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Learning from Chicago Artists Coalition’s Equity Listening Sessions

**Disclaimer: The inclusion of race is not intended to be derogatory. Including the racial demographics in this story is a part of understanding who is involved and impacted by these discussions around racial equity. ** 

“It’s a challenge to get people to actually talk about racial equity. I don’t know if it’s because people in the room don’t know each other, there isn’t that level of trust, of knowing people and feeling comfortable that they will really speak openly what they feel or think,” Chicago Artists Coalition’s Executive Director Caroline Older reflects on the three Listening Sessions that took place across the city during the months of April and May this year.  The idea of becoming a more racially diverse, equitable, equal-opportunity employer with an evolved perspective and work culture continues to plague every organization to date. The U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission prevents organizations from discriminating based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin or disability, yet organizations– the arts included–struggle with diversity on their staff. When it comes to art, the problems can be complex given the added layer of appropriation, imbalanced media attention, press coverage based on identity, and becoming fetishized/tokenized in discussions. Caroline Older admits that combating racism in the arts goes beyond hiring African, Latinx, Asian, Arab, and Native American  (ALAANA) candidates, instead it is also about making the environment they work in supportive and inclusive. On top of that is the inability to talk about race politics and how it prevents organizations from hiring a proportional number of employees of color. All of this is to point to a growing need for sustainable approaches to the problem of racial equity that are working to lower the barrier for artists of color in the workforce without them having to constantly champion their cause. They would much rather be hired on the merits of their qualifications and abilities than for their racial demographic. 

The Chicago Artists Coalition has been a key organization in the Chicago cultural ecosystem since 1974, when it started as a literal coalition of artists who sent newsletters in the mail sharing opportunities and a space to make art. Over the years it transformed from being a coalition into a registered 501c3 nonprofit organization. From being the first to offer residencies with a curatorial component (HATCH) to becoming one of the few residency programs (BOLT) within the city limits of Chicago, CAC has been at the forefront of nurturing the artist community in Chicago. Two years after being founded, it advocated for the creation of DCASE (Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events) and lobbied for the “Percent for Art Ordinance” which requires 1.33 percent of the budget for construction or major renovation of a city-owned or city-financed structure, be spent on commissioned art. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that CAC is taking an active role in becoming a more inclusive and equitable institution. In addition to HATCH and BOLT, CAC also offers grants to artists in three forms: a $3000 Maker Grant for artists engaging with social or environmental work, Coney Family Fund where $5000 is awarded to one Black or African-American artist and, in its inaugural year, the $2000 SPARK Microgrant that is given to 15 visual artists identifying as ALAANA, artists with a disability, an acute financial need, or are self taught full time artists. One could say racial equity is all in the details of these grants like the demographic of the jury and/or a diverse selection of recipients. While it is a positive first step, it doesn’t immediately create an inclusive work environment and neither does it change the fact that the select few will have to continue to advocate for more POCs to be involved in the process of allocating and receiving these grants.  The second step that CAC has taken, after offering specific grants for artists of color, is laying the groundwork for imbibing racial equity into its core values through a combination of discussions, an action committee, staff book clubs, and public listening sessions. CAC renews its strategic plan every three years. Later this year when the plan is renewed, Older intends to propose the observations and learning outcomes from these efforts to create a strategic plan that includes racial equity. She is in the process of hiring a consultant with a lens of racial equity to advise on the development of these plans.  

Part I. The Setup: behind-the-scenes

This story takes a closer look at what having conversations around racial equity within an arts organization like CAC could look like. These conversations and changes go back to when Older first attended an Undoing Racism Workshop (now called Anti-Racism) at Enrich Chicago. In 2015 Older and former employee Stephanie Lentz, were among the early wave of staff members to attend these workshops. Despite not being members of the Enrich cohort at that time, all full-time staff members of CAC were able to attend these workshops through waitlist availability. Older says, “The great news is we were a five-people team, so we were able to all get on the same page pretty quickly.” 

CAC had been involved with Enrich before they were officially invited to become members in January 2019. Aimed mostly at large influential organizations, philanthropists and foundations that fund or serve artists and makers, the goal of Enrich, according to their website is “to collaboratively develop a replicable and sustainable plan that creates new pathways for ALAANA people to arts organizations at all levels.” Led by Nina D. Sánchez and Ian Damont Martin, Enrich works with a group of institutions and organizations through collaboration to educate, advocate, and research effective tools to fulfil their goals. This means institutions spend manpower, time, and money through Enrich to research and develop tools that help an organization become equitable while keeping ALAANA members and their concerns at the core. The model of Enrich relies on collaborative efforts rather than top-down hierarchical ones. So imagine a collective or residency where the participants work towards inclusion and diversity on behalf of larger institutions like museums, foundations, and philanthropist organizations. On one hand they make strides collectively but on the other hand they come in with individual concerns specific to their organization and work on those during their involvement with Enrich, all the time sharing their process and learning outcomes with other organizations. 

The Anti-Racism workshops, that Older and Lentz attended, are hosted once a year in partnership with Chicago Regional Organizing for Anti Racism (CROAR) and members are required to register in advance. Currently these workshops run in three parts: Introduction to Systemic Racism, Understanding and Analyzing Systemic Racism, and a Racial Identity Caucus. At the Anti-Racism workshop, Older learned about Hyde Park Arts Center’s (HPAC) efforts to include racial equity into their strategic plan and use of listening sessions to achieve them. Older credits Executive Director Kate Lorenz of HPAC, for her advice on creating a version adapted for CAC’s needs. During the fall of last year, Older, along with former Development and Grants Manager Raquel Iglesias and member of the CAC board Rashayla Marie Brown, drew up a list of people who had worked with the CAC in some capacity and were addressing racial equity in their work. Iglesias and Older then proceeded to connect with people on this list and invited them to volunteer their time and efforts to be part of an Equity Action Committee. This committee, created in February of 2019, was created to act as a guiding force for the listening sessions that would take place at CAC in the months to follow. 

The Equity Action Committee met twice, once in February and once in March of this year. “The group was brought together to brainstorm questions about what we had experienced based on our own time with the CAC but also with our own forms of aspirational thinking, what could we envision for the CAC?,” Gibran Villalobos, former HATCH resident and member of the Equity Action Committee, explained. He told me that CAC planned to hold a public dialogue or town hall of sorts and this committee’s focus was to build a format for each session. “On one end, we wanted to continue the work that CAC already does extraordinarily well, but we also wanted to push on the aspect of this work that still hadn’t reached areas of the city that don’t always seem central,” he continued. At this moment in time, this initiative is running on a volunteer basis, so members of this committee were given the option to self-select how much work they wanted to contribute. For instance, Villalobos, a Partnership and Programs Liaison at the Museum of Contemporary Arts Chicago, offered the use of space at the museum as a meeting site given its central location in the city. 

A total of three sessions were held in three different venues as a way to reach Chicagoans from all parts of the city. Each session lasted between an hour to 90 minutes and followed a town hall meets group discussion format of two facilitators who posed questions and encouraged participants to discuss and provide input. By choosing non-CAC staff as facilitators, Older was aiming to make the participants feel comfortable pointing out problems.

Image: An external shot of Chicago Artists Coalition. The building is made up of red bricks and large, rectangular windows. The entryway of the gallery can be seen through the front door. The sun is shining and the windows reflect the blue sky and leafy green trees that line the sidewalk. Photo courtesy of Chicago Artists Coalition.
Image: An external shot of Chicago Artists Coalition. The building is made up of red bricks and large, rectangular windows. The entryway of the gallery can be seen through the front door. The sun is shining and the windows reflect the blue sky and leafy green trees that line the sidewalk. Photo courtesy of Chicago Artists Coalition.

