I had the opportunity to hear urban theorist and former mayor of Bogotá Enrique Peñalosa speak this week about his vision for more sustainable and egalitarian cities. He is a public transportation and urban greenspace evangelist. One of the basic concepts he espouses is that in an egalitarian society, because every bus rider is equal to every car driver, a bus with eighty passengers should be given eighty times the road space of car with a single driver. Further, bicycles in motion should be given higher priority than cars that are parked.
In Bogotá, this meant dedicated bus lanes; it meant bike lanes protected from automobile traffic by a median for parked cars; it meant bike lanes and sidewalks were paved before parking lanes. Peñalosa talked not only of egalitarianism, but of valuing human life and human lifestyle over that of cars. His transportation policies reflected his values.
While listening to Peñalosa’s talk, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the recent provocative posts by Clayton Lord, Diane Ragsdale, and Barry Hessenius about valuing (versus managing) diversity and how the policies of arts organizations and funders might – or might not – reflect the values they espouse. What could be the arts programming analogs to Peñalosa’s bus and bike lanes? One response is to have, as many cities do, culturally specific arts organizations that serve culturally specific communities (bikers served by bike lanes; bus riders by bus lanes). Funding organizations would, as Peñalosa did, fund these organizations first, before funding the parked cars (what Diane referred to as “reