Making Room for the Unnamable

Making Room for the Unnamable
06/08/2017 MAPstaff
Procession of performers in giant white veils, hats, and hoop skirts within a crowded gas station at night.

photo: House/Full of Blackwomen, MAP 2016

A note from Executive Director Moira Brennan:

The MAP Fund has had an interesting year! In the fall of 2016, we separated from our fiscal sponsor, Creative Capital, and became a stand-alone non-profit for the first time in our nearly 30-year history. We joined ArtsPool, an exciting new venture that uses a cooperative model to support finance, compliance and governance practices for nonprofit arts organizations. And, most important, we announced a beautiful list of new grantee projects that reflects MAP’s ongoing commitment to building a thriving contemporary performing arts field that is awake to issues of systemic racial and cultural inequity. There’s a lot to celebrate, and, as ever, plenty on which to continue improving.

Today, I want to bring your attention to one experiment we undertook for this year’s on-site panel, which was held at the office of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in April. In a desire to hold ourselves accountable on issues of equity and inclusion, and to provide greater transparency to our process in general, we asked culture worker and activist Maria Cherry Galette Rangel to join the panel as Equity Auditor. Maria was not a voting member of the panel, but was invited to draw the panelists’ attention to instances of systemic racism and/or bias as she witnessed them during deliberations. In addition we asked Maria to report back to the field on her experience, which is the post below.

We view our accountability to the field as an ongoing, iterative process, which includes a standing invitation for your feedback. Asking Maria to join us was another step forward, and at the same time presented some valuable challenges. As the meeting host, for example, one of my dilemmas was to set parameters that, on the one hand, afforded panelists the decision making authority our peer-driven process demands while, on the other, made meaningful space for Maria’s observations and the field-wide implications they contained. In the unfortunate absence of an “official” framework for naming systemic bias in our field, this is a difficult line for everyone to walk. Further, the time-based, often wordless, nature of the aesthetic practices under discussion at MAP add an especially complicated wrinkle. I applaud Maria and the panelists for their open hearted engagement, their willingness to listen to each other, and their desire to take up these important questions on behalf of the greater field. I look forward to further honing this effort in grant cycles to come with the addition of your feedback.

Making Room for the Unnamable: Notes on the 2017 MAP Fund Grants Review Panel

By Maria Cherry Galette Rangel

In early April I had the pleasure of participating in the 2017 MAP Fund grants review panel as Documenter and Equity Auditor. The reasons for this new role and experimental model of approaching accountability and justice in a grants review panel were plenty. MAP desired a mechanism through which to provide transparency to the broader field around their review process. MAP’s small staff, which includes Executive Director Moira Brennan, Program Manager Lauren Slone, and Communications Associate Kim Savarino, and I are united by our deep investment in creating new tools and models for interrupting systemic bias in arts philanthropy. As a queer brown arts practitioner who faced my share of systemic bias in resourcing my company’s work in my early career, and who continues to witness inequities in the arts funding infrastructure in my career now as a cultural organizer and philanthropy strategist, I am driven towards creating a more equitable arts sector. And finally, the MAP Fund Panel presented an opportunity for robust dialogue around some of the field’s most pressing and timely issues. Documenting the panel process, as well as places of tension and inquiry the panel faced, serves the future field through creating a timestamp of where we are in this moment.

Futurity: An Exercise in Possibility

As laid out in the first day’s introduction by Lauren, a key premise around which the panel process was centered was the concept of futurity.  When we consider the future of the field what do we imagine? What do we want it to look like? Futurity is an exercise in possibility. We, today, right now, have a role in shaping the evolution of our sector. The decisions that we make ultimately inform the future of the field as a whole. Given that framework, who does the sector need us to be in this moment? How does the sector need us to show up in the panel room right now? This sense of futurity aided in making room for projects, artists, and cultural interventions that were emergent in process and form, and that challenged the dominant Eurocentric models of performance art.  

On par with the concept of futurity was acknowledgment around the panel’s role as gatekeepers via the collective act of resource distribution. When it comes to the arts and culture sector’s gatekeeping, we must think about the deliberate erasure implicit in racial and systemic oppression, and how gatekeeping has the capacity to invisibilize entire legacies. In order to confront this, panelists were encouraged to consider their role and complicity in gatekeeping, and also how the panel presented an opportunity to, as Lauren put it, “collectively open the gate.”

