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The Playhouse theater was nearly filled to capacity on Tuesday night with an audience of almost 300 local artists, patrons, and activists for an emotional panel discussion and heated Q&A session about the current state of diversity – or lack there of – in the local arts community.
A passionate debate was brewing long before the panel began as many artists and attendees took note that the panel did not include a local Latina artist. SA2020 hosted the event as a direct response to the recent controversy involving Contemporary Art Month (CAM) and the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, the latter of which declined to host a CAM gallery exhibit event because of the lack of Latina representation. The repeated exclusion only made matters worse.
While most audience members anxiously waited for the panel to begin, some insisted that another chair be placed on stage to host a Latina panelist.
“It’s not too late!” Two women shouted, interrupting other panelist introductions. “Pull up a chair!” When it became clear a panelist would not be added, they eventually walked out of the theater in frustration, yelling “Racist!”
The consensus at the end of the night for a vast majority of the audience was not as accusatory as that, but it remained obvious that there is still plenty of work to be done.
“It was a mistake to not include a Latina artist on the panel,” said SA2020 President and CEO Molly Cox, who moderated the event that was jointly organized by SA2020, the City’s Diversity and Inclusion Office, CAM, and the Guadalupe. “In the process of selecting the panelists, the partners … were focused on bringing together folks that were neutral on what unfolded between CAM and GCAC. That focus on neutrality combined with the focus on an idea of visual arts and, quite frankly, our own biases, resulted in an exclusion.”
The “SA2020 Talks: Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts” panel included SAY Sí Executive Director Jon Hinojosa, City Diversity and Inclusion Officer Kiran Bains, artist and Founder of Snake Hawk Press Cruz Ortiz, and Artpace Executive Director Veronique Le Melle.
Le Melle immediately noted the pain and frustration felt in the room.
“You don’t heal that hurt by yelling and walking out, you heal that hurt by staying and being a part of the conversation,” she said.
The goal of Tuesday’s panel was to facilitate a community-wide discussion that could lead to some sort of solution. But it was clear that the frustrated voices in the Q&A session, which was light on both questions and answers, were concerned about more than the recent CAM-Guadalupe controversy. Any solution will be hard fought, they said, as Latino artists have been underrepresented in popular art spaces and have historically not received an equal amount of funding compared to their non-minority counterpart.
Sarah Castillo, a local artist and advocate for Latinx artists – those that do not choose to define themselves as Latino/a – asked about the panel’s composition via the event’s Facebook page last week.
“That is why we’re here in the first place, so it’s very strange they didn’t include a Latina on the panel,” Castillo told the Rivard Report before the discussion. “That makes me believe that this event was coordinated from a biased entity.”
The panelists did go on to have a in-depth discussion about race, identity, and how to avoid another CAM-Guadalupe controversy.
“We can all come together and complain a lot and trust me I’m right there with everybody else,” Ortiz said, “but I’m more interested in looking at what other cities have done in these situations and what we can do to improve (our situation). It’s going to take a lot of bridge building.”
Many audience members, including María López De León, executive director and board member of the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC), have been trying to address the lack of equal resources for Latino artists and organizations for years.|
“I’m glad this conversation is happening, but it’s overdue,” De León said. “I’m concerned about the conversation because it’s about diversity and inclusivity, but it’s not about equity, and that’s very important.”
Latinos are 65% of the population in San Antonio, she added, yet they only get 15% of the arts funding available from the City. “That is not equity and that is not acceptable.”
Le Melle, a recent addition to San Antonio who has worked in national cultural and arts organizations for more than 30 years, believes equity begins at establishing a more well-rounded playing field for artists who are competing for certain positions or exhibition opportunities.
“The policies that have worked (in other cities) look at opportunity and how we are communicating these opportunities to the public,” she said. Most of the time, many minority artists are simply unaware of potential chances to develop their skills or showcase their work, leaving the pool of potential hires less diverse.
“It also comes down to being transparent in selecting our (artists),” she said. “It’s (my) responsibility to challenge the (Artpace) curators to be more transparent in their selections,” so less artists feel like they are being specifically left out.
Chris Sauter, CAM co-chair, said he’s looking forward to implementing more inclusive practices like those suggested by Le Melle in CAM’s future curatorial exhibitions. One way is to expand their current list of San Antonio artists that is used to choose from for the annual Perennial exhibition.
“Certainly the whole CAM board is on board with trying to find new ways to make the (exhibition) list more comprehensive, because there are people whose names are missing from the list,” Sauter said. “We’re always trying to add to it so that pool will reflect the complexity of the San Antonio art scene.”
Sauter is unsure of what will come next between CAM and the Guadalupe, he said, other than continued support for their artistic initiatives.
Cox accepted the fact that many people left the discussion feeling upset and wanting more concrete solutions, she said, but solving such a deeply-ingrained, complex issue will take time.
“What (SA2020) was hoping to accomplish by partnering with the other two organizations was a conversation, and I hope that this is just the first of many that are coming,” she said. “I think it’s our job to shine light in spaces where we’re seeing gaps … and if there’s any group of people who can come up with solutions for these problems it’s artists, so let’s start there.”
Castillo said she’ll be there.
“I hope that they have more conversations like this, but there are a lot of questions left unanswered,” she said.
*Top image: Artistic Executive Director of Say Sí Jon Hinojosa speaks about how diversity and inclusion policies work at Say Sí on a small scale. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.