thing that’s so striking about these protests—coming not long after the heavily choreographed, police-sanctioned Women’s Marches—is their intensely improvisatory feel. The protests are led from the crowd, not by celebrities at microphones. The only gatekeepers are the cops behind the barricades.

Over the past few weeks, this Black-led rebellion against the gatekeepers has spread from the streets into varied corners of the arts industry. Shortly after Black Out Tuesday, Bryn Carter wrote and circulated a letter to The Flea, an Off-Broadway theater that’s long been a darling of New York’s downtown scene. The Flea, like many New York theaters, had promoted its support for the Black Lives movement via Instagram as the uprisings ignited. In her letter, Carter, a Black actress who’d been a member of The Flea’s resident acting company, excoriated The Flea’s management for claiming solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement when they have a long history of exploiting and abusing their workers, especially workers of color.

Carter’s letter documents The Flea management’s racist, exploitative practices, from repeated microaggressions against Black performers (including nonconsensual hair touching and misnaming), to the cultivation of unsafe, “toxic” working environments, to the refusal to pay the actors they hire. Let that last one sink in for a moment. The gatekeepers at an award-winning theater that recently moved into a new building in New York’s swanky Tribeca neighborhood, thanks to a $21-million capital campaign, refuse to pay their actors. As Carter writes, “Whatever the reality of [The Flea’s] finances are, your company members see money and feel cheated.”

One of the striking aspects of Carter’s letter is how clearly she identifies both the material and metaphysical consequences of this exploitation. Carter writes eloquently about the shame and humiliation that come with working for free, but she also notes that while working for The Flea, “I maxed out a credit card… I had no savings or help.”

Carter wasn’t alone. She was trying to build a career in the arts and, like many workers in the arts, she endured financial hardship because The Flea’s gatekeepers promised “the commodity of connections, exposure, and training.” Once she’d begun working at The Flea, though, she learned that “there are a good number of industry professionals who will not recruit from [Flea] shows and who will not set foot in [The Flea] theater” because of its exploitative labor practices. As Carter points out, The Flea’s refusal to pay its actors predictably bolsters white supremacy in the arts, since when workers aren’t paid, “the diversity of the company suffers because the people who can actually be around… are privileged.”

The racism and exploitation that Carter describes is a natural outgrowth of the liberal politics that have long dominated the arts. In theater, these toothless politics have led to an excessively narrow focus on representation as the primary metric for assessing political progress. If a few artists of color are granted access to the positions long reserved for white artists—especially if they’re allowed to become gatekeepers themselves—then that represents a victory for everyone. By simultaneously making a virtue of competition among workers of color and coopting the rhetoric of anti-racist struggle, this approach to undoing racism in the arts serves no one’s interests more than the gatekeepers themselves.

By simultaneously making a virtue of competition among workers of color and coopting the rhetoric of anti-racist struggle, this approach to undoing racism in the arts serves no one’s interests more than the gatekeepers themselves.

These dynamics aren’t limited to the theater world but run rampant throughout the arts. According to dancer Pareena Lim, who was interviewed for this article, the dance world is similarly awash in executives who are “hand-wringing” about racism yet refusing to substantively address the ways racism and exploitation are built into the industry. Lim, a non-Black dancer of color who’s active in New York’s “downtown” dance world, describes a shift in recent decades from outright racist exclusion to paternalistic liberal representation. “The dance world I’m a part of was created by mostly white people in the ‘60s,” she explains. “These choreographers proclaimed interest in the formal aspects of dance, content was taboo, and embedded in this aesthetic was an erasure of history and oppression.”

Today, Lim says, the downtown world is dominated by the same narrow liberal focus on representation that dominates theater. As Lim explains it, the gatekeepers in dance have decided the solution to structural racism is, “We’ll just have more Black or POC gatekeepers, or we’ll make sure there’s programming where you see more people of color onstage.” Lim points out that the liberal emphasis on representation puts newly appointed “intermediary gatekeepers” in compromised positions, since their promotion to gatekeeper status embeds and implicates them within the industry’s racist structures and practices.

Much like Bryn Carter, Lim also notes that the racist dynamics in dance have a psychological impact on dancers. She explains, “For so long, I wasn’t sure if I wasn’t hired because I wasn’t white enough or because I wasn’t good enough. Once there were more non-white people onstage, I was asked to do more stuff, but it was super confusing because I didn’t know if it’s for the wrong reasons.”

To Lim, half-measures—like the hashtag activism of Black Out Tuesday or “councils for diversity” that she says have sprung up throughout dance—do nothing but distract from an arts industry where “success is measured in how many shows you have and which venues you showed your work at, but nobody’s thinking about whether the system in which you’re trying to measure your success is supremely flawed.” For the dance world to have any relevance for radical political activists, she believes “the whole system, from how dancers train, to how work is shared, needs to be overhauled.”

The demand for a radical reimagining is gaining traction throughout the arts. Shortly after Carter’s letter to The Flea began circulating, another letter started making the rounds in a very different corner of the arts industry, documenting the many ways that becoming a gatekeeper compromises the struggle against white supremacy in the arts. This one was addressed to one of the literary world’s ultimate gatekeeping organizations, the Poetry Foundation. Written by Phillip B. Williams, a Black poet and 2013 winner of the foundation’s illustrious Ruth Lilly Fellowship, the letter documented Williams’s experiences being welcomed into the world of poetry’s gatekeepers.

