Miranda González of UrbanTheater Company on what 'cultural triage' means for BIPOC theaters | Ghost Light | Chicago Reader

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Miranda González of UrbanTheater Company on what 'cultural triage' means for BIPOC theaters

"We need to not only be trusted, but also championed."

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In my last column, I wrote about Brian Loevner and the white paper he's created through his company, BLVE Consults, on the subject of "cultural triage" and what arts leaders and funders might need to do to ensure the survival (or help the ending process) for the arts in a post-pandemic world. But as Loevner himself acknowledges, the lens through which many arts consultants view the future of the field tends to be dominated by the experiences of predominantly white institutions (PWI). He asked Miranda González, artistic director of Humboldt Park's UrbanTheater Company (where Loevner is currently a board member) to write a paper offering some missing context and counterpoint from the perspective of a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) arts institution.

In her paper, González notes that, while the pandemic has thrown a lot of arts organizations into a state of uncertainty over what the future holds, for BIPOC institutions, "Surviving the pandemic is not what is at the forefront of our worries. Our worries lie in developing a succession plan, securing concurrent funding relationships, and investment in professional development for our leadership teams." 

She also cites a 2017 study from Helicon, a nonprofit consulting organization working with many social change and cultural clients, entitled "Not Just Money: Equity Issues in Cultural Philanthropy." Their research showed that 90 percent of cultural organizations operate on budgets of less than $1 million annually. The study also stated, "Across the nation, fewer than 50 cultural organizations whose missions focus primarily on artistic traditions from Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Native America, or that focus primarily on reaching rural populations and low-income communities, receive enough funding to maintain budgets of $5 million/year."

This isn't new information: back in 1996, the late playwright August Wilson delivered a speech entitled "The Ground on Which I Stand" at a conference of the national theater services organization Theatre Communications Group. Wilson noted, "Black theater doesn’t share in the economics that would allow it to support its artists and supply them with meaningful avenues to develop their talent and broadcast and disseminate ideas crucial to its growth. The economics are reserved as privilege to the overwhelming abundance of institutions that preserve, promote, and perpetuate white culture."

I caught up with González to talk more about where BIPOC organizations like UTC stand now—and what funders can do to better support their unique missions. 

A key point that she raises is that BIPOC cultural nonprofits—most of which came into existence within the last 50 years, compared to "flagship" white-led institutions—are often rooted in their communities in a way that those organizations are not. 

"We were always very close to the people in our community," González says. "We grew up as Chicago natives. That particular community has known us since we were young, as individual people. Tony's parents [Tony Bruno, UTC company manager], my parents, both were born and raised in Humboldt Park. And Ivan [Ivan Vega, cofounder and executive director] always had ties to Humboldt Park, and his wife grew up, born and raised in Humboldt Park. 

"So it's one of those moments where, when you know each other and when you know what the gap is and what the necessities are for the community, there is a responsibility to sustain things. The ecosystem that existed prior to the pandemic is still very much alive, in the sense that we still continue to help each other out and we make partnerships to help spread the word about things—'who is giving away free groceries?'"

Though many theaters put up messages of support for Black Lives Matter in the wake of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor police killings and subsequent protests last summer, González notes, "The Black Lives Matter movement is something that BIPOC theaters have been supporting since its inception. Because we understood the importance, because we are social justice organizations." The UTC website highlights resources on Afro-Latinx experiences and anti-racist training.

In "Cultural Triage," Loevner and his coauthor, Ian Belknap, wrote that many arts institutions suffer from "the Fallacy of Singularity, an entrenched notion that each performing arts organization, despite its many evident similarities to many other such organizations, is somehow inherently unique."

But in the case of community-centered BIPOC organizations, they are in fact often unique—and as noted, poorly funded compared to primarily white institutions. So looking at mergers and collaborations as a way of making philanthropic dollars go further has a different meaning for companies like UTC. 

In her response to "Cultural Triage," González wrote that "In meetings with program officers, [BIPOC organizations] are being asked to apply for grants together in order to be more appealing to the board of trustees, thus continually perpetuating oppression. The limitations that the philanthropic community place on the distributed funds is steeped in paternalism and bias." She also notes, "Several funding organizations have told me they have never asked white organizations to come together in order to be more desirable to trustees. Is this what the philanthropic community sees as equitable?"

She expands upon that in our discussion. "A lot of the paternalism that exists within [the philanthropic community], it's meant to continue to oppress and it's meant to promote saviorship. And it's like, we don't need to be saved. We need to not only be trusted, but also championed."

In 2020, UTC joined forces with 13 other Latinx theaters in Teatros Unidos, spearheaded by Portland's Milagro theater company. One of the aims for the collective, in addition to sharing information and resources for these companies during the pandemic, is to "uplift and give voice to their historically silenced communities by producing plays, multicultural and multigenerational community programs." 

While collaborations are one of the things that the "Cultural Triage" paper encourages as a means of helping theaters stay alive post-pandemic, that too requires an understanding of community needs and priorities if it's to be something other than a cosmetic approach to building bridges. And González cautions that white-led institutions looking to collaborate with BIPOC organizations need to examine their own assumptions.

"The big truth of the matter is that the budget is still going to you. So then what do we do? We then teach you how we've been surviving, you learn how to do it, and then you still take the bigger chunk of the pie? No." González adds, "I'm also doing some consultancy for other theater companies that are not in Chicago, but outside that are predominantly white. And a lot of the times when I'm doing anti-racist work with [these companies], they talk about shifting paradigms, and they talk about 'Oh, we want to make sure we expand our reach within the community, especially the BIPOC people.' And I tell them the shift or radical thinking portion of that is to find the organizations that are already working with the BIPOC communities and acting like a fiscal sponsor and a champion for them. That's centering the community."

In her paper, González emphasizes, "We were created out of necessity, the need to belong, the longing to see our stories and our bodies reflected on those stages. Creating community among like organizations, business, and audiences is our speciality. Our needs during this time cannot be compared to the needs of PWIs."

For funders, González has some direct unvarnished advice for how to proceed on a social justice footing with BIPOC organizations: "Don't go in and tell them what they need to do. Look at what they're doing and say, 'How can we help you do it better?'"

Sideshow expands ensemble

One company founded by white artists made a major shift in leadership this past summer. Sideshow Theatre Company named Regina Victor, who is Black and trans, as artistic director. Now Victor and their creative team have expanded the Sideshow ensemble and artistic associate roster dramatically by adding BIPOC artists with extensive resumes in Chicago and beyond. The new ensemble members include Wardell Julius Clark, Greg Geffrard, Arti Ishak, Krystal Ortiz, Gabrielle Randle-Bent, and Netta Walker. Artistic associates include Patrick Agada, J. Nicole Brooks, Brynne Frauenhoffer, Jyreika Guest, and Sarah Price.

In the press release, Victor said, "As a Black, trans leader of color, I always wondered if diversification of an ensemble was as hard as the leaders of our predominantly white field said it would be. It's not. This list of innovators, game changers, and all around really talented artists represent the type of cohort building we need to move the theatre industry into the future."  v

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