A white arts worker volunteers a comparison of his only two Black colleagues. A white gala attendee asks a Black person how they could afford the tickets. A white department head is paid five times as much as her Black peer. In the summer of 2020, a museum tasks a traumatized Black staffer with mentoring its white director, who “just doesn’t get it.”

These personal testimonies from artists, art workers, and supporters around the state—mainly in the Triangle, the Triad, and Charlotte—were shared with the INDY by the activist group North Carolina Black Artists for Liberation. They reflect the range of anti-Black dynamics, from casual to structural, that flourish in white-dominated industries like the arts. They are symptoms of a sickness that NCBAL is working to purge, from independent theaters and galleries to state and university presenters and museums—and not just on the stage or walls, but from the vendors to the boardroom.

Most arts organizations, liberal by default, readily claim the same goals. Most of them can list off the incremental improvements—in staff diversity, in community initiatives, in shows and exhibits—they’ve made in the years since Black Lives Matter made Black artists impossible to ignore.

But many of these changes have been slow and superficial. Arts organizations tend to have small staffs and low turnover. Many boards have minimum contribution requirements—it would cost you $10 million to be a trustee at the Met, for instance. These forces keep institutions disproportionately white, and make diversity easier to achieve in rhetoric and guest exhibits than in parity of income or influence.

Diversity is an attractive proposition for organizations—in fact, it’s a pillar of contemporary white supremacy. Showing Black work and hiring low-level Black staff doesn’t disturb the status quo that white people are constantly tempted to relax into. Income inequality makes diversity inexpensive—even profitable, as it earns grant funding and, especially since last summer, cultural capital. But the gains of “inclusion” can be less evident for underpaid, isolated Black artists and art workers, who risk being used as cover and burdened with unpaid antiracist labor, as if it were their duty to take apart what white people have built.

“I think that’s the normal way of working,” says NCBAL cofounder Antoine Williams. “‘Oh, there’s racism in art, so let’s give Black people a show.’ But how does that affect the power structure? You can wait people out, or give them a space to do something, but the institution keeps moving.”

Structural change is harder than inclusion. It’s not putting a black square on Instagram. It’s not searching for a director who can increase diversity while maintaining your “traditional, core, white art audience,” which is how the president of the Indianapolis Museum of Art recently gave away the game before resigning in disgrace. It has real consequences for white privilege and comfort. And it’s what NCBAL called on all North Carolina arts institutions to drive toward in a petition it released in July.

Signed by several hundred people in the local arts world, the petition outlined a series of recommendations, including hiring Black vendors and consultants, creating paid internships and other professional pathways for Black students, offering free admission to BIPOC, undertaking racial sensitivity training, adding more Black leadership, correcting pay inequality, and collecting and showing more Black art.

None of these concerns surprised arts organizations, most of which, in the upheaval of last summer, were already either refining or hurling together some kind of Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI) plan by institutional fiat. But perhaps the accountability measure that followed did. The petition gave them six months to develop and implement racial equity plans “with measurable goals in the areas of hiring, organizational culture, leadership and organizational transparency,” or NCBAL would notify their donors and boards of their inaction.

I first reported on the petition when it emerged alongside a separate but similar one aimed at CAM Raleigh, where discontent about racial sensitivity had been swirling at least since a disastrous exhibit by the painter Margaret Bowland in 2018. Though the petition is aimed across the arts, it was expedient, here at the six-month deadline, to examine its impact in the visual art world, as that’s where all seven NCBAL founders—Williams, Jessica Gaynelle Moss, Marcus Kiser, Carmen Neely, Sherrill Roland, J. Stacy Utley, and Chris Watts—do their work. Plus, museums’ deep colonial roots and administrative inertia make them especially slow and cumbersome to change.

In addition to two NCBAL leaders, I interviewed personnel at the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art, VAE Raleigh, and the North Carolina Arts Council. I also reviewed NCBAL’s emails with other institutions around the state. CAM Raleigh declined to comment, though I did learn that embattled director Gab Smith no longer works at the museum.

I found some encouraging motions and signs of mutual understanding. But I also saw a gap between NCBAL’s intention and its reception—one mirroring the divide between the limits of the white liberal imagination and transformative change.

Jessica Moss is friendly and brisk in our conversations, repeating my name with warming regularity. I can hear the frustration rising in her voice only when she discusses the most common misunderstandings the petition slammed into: white people thinking she was asking for a job instead of asking them to do one, and focusing on what they had already done instead of what they were going to do.

Or at least, I can hear that frustration whenever Moss’s 15-month-old daughter, Max, isn’t clamoring for her attention, which she often is. NCBAL is but one of the Charlotte-based artist’s many creative endeavors. She’s a prolific curator and consultant. With projects like The Roll Up CLT, she redevelops neglected, formerly prosperous Black spaces as affordable housing and artist residencies. Her artwork is in the collections of the Institute of Contemporary Art Baltimore and UNC-Charlotte. She has master’s degrees in both art and law. It’s not like she needed more work.

“In a way, I consider this a part of the body of work that I’m building,” Moss says. “It’s never a hindrance, because it’s important to be able to carve out these initiatives, so that Max and generations beyond her don’t have the same issues I or my parents or my grandparents had.”

Antoine Williams is an interdisciplinary artist focused on critical race theory who teaches painting and drawing at Guilford College in Greensboro. He was recently commissioned by the Biden-Harris campaign to create a get-out-the-vote mural in downtown Durham.

Like Moss, Williams found the drive to start NCBAL—and the courage, which calling out every art institution in the state certainly takes—in a desire to remove the barriers he’d overcome.

“Before I got my MFA, I lived in Charlotte, and those are really insular spaces,” he says. “Coming from a working-class background, it’s really hard to get into them, and once you’re in there, it’s a really bizarre space. It was made without you in mind. Now that I am where I am, I don’t want to just be happy that I’m included. So what can I do to make things more equitable for students who remind me of me, and I see the obstacles ahead?”

When NCBLA’s petition landed in arts-world inboxes across the state, it elicited a range of responses, from simple acknowledgement to performative gratitude to tremors of unease. Some institutions sent updates on their ongoing diversity efforts; others asked for advice or offered the artists exhibits. Then there were the cringey outliers: the orchestra that needed “guidance” on its Black Lives Matter season, with no mention of compensation; the small-town curator demanding a list of Black artists, because, she said, she could only find two.

It was clear enough from the petition (“If you are feeling lost and don’t know where to begin, consider hiring a BIPOC consultant to assist with the development of a strategic plan”) that NCBAL wasn’t offering free consulting, and even clearer in the Zoom Q-and-A they hosted in July.

“Diversity and inclusion is not my specialty, Moss says. “There are professionals who do this work, and I’m not one of them, and I find myself constantly reiterating that. But I also feel that if I don’t do this, it just won’t be done.”

Nor was it NCBAL’s intention to become the administrators of a state-wide arts equity organization. They hoped to simply provide a roadmap and accountability measures for the work arts institutions said they were already doing, and then step back to observe.

“The accountability measures were put in place so you can hold yourself accountable,” Moss says. “All these institutions are different sizes, with different boards, different missions. No one knows them better than the people who work within them. The ask isn’t to report back to this group saying, ‘Have we done it right?’ None of us is the boss. The boss is future generations that can benefit from the systems you’re putting in place now.”

As the six-month deadline closes, NCBAL is waiting to see which institutions will put out new or revised strategic plans—not just promises, but written policy, which lasts, while well-meaning people come and go. But it’s not like they’re going to sit down with spreadsheets and release diversity reports to boards and donors all at once. They’re less interested in the modest gains of the last six months than in the work of years to come—not immediate perfection, but constant forward motion, with white people pushing it uphill.

“I’m seeing some Black people being hired in new roles, and that’s a part of this, but it can’t be the only part,” Moss says. “A lot of those people are being taken advantage of. That this work should fall on the few Black people in leadership roles was not something we expected, and I feel disheartened by that. I really believe in the ability of humanity to reach some sort of harmonious space, but there has to be a relinquishing of power, and I don’t know if I’m as hopeful in the people in these places of power to actually relinquish it.”

If any of those powerful people took the petition’s accountability measure as a threat, most of them were careful not to let it show. But the strength of the lever is indicative of the mass it has to move. “An institution has a ton of power and history,” Williams says. “We’re just asking for it to be equitable, and we’re using the leverage we have.”

“Here’s the thing,” he goes on. “People don’t usually give up or shift how they organize power if they’re just asked. I haven’t seen evidence that it works to say, ‘Hey, can you do all of this really hard work that’s going to take a lot of time, and you’re going to mess up, but you have to stick with it?’”

The petition has had some clear and direct outcomes—one organization reported making reparations payments to a Black staffer, for example—though its impact can be hard to unravel from the national movement it’s a part of. But to be sure, change is underway at North Carolina art institutions.

At UNC, the petition landed just as the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion was implementing a mandatory five-year DEAI process. Ariel Fielding, the Ackland Art Museum’s communications director, who has a professional background in organizational racial equity, says the museum has hired a long-term antiracism trainer as it works on a DEAI plan, which it has never had in writing before. The Ackland is also releasing a new official history that reckons with its endowment’s roots in the slave-trading profits of its namesake’s stepfather.