Grants review panels provide an opportunity to think about the kind of knowledge, expertise, and praxis we value as a field. In a sector whose major funding institutions often require advanced degrees in arts history for entry level positions, we have a responsibility as a sector to make room for knowledge and experience that challenges the racist-capitalist-hetero-patriarchal paradigms through which we think about expertise in the field of arts philanthropy.  

MAP’s 2017 cohort of panelists was comprised of diverse artists, presenters, and curators working in environments as varied as grassroots ecologies to culturally specific organizations to institutions. The panelists represented different geographic, discipline, organizational, and sociopolitical perspectives. There was no uniformity amongst panelists. Each panelist represented a unique experience and expressed a different lexicon.

Inclusive panels do not leave anybody behind, make room for different lexicons, value the different kinds of knowledge and experience brought to the table, carry an acknowledgement that learning is continuous, and make space for both learning and unlearning.  The MAP panel proved exemplary in this regard, demonstrating anti-elitism, accessibility, a deep commitment to listening, learning and inquiry, and was deeply rooted in equity, justice, and leveling the playing field within our sector.

A New Model for a New Sector

As a sector we must acknowledge that we have established systems that marginalize many artists and cultural workers, keep people out, and set the rules for engagement. We are either complicit in upholding these systems, or we are working to dismantle them. How do you as an individual contribute to this gatekeeping? Who is not at your table? Who have you erased, invisibilized, or silenced through your actions or decisions be it intentionally or unintentionally? Who, as a sector, have we collectively left behind?

Dismantling the system and interrupting the ongoing violence of structural oppression in the arts and culture sector requires a brutal examination of where systemic power and privilege surface within ourselves, in proposed work, in panel rooms, in our institutions, and in every decision we make.  

In response to the need to dismantle structural oppression in our sector, MAP made the decision to engage in a new experimental panel model that included an Equity Auditor. This  experimental, non-voting role was an added measure of accountability in MAP’s review process, and a new model for panel review for the broader sector. My job was to act as an external witness to the panel process, name when I perceived power dynamics to be at play, provide additional context to projects as necessary, and to share my expertise around regional works, underground ecologies, and challenging racism and other bias. Having a designated role, whose primary function is to approach the panel process from a place of deep intersectional analysis in order to address any bias that may surface within the panel, provides a structured mechanism for unpacking systemic power and privilege, and helps ease this burden off panelists whose experiences and identities require them to navigate structural oppression daily. The experiment meant extra time in docket review, plenty of difficult conversations, and sometimes acting as a translator for projects.

An unfortunate reality is that too often dockets are in part shaped by the bias or unfamiliarity that exists in panel rooms. Certainly other funders could benefit from this model, as the possibilities that this new model holds are many. The model is a small but impactful step in working towards a more just sector. It offers a concrete solution towards leveling the playing field for artists typically on the margins, encourages continued learning and growth for decision makers and gatekeepers in our sector, and holds the potential to move the needle on the sector’s larger goals around equity and inclusion.

Over the three days that we convened, the panel worked from a place of deep accountability and integrity, considering its collective responsibility not only to the artists whose work was under consideration, but also to the field. Deep care and rigor were applied to the overall process and to each proposed work. Within the process, there was space for disagreement, differing lenses, and divergent views.

The panel relied on different frameworks and tools to contextualize and ground the review process.  One tool used was the Aesthetic Perspectives framework developed by Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts. It offers 11 attributes of excellence defined by artists for confronting aesthetic bias in arts for change work. Other foundations used to evaluate work included inquiry, disruption, and challenging notions of hierarchy; celebration; belief in risk, experimentation, and the artistic journey; and lastly, the framework of trust.  Trust in the unknown, in artistic vision, in process and practice, and in the unnamable.

Making room for the unnamable is hard for most people. No matter how progressive or radical or woke we may be. No matter how experienced we are. No matter how we ourselves may have experienced marginalization, erasure, or struggle. More often than not, we attempt to root in pathways and models that are known and familiar to us, and that have been codified as conduits of success.