As a Ruth Lilly Fellow, Williams had access to resources and relationships of which most writers only dream. Along with these privileges, writes Williams, came a sense of entitlement. “We felt as though we earned it,” he writes, “by nature of our skill (which is subjective), our identities (if we were part of a group under-published [in the Foundation’s elite literary journal]), and by nature of simply having been chosen.” Though Williams knew the foundation was rife with “nepotism and elitism,” those resources and privileges proved seductive to Williams and other fellows, who “hoarded” the resources or doled them out to artists in their circles. “We were hungry,” writes Williams, “and capitalism brings out of us all manner of defiance of our best selves…. We ate while others went hungry. And we did the worst thing of all: we celebrated these empty opportunistic successes in peoples’ faces.”

Like Carter’s letter, Williams’s impresses with its willingness to challenge the very gatekeepers who might destroy an artist’s career. Carter begins her letter acknowledging her fears about her reputation and future opportunities. “This is a real fear for anyone,” she writes, “but doubly so for POC and queer creatives who are often made to feel they should be overjoyed to be invited into spaces once closed to them.” Until recently, the fear Carter describes and the desperate hope to be invited in by the gatekeepers had effectively muted public criticism of arts executives around their hoarding of resources and shoddy treatment of workers.

In cities across the country for the past few decades, theaters, galleries, and other venues have sprouted up in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, happily trailing behind the skyrocketing rents, evictions, and aggressive policing of communities of color that accompany the gentrification process.

Given the scale and ferocity of the Black Lives Matter uprisings, this all may seem like a niche concern, but the arts industry and its gatekeepers are inextricably connected with the nexus of anti-Blackness, police violence, and poverty that the protestors are rising up against. The architects of police violence are often patrons of the arts. Mike Bloomberg, who adamantly promoted racist stop-and-frisk policing during his tenure as New York City mayor, donates aggressively to the arts, using arts funding to whitewash his brutal, racist record.

Last year, following months of heated protests demanding his removal, Warren Kanders stepped down as co-chair of the board of the prestigious Whitney Museum. Kanders, it turned out, was also CEO of defense manufacturer Safariland LLC, whose tear gas is regularly used against protestors in places from Standing Rock to Palestine, and on migrants trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Following Kanders’s resignation, the Whitney Board released a statement thanking the chemical weapons manufacturer for his “extraordinary generosity.”

While philanthropists like Bloomberg and Kanders use the arts to distract from their participation in racist violence, local arts institutions profit handsomely from the police state. In cities across the country for the past few decades, theaters, galleries, and other venues have sprouted up in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, happily trailing behind the skyrocketing rents, evictions, and aggressive policing of communities of color that accompany the gentrification process.

In Brooklyn, for example, the Bushwick Starr began operating as a theater in 2007—around the same time, according to its promotional literature, that “Bushwick began to transform into a thriving artistic nexus desirous of space and support.” Since then, the Starr has become an award-winning theater. Also since then, Bushwick’s white population has risen more than 250 percent while rents have risen 60 percent. On the other side of Brooklyn, the Obie-award winning Jack theater opened in 2012 in heavily gentrified Clinton Hill, a neighborhood whose white population increased by roughly 150 percent between 2000 and 2010. During that same period, rents in Clinton Hill increased 45 percent while the neighborhood’s Black population declined 30 percent.

Jack and The Starr are certainly not unique among arts institutions in benefiting from the violence of gentrification, but that’s sort of the point. The gentrification of Bushwick, the racism at The Flea: all of these examples may be extreme, but they’re mere symptoms of an arts industry that, as Williams said of the Poetry Foundation, is “merely a microcosm of America’s obsession with power, capitalism, and privilege.”

Art workers like Williams, Lim, and Carter are pulling back the curtain on an arts industry that’s weaponized the liberal approach to representation against its workers, using diverse representation at the top to paper over the structural racism and exploitation at its foundations. Desperate for exposure and the privileges of being one of the chosen few, workers in the arts have long submitted to the humiliations that Carter describes, working for free, and competing with friends and colleagues for the scraps the gatekeepers toss their way.

The uprisings have shown art workers—along with everyone else—that it doesn’t have to be this way. Describing what in downtown Seattle has recently been dubbed CHOP, for Capitol Hill Organized Protest, the New York Times wrote of “an experiment in life without the police—part street festival, part commune.” The reporter went on to describe: “Hundreds have gathered to hear speeches, poetry and music. On Tuesday night, dozens of people sat in the middle of an intersection to watch 13th, the Ava DuVernay film about the criminal justice system’s impact on African-Americans. On Wednesday, children made chalk drawings in the street.”

Drawings, poetry, and music in the street: art is at the center of every revolution, and at the heart of the world we want to build. In Brighton, England, just a few days after Black Out Tuesday, a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston was removed by protesters before being thrown into Bristol Harbor. Earlier that week, in Montgomery, Alabama, a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was toppled outside a high school. A week later, at a demonstration in Richmond, Virginia, a statue of Christopher Columbus was torn down, set on fire, and thrown into a lake. In Boston, another Columbus statue was beheaded.

What these and other statues leave behind are empty plinths that share a form—the emptied-out square—with the black jpegs so many posted on Black Out Tuesday. While both acts spread through example, one is an individual gesture with no personal risk and a potentially obfuscatory outcome, while the other is a collective feat with clear stakes and lasting material consequences. Looked at together, they show how negation can be either a bland gesture of liberal erasure or an abolitionary act that creates space for the new. Like the protestors in the streets, art workers are beginning to imagine a world without gatekeepers, getting ready to storm the barricades, knocking off some heads, and pitching stone men into the sea. And it’s beautiful.

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