Part II. In practise: the sessions themselves

The first session was held in a conference room above the Commons space at the Museum of Contemporary Art. This session was facilitated by Villalobos himself and Pooja Pittie, a Chicago based painter and former HATCH resident. At this session they had name cards, pens, and paper for people to take notes on. Print-outs with questions and facts about CAC were pinned on the wall. Over 50% of those in attendance were white women. The facilitators, a young black woman who had also been a HATCH resident, one other man and I were the only people of color present at this session. The session opened with Older introducing CAC, its mission and work so far, and loosely laid out the goals of these Listening Sessions before giving the floor to Villalobos and Pittie. Participants introduced themselves one after another and shared their connection to CAC. An older white woman and her husband, a person of color, dominated this session. They spent a long time explaining the details of their relationship to CAC, which went back to the 80s and 90s when it was a small organization. Since then, this session was the first time they had engaged with CAC– so all the things that Older shared about CAC’s current work and the structure were new to them. They expressed many concerns, one of which was their struggle with technology to access CAC’s grants and resource opportunities. This snowballed into other ways that CAC was and wasn’t accessible. The couple made a strong case for the rising costs associated with the current CAC membership format and how their current audience tended to be elite and commercial. A standard question asked on behalf of CAC at all of these sessions was: what are examples of organizations CAC could look to? The answer at this session included Women Made Gallery, Hyde Park Arts Center, 3Arts, and the Ford Foundation for their approaches to diversity and inclusion. Once the subject of racial equity was brought up, participants began to talk about the geographical divide between the North and South Sides of Chicago hindering the spread of information and resources. Closer to the end, the discussion focused on CAC’s role in shaping the narrative of a career in the arts. The widely used model of residencies, grants, and professional development available through CAC meant that many artists looked to them for guidance on making profitable and established artistic careers. 

The second session took place on a cloudy Tuesday evening in May at Build Coffee in Hyde Park. I later learned that after CAC’s positive experience hosting the Spark Info session earlier this year at the same venue, they decided to host another event in this location. I arrived a little past 6 pm, so I missed the introductions and I rushed to the empty seat between Older and the Director of Exhibitions and Residencies Teresa Silva. At this session about 60% of participants in attendance were people of color. Facilitated by Caroline Liu who is a painter and illustrator and Jaclyn Jacunski, an interdisciplinary artist, the session was off to a good start. The visuals of this listening session were a sharp contrast to the previous one. Build Coffee is a cozy spot at the end of a cul-de-sac in Hyde Park, soft music was playing and baristas were exchanging work banter in the background. We were a group of strangers hunched over two small brown wooden tables pushed together, elbows and shoulders almost touching, preparing to discuss racial equity in the arts. I walked in when participants were making introductions and sharing their relationship to CAC. A young black woman shared an anecdote on how she regained interest in painting when she saw a man with a canvas and paint in his yard making work. Now, she does the same thing in her yard hoping to inspire others. At this point, the man seated beside her jumped in recognizing the person from her story as a friend and mentor. He proceeded to talk about letting knowledge be the currency, and not racial, sexual or gender identification be the common ground between makers. A high school teacher remarked about tapping into networks of artists that already exist and partnering with them instead of creating new ones and in this way the conversation flowed like a game of tag; people spoke one after another sharing stories, observations and experiences. “I would like to know how to sustain my career as an artist and get money through a sponsorship not like grants but in the way you guys [at CAC] do,” a young black woman asked during the session and collective laughter followed it. This was a turning point in the session because some participants had come prepared with questions they wanted answered or information they were looking for from CAC. It also created a bridge between CAC staff, facilitators, and participants because up until now a large part of the session was made up of the participants talking and the CAC cohort doing the listening. This question drew them in. I also want to mention here that the Listening Session facilitator duo followed a somewhat diluted version of the good cop, bad cop format; one of them asked questions and lead discussion which disrupts the natural conversations (hence the bad cop) while the other is almost like an implant, sharing personal examples and helping participants model their responses to the questions. With this question, Liu played good cop, she shared an experience and credited some of her success to connections CAC made for her post-HATCH residency. Her anecdote was also an attempt at answering the question on sponsorship because she has worked with brands like Adidas, Vans, Goose Island, and Lululemon. Closer to the end, there was an urgency to finish on time, so Jacunski quickly went over her list of questions designed for the session. Everyone at this session stated that CAC’s current marketing strategy was reaching out to the same old audience over and over again and not really drawing in new crowds– it was starting to become a glass hallway which is a downside to the current trend of social media platforms that show targeted content based on an individual’s consumption. One heard about events at CAC only if they had previously subscribed to CAC’s news feed or knew someone who was showing or curating work there. Thus suggesting that an artist who is just starting out and has very little knowledge about CAC or connections in the Chicago art landscape would be least served by CAC. Two organizations mentioned for CAC to look to were Rebuild at Stony Island Arts Bank and Chicago Art Department in Pilsen. 

The third and final session took place on May 28, 2019 at the Chicago Artists Coalition venue on Fulton Street. This time the Director of Development and External Resources Mary DeYoe, welcomed the participants and introduced CAC’s work and facilitators to the participants. Nora Sharp, a performance artist, and Older herself (sitting in place of another artist and committee member who couldn’t make it) facilitated this final session. The conference room of the white cube gallery space had been re-adjusted to emulate the closeness from Build Coffee. This session had far more white participants and an older demographic in attendance but a good balance on the gender-front. Unlike the past two sessions, this time there were two separate tables instead of one combined setup and the facilitators worked independently instead of together. One of the tables had participants sitting uncomfortably close to each other, while the second table had more space between participants. 

At the table that Sharp was leading, the discussion opened by encouraging everyone to introduce themselves and share their relationship with CAC. One white participant exclaimed, “I am the problem, right, a cis white man?” and no one batted an eyelash. He continued to express the way he (a “cis white man,” he repeated) understood systemic racism which was due to the lack of diversity within management at art organizations and the lack of understanding (by him) around work being produced by artists of color. No one was able to respond to his claims and so, except for a few sympathetic nods, we remained silent and steel-eyed. However, in hindsight, this could have been a breakthrough in the discussion if anyone had been able to engage with him. Instead, Sharp steered the conversation in a different direction, inviting other participants to continue thinking about CAC’s public perception. One woman-identifying artist of color admitted she felt awkward and uncomfortable at most openings; the community didn’t feel inviting to her. She struggled to find her feet when it came to sharing her art in exchange for recognition and CAC wasn’t making it easier. She proceeded to add that she found the application process to residences at CAC more exhausting than making art itself. To her, the residencies offered by CAC were aimed mostly toward students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbia College, and the University of Chicago who were well-versed with form-filling and writing out long artist statements. The closest we got to talking about racial equity was when someone mentioned Chicago Community Darkroom as a model to look to for inclusion. The person who mentioned it described feeling welcome there given the low barriers to enter the space– it was relatively low cost, a useful resource, and a great space to meet other artists. 

Meanwhile, at the second table led by Older, the topic being discussed was equity and accessibility for those with disabilities. I joined this table closer to the end of the listening session, so I only caught the tail end which was predominantly about larger institutional spaces and how to make them even more accessible to their audiences. A significant number of participants who attended this session were administrators themselves at various other institutions across the city. If there had been any conversation around racial equity at either table, I missed it. However, what I did observe were the long silences between observations and comments. Some of the participants admitted they were present to observe how CAC was tackling this issue because they were wrestling with the same issues within their organization. Instead of offering responses, most of them were presenting their own questions and concerns at this session. Unlike the last two sessions, this one was pretty dry and restrictive in terms of quality content. 

***

“We wanted feedback  about our facilities, programs, [and] how welcoming we are with a focus on racial equity. I think it’s particularly important to hear from people who don’t know you or think you’re not for them. Right? And understand why,” Caroline Older explained to me when I sat down with her a few days after the first session. One of the first questions I asked her was if she had a vision for what she hoped to gain from the first Listening Session before she went into it. She tells me, “Because its our first time, yes and no. I laid out an agenda and then talked to Gibran [Villalobos] and Pooja [Pittie]. I am a very goal oriented person, so I like to think about what do we want to get out of this and how do we get there. Whereas Gibran is good at facilitating discussion and letting people take it where it goes. And then pulling out what’s pertinent and that’s an incredible skill.” As much as she had a concrete vision for what she wanted to get out of the session, she explained to me how this was a collective effort. She relied on her facilitators to gauge the mood of the participants and collect information for their research of CAC’s public perceptions with regards to racial equity. Older and I met after every session and she seemed most satisfied with the second session. This was for many reasons: the setup, the ease with which people were able to talk, and she also learned the most from this session because of how differently it was set up in comparison to the others. At this point, there was also an anticipation to use the things learnt from the first session to improve the outcome of the final sessions. 

The third session was the most unusual one because Older had applied the successful things she learned from the previous sessions but the large turnout of administrators and small one of artists meant the small shifts in setting became irrelevant to this new audience. “We [the participants of session three] are all white and trying to answer this question but not receiving feedback from the actual artists that we serve, ” she reflected. Just like after the first session, her dynamic nature meant she remained optimistic, “On the other hand, it points to a really important need in the arts administrator community of everyone looking at each other and asking how do we best do this outside of being involved with Enrich, outside of forming committees, is someone doing this really well that we can look at for an example and that is an equally important conversation.” When I asked her if she thought it had been a success overall, she said since there was very little to measure against (meaning that no other public sessions of this nature had been held by CAC before) it was hard to determine what a successful discussion on racial equity would have looked like. 

In addition to hosting these sessions, I learned that CAC has also been hosting a book club over lunch with staff members. At these book clubs, the staff collectively has read the White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DeAngelo and articles like The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates, as a way to facilitate conversations around racial equity within the staff on a regular basis. These discussions imply that staff at CAC want to take these conversations personally and outside the ivory tower of research and analysis. By engaging with it regularly as a group, they are able to break it down into more manageable pieces and reflect more closely in community. 

Image: A gallery view of the Shapack Family Galleries. A few pieces or work hang from the white walls as spotlights point in their direction. A few larger pieces are displayed on the concrete gallery floor. Straight ahead, a leafy green tree can be seen outside through the glass door that acts as entrance to the Chicago Artists Coalition building and the gallery space. Photo Courtesy of Chicago Artists Coalition.
Image: A gallery view of the Shapack Family Galleries inside the Chicago Artists Coalition building. A few pieces or work hang from the white walls as spotlights point in their direction. A few larger pieces are displayed on the concrete gallery floor. Straight ahead, a leafy green tree can be seen outside through the glass door that acts as entrance to the Chicago Artists Coalition building and the gallery space. Photo Courtesy of Chicago Artists Coalition.

Part III. The end: What comes next?

A lot of money and effort goes into sustaining an organization like the CAC whose goal isn’t purely, like a lot of smaller spaces, to show work and be a platform for artists to exhibit – it is also to create opportunity and facilitate access within the art world. Most of the money that is raised at CAC goes into overhead costs like rent, insurance, bills, and paying staff while also going into costs associated with providing facilities to exhibit and resources for residences and the community (such as the Listening Sessions). In an episode on NPR’s Ted Radio Hour, Guy Raz talks to Howard Stevenson about racial literacy which Stevenson describes as “the ability to read, recast and resolve a racially stressful encounter,” he adds that “racially literate conversations with our children can be healing, but it takes practice.” He goes on to describe a conversation he had with his son after George Zimmerman was acquitted for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin about  how his son could be perceived the same as Martin was in this scenario. It’s a charged conversation that he unpacks in the episode with Raz. However, the comfort with which Stevenson is able to talk to his son – about the way in which racism affects his everyday life – is often limited to these situations that sit on the periphery of racially charged situations (like the shooting itself). The conversations around inclusivity and diversity in the arts sit on the periphery of that periphery, which is what makes it a challenging topic to address, especially with a group of complete strangers. While I am able to trivialize some of the shortcomings of these Listening Sessions, I can appreciate the intention behind making room for conversation. Racism does not breed overnight nor does inclusion grow over the course of a few weeks, in fact it takes many years, multiple conversations, and many people for a big tangible change to occur. 

