On Minority Artist Development Programs

I’ve recently come through a number of “minority artist development programs” at a variety of major (read: primarily white and able-bodied) theatre venues and cultural institutions, and have found them to be consistently wanting in a few ways. As a theatremaker and performer engaged in transnational minority theatre work in both the US and the UK, it’s frustrating to see well-intentioned programs that can serve to helpfully challenge white supremacy fail on basic programmatic aspects. I find it hard to believe that such failures would be accepted as adequate, were these programs not alternately blessed and cursed with being exclusively for minorities, people of color, or other disenfranchised groups.

What is needed is an institutional reassessment of why such cultural organizations engage in such work in the first place. Is it as a diversity box-checking exercise? Are they trying to change audience demographics? Are they fattening their bottom line, ever aware of the increasing cuts in arts funding on both sides of the Atlantic? Or are these types of programs reflective of a true activist commitment to unlearn and dismantle structural inequalities? Unfortunately for that last one, exceptions like actor, playwright, and director Kwame Kwei-Armah prove to me that these institutions aren’t in the business of loosening their stranglehold on resources, preferring instead short-term “development” projects that result in minorities fighting with one another for leftover table scraps.

So, I’ve put together a few pointers that may be useful for staff at such institutions when they are tasked with executing a minority artist development program, one that may or may not be conceived or designed by those who implement it. Specifically, I’m speaking to middle management: to those who are simultaneously facing pressure from supervisors in offices upstairs to implement a “minority” development program and from minority artists on the ground who are frustrated at the program’s failures. (There is, of course, a broader discussion to be had about whether or not these programs ought to be conceived as they are from the top down and how that creates the space between a rock and a hard place that middle management inhabits. I recognize the importance of that topic, but it is beyond the scope of what I’m covering here.) Suffice it to say for the moment that such initiatives are sometimes as unwanted by the so-called “community” that they target as they are by those who are responsible for implementing them. When that’s the case, here are some tips on how to make the best of a bad situation.

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