“Large institutions can be very slow-moving, and change is not always necessarily initiated from within,” Fielding says. “Once you’re in one of those institutions and have learned to navigate how they function, it’s hard to introduce new ideas. Any kind of commitment to antiracism is going to be swimming upstream. It can be very helpful when an outside entity approaches the institution asking for change.”

If American museum collections are 85 percent white and male, as a bombshell study found in 2019, then Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art has long been far ahead of the curve. “We’ve been actively pursuing the inverse of that,” says Trevor Schoonmaker, who was the architect of this institutional identity as a curator—a key position that remains open since he became the museum’s director. Schoonmaker is confident that the Nasher’s national leadership in collecting Black art is baked in enough to outlast him, but he also acknowledges the need to think beyond the collection.

“Diversity matters a lot, but it isn’t the same as doing the work,” he says. “Racial equity is going to be the lens that we look at every opportunity through, whether it’s a vendor or a staff hire.”

Tamara Holmes Brothers, formerly the Nasher’s fundraising director, moved over to the North Carolina Arts Council to become its deputy director in May. She is the first Black person in senior leadership in the half-century history of the influential agency, which doles out public funding to artists across the state. She was hired to develop internal policy, with a focus on diversity and inclusion.

“I think the petition was a constant reminder to hold ourselves accountable in this work, because it encouraged us to be transparent, internally and externally,” says Brothers. She outlines an eighteen-month process that started in May 2020 and is proceeding through listening sessions dubbed BIPOC Arts Equity Forums. The initiative will culminate in the integration of a new DEAI policy into the strategic plan on the art council’s website.   

Brothers recalls that, when she forwarded the petition to the council’s longtime director, Wayne Martin, she took care to note that he shouldn’t take it personally—“that the tone came out of frustration.” Indeed, everyone seemed to agree that none of this was personal, but it also seemed to take effort all around to maintain this belief.

“I go back to this Audre Lorde quote, where she says it is the master’s tool to rely on the oppressed to correct the mistakes of the oppressor,” Moss says. “To put the weight on the oppressed to make the oppressors feel better is very confusing to me, and I’m trying to be so cool about it, Brian, because I know it’s not personal. We’re just the channel, and it’s getting deflected.”

I asked several people whether institutions don’t really want to change, don’t know how to, or simply can’t.

“I don’t believe that they can’t,” Antoine Williams says. “It’s either—or both—that they don’t know how or want to. Some people, I can tell they just genuinely are confused about what to do, and others are down until it gets to a certain point that starts to shake the foundation of what they really believe.”

Brandon Cordrey, executive director of the scrappy arts nonprofit VAE Raleigh, doesn’t buy that organizations can’t change, either. When he received the petition, he immediately forwarded it to his staff and board to sign. “We’ve worked with many of those artists, and their sentiments line up with our core values,” he says, though VAE did lose two individual donors who thought it was “reverse racism.”

“We just said, ‘OK, goodbye,’” Cordrey says. “We’re not going to change our values for their funding.”

Though VAE already had a strategic plan online, the NCBAL petition inspired them to break out the DEAI aspects in their own section. Cordrey saw the petition as a great resource for those who didn’t already have the language to address these issues—“a copy-and-paste gift from those artists, who shouldn’t have to do that work,” he says.

“Granting organizations require you to report demographics back to them,” he goes on. “The reports show that tax dollars from everyone are being used to serve a specific group of people, based on decisions made by a majority-white staff and board. And the grantors go, why, thank you for this information, and then give them money again the next year. If they’re not going to hold themselves accountable, someone needs to.”

Historically, VAE has been a very homogenous organization. But that has changed over the last several years. According to Cordrey, the small staff is now 25 percent people of color, 75 percent queer, and 50 percent nonbinary. They reached the benchmark of a board with no single-race majority last year.

“This involves changing an entire culture we’ve built in order to make sure, when we hire employees of color, queer employees, employees with disabilities, that they actually feel like they are respected and appreciated,” Cordrey says. “And that’s the harder work. But it’s not impossible, and it’s not unreasonable.”

Sooner or later, a leadership change will come. “I’m confident we’ve put a board in place that will hire VAE’s first leader of color,” Cordrey says. “I’ve done some work, but I obviously have a lot of blind spots, because I’m a white dude. A person of color in that top seat would help get to that next level I’m probably not capable of pushing us to.”

This seems closest to the radical heart of the NCBAL’s reasonable demands, and the hardest part for white people to envision. Perhaps true progress will be measured not by how many of us will use our disproportionate power justly, but by how many are willing to give it up.

Correction: A previous version of this piece did not include comment from the NC Museum of Art. The INDY was using an outdated contact email for the museum’s public relations manager.”

Comment on this story at arts@indyweek.com

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