The Listening Sessions are proof that there aren’t enough open and honest platforms present for people to talk about and process what equity means, feels like, and looks like. Everyone at these sessions was able to agree that racial inequity exists, they’ve been to panels and watched organizations make committees to ‘tackle the problem’ but it mostly becomes about giving language to a problem that we all know exists. At these sessions, participants did a lot of placeholding by using euphemisms like ‘organizations that are already doing the work’ (smaller organizations made up of black and brown bodies), ‘community engagement’ (predominantly white organizations sharing their knowledge with predominantly POC communities), or ‘the system’ (current models of profitable museums, commercial galleries and foundations which dominate the art world). Since then, I have spent a lot of time thinking about these sessions. Is it unfair to consider these euphemisms a sign of progress? Could it be that we consider them successful because they have turned into formalized structures that force an organization to be inclusive? In fact, I think they’ve done the opposite which is to create another barrier for a person to cross or merely coined a new term for someone less ‘woke’ to learn. I could feel my perspective on racial equity shifting. I had never spent this much time outside of a classroom setting engaging in conversation with the executive director of an art space about the many reasons that make art organizations less inclusive and diverse. By taking the time to test within their own organization what and how a racially equitable and inclusive workforce could look like before implementing change, CAC’s Listening Sessions show us that the process of becoming a racially equitable organization or institution is not about checking a box or meeting some sort of pre-requirement with an x percentage of people of color.

Somewhere between attending the equity sessions and interviewing Older, I became aware of how I was subconsciously avoiding the subject of race in my own professional life or using socially acceptable terms like ‘person of color’ to describe my ethnicity. For instance, while writing this piece I spent a long time debating whether to include the races of the participants. I thought about the times I had deflected or shied away from discussions around my race or answering the eternal question, “Where are you from?” with honesty and pride. It forced me to reflect on interactions revolving around race that had gone awry. Older and I got to a point in our conversations where I was able to address race directly with her. She didn’t flinch the way white people do when the subject comes up. She was calm and continued to maintain eye contact with me and we even traded film recommendations of stories we thought tackled race well. As we dissected each Listening Session, we also compared notes on our own approaches when it comes to addressing race in our personal lives. For example, I told Older that maybe talking about race is easy when you have a close relationship, like that of a best friend whom you can call out on their faults and they will take it as healthy criticism instead of a personal affront. She agreed and told me that she was hoping to find ways to establish that kind of comfort and trust at the Listening Sessions in order for participants to be more honest. 

By the time we got to our last interview, we had earned each other’s trust and I was able to ask Older if there were things she had learned as a white woman leading an arts organization about equity since attending Enrich workshops, working in the art world for so many years, and after hosting CAC’s very own Listening Sessions. She told me that while she is hoping to hear from ALAANA artists, she isn’t expecting them to always be the ones that have to speak up and represent all artists of color. She has learned to become conscious of the emotional labor that people of color perform when they have to express or explain cultural or racial differences to white audiences. And she said it’s important to be willing to listen to feedback, even if it’s off-topic, because it opens your eyes to the needs of the arts community. 

I asked Older if there was an end goal or a benchmark that she was aiming for with the Listening Sessions and implementation of the strategic plan. She said, “I don’t think the work ever finishes. Just because we get our strategic plan done, doesn’t mean that we won’t need to constantly look and address how we operate to be diverse, equitable and inclusive.” The idea behind a strategic plan is not just to define goals for the future but also to make sure that employees, board members, audiences, staff, and other stakeholders also have an understanding of what the organization is working towards. By including racial equity in their next set of goals, CAC is making a commitment to be a more diverse and inclusive arts organization and setting the bar for others to follow.  

–x– 

Related reading/listening: 

Confronting Racism: Ted Radio Hour, 29 March, 2019, NPR: https://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/707189471/confronting-racism

Recommended Reading assembled by Enrich Chicago: https://www.enrichchi.org/recommended-reading

Featured Image: A crowd of people are gathered in one of the gallery spaces at Chicago Artists Coalition. Pieces of work are hung on the white walls and a larger piece hangs from the center of the room.  A few of the patrons talk to each other, while many are looking intensely at the works. Photo courtesy of Chicago Artists Coalition.


Image of writer Manisha AR

Manisha is a writer who graduated from the New Arts Journalism Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is interested in film, video, and performance art. She has written reviews for The South Side Weekly, Newcity Chicago and Chicago Artist Writers.