This was one of the core places of tension for the panel. A key part of creating an arts and culture sector rooted in decolonial and anti-racist practice is to make room for the unnamable – for the people, work, and projects that exist beyond defined disciplines, practices, binaries, and definitions.  Some of our moments in confronting the unnamable included:

  • Embracing decolonial practice, through interrupting the application of a Eurocentric and western lens to an indigenous led project rooted in lineage, tradition, community engaged practice, hybrid form, and to refrain from assigning a discipline distinction which might not be relevant to the artist’s culture.
  • Recognizing the legacy of queer and trans artists of color, who are the masters of innovation out of necessity, and how queer and trans artists of color create new forms that challenge the bounds of discipline ecology, and have often had to create their own mythologies and origin stories. We have a responsibility to make room for these new forms and mythologies.
  • Gaining context and confronting bias in understanding regionally specific works, e.g. the legacies of southern cultural work as participatory, community based, and deeply engaged, and seeded in the values of relationship building, bringing people along, meeting people where they are at, and recognizing the brilliance of our community based culture bearers. Not all work will be shaped or presented in formats easily recognized by the northern gaze, and some regionally specific works will include deep pedagogical process as a key part of the work.
  • Making room for applicants less experienced in grant writing and application, and making the grant application process more accessible. In order to disrupt bias in arts philanthropy, we must dismantle the notion of legibility, and confront our bias in how we approach proposals that may be less polished or more abstract.

Beyond the unnamable, additional places of inquiry and confronting bias for the panel included discussing the privilege of a pass, e.g. ensuring that legacy artists, or known artists with a notable body of work, received the same level of rigor and examination applied to each application. This was coupled with the frustrating recognition that the field has few mechanisms to support master artists of any background. The panel was equally conscious around not critiquing master artists for being familiar, i.e. not as emergent or “groundbreaking” as the lesser known artists amongst the docket.

The panel also discussed the opportunity to disrupt cultural erasure through committing to support black artists from historically black cities where black communities are experiencing displacement and cultural loss.

Another place of tension for the panel was around the appropriation of stories and experiences, specifically people in positions of privilege telling the stories of those with less privilege. E.g. white project leads capitalizing off of the stories, artistic work, and contributions of black artists and other artists of color, or able bodied artists capitalizing off of the bodies and experiences of artists with disabilities.

On Rejection, Breaking the Game, and Forward Visions

As MAP staff expressed during the voting process, it is difficult to capture the breadth of performing arts in the US in 40 projects. The panel was tasked with the impossible – narrowing down a pool of 80 worthy, amazing applications down to 40 awards. Deep consideration was given to diversity, aesthetic balance, geography, and trying to articulate and fill any missing gaps.

Many panelists knew firsthand the complexities of grant seeking, having struggled to resource their own work, and shared stories of their own rejections.

I, too, remember my first rejection. It was the first grant I applied to. It was in the mid 2000s in a different sector, before the days of Vimeo and Submittable, and in a different Oakland, in the heyday of Butta, when you could still ride the 1R from 98th Ave. to downtown Berkeley for $1.75, and when I didn’t have a working computer. It was 4:30pm, and the submission deadline was 5pm of that day. After a full day of struggling to make the requisite 10 complete copies on the rickety copier of my day job du jour, I sprinted 12 blocks to the downtown BART station to meet my artistic partner who would hop on BART to hand deliver the application with not a minute to spare. When I was a block from the station, gunshots rang out. Everybody around me dropped to the ground or crawled to find cover behind cars, but I kept running. I had gotten this far and I was not going to stop. I had stayed up nights working on borrowed computers after long physical rehearsals to finish this application. I had stolen precious hours and an entire ream of paper from my day job for this application, not to mention the 10 pack of CDs I had managed to liberate from the drugstore at the corner of 14th and Broadway to record our work sample.

But beyond that, I knew that the work of our artists was too important and too deserving for me to stop now, and that it desperately needed to be seen. I knew that a win for us was a win for all queer and trans people of color in Oakland, and that my people were counting on me. All of the gods and ancestors were with us that day. Despite the apocalypse exploding around us, I found my partner, who took the application from my hands and ran for the train as helicopters and cops started to swarm in. Neither of us were interrogated or hurt that day. The application was turned in at 4:59pm on the dot. And I did not get fired.  

A few months later when the application was rejected, I cried for three days. When your work communicates the realities of a community experiencing genocide or erasure, finding funding for your work can feel like living or dying, and a rejection can feel like death. In the years that followed that first application, there were many more grant applications. There were some wins and moments of triumph, but there were far more rejections. The truth is, rejection never stops. And the other truth is that we can never let it stop us. If I had let that first “No” stop me or define me, the incredible work that unfolded over the following ten years would not have come to be, nor would the projects that were born after, that continue to inform queer arts ecologies, and the ecology of the Bay Area.

I share this story as balm for artists who receive rejections and face the sometimes unbearable weight of discouragement. To you I say keep on. Don’t you dare stop. Don’t you ever give up. I also share it as context for our sector, to communicate some of the realities and truths that are unseen behind grant applications. When we talk about equity and leveling the playing field in our sector, we have to create processes and systems that account for the queer, melanated, no computer having, office supply thieving, bullet dodging, by any means necessary artists and cultural workers among us.  

In the panel room, there was talk of “the game,” the game being arts philanthropy, and how artists must learn to play the game. Or, I would like to offer that we don’t. We can dismantle the game, move beyond bootstraps theories, and instead, know that change requires a recognition that the game was not intended for some of us, that the game was never built with some of us in mind – no matter how we may learn to shape our words, quiet our accents, write a good grant, or codeswitch and conform in any other number of ways. From this place of recognition, we can begin to radically reimagine models for arts philanthropy rooted in futurity, interrupting bias, opening the gate, making room for many, embracing emergence, and not leaving anybody behind.

The next time you are in a panel room or decision making role, consider this:

Futurity: What do you want the sector to look like in 10, 20, 50 years? What are the truths, experiences, and values that you want this future sector to be rooted in? Given this, who does the sector need you to be right now?

Acknowledging Bias: What are the biases you bring to the table? We all have them. Can you be humble enough to recognize your growth areas, commit to listening without defense, and to keep learning?

Representation: Who is at your table? A more inclusive review panel, rooted in justice and equity, would include artists and presenters who have been pushed to the margins of our sector and who do not typically get a seat at the table, but whose experience and analysis desperately needs to be heard –  transwomen of color artists, undocumented artists, artists working in underground ecologies, artists with disabilities, southern artists and presenters, rural artists, and more. Can you make room for these folks at your table?

Access: Who does your work, language, process, and systems account for? Who is it accessible to? What needs to shift in order to make your work, language, process, and systems accessible for more folks?

Making the Investment: What are the opportunities before you to make investments in new models that support change? Are you willing to make the investment of resources and time necessary to support growth for your organization, and for a new sector? How will you incorporate the learnings and feedback seeded from your experiments and new models into your future work?

Perseverance: Change requires audacity, courage, innovation, hard work, and sometimes failure. As Moira shared during closing panel reflections, “If we fail, at least we fail forward.” From every failure or misstep comes important lessons. Do not be afraid to fail.

This is the essence of what is at the core of the experimental model tried out in the MAP 2017 panel room, folks. An exercise in futurity, acknowledging bias, representation, access, making the investment, and perseverance. An effort to move the needle, a call for our sector to keep evolving, a call for us to support bold new visions that contribute to building an arts philanthropy sector rooted in justice, and accessible to many. Let’s keep working towards this future together. I believe in us.

María Chery Galette Rangel is a New Orleans based cultural organizer, philanthropy strategist, organizational capacity building specialist, and revolutionary focused on interrupting systemic bias in arts philanthropy, supporting underground arts ecologies, and support for queer and trans artists of color. As Co-Founder/Director of Mangos with Chili (2006-16), she developed the work of over 150 queer and trans artists of color, launched 80+ productions via national tours and local seasons of programming, initiated dialogue around racism in arts funding and practice, and ushered in a new era of possibility for QTPOC centered arts and culture. During her tenure at the National Performance Network (2015-17) she advanced the organization’s development goals, radically increased NPN’s analysis and practice of racial and social justice, and introduced the work of NPN to younger generations of artists and cultural workers. She leads with her lifelong commitment to making a place at the table for everyone, and ensuring that the work of underrepresented artists is lifted up, recognized, and always possible. You can catch her presenting in June at the NALAC Regional in Charlotte, NC, and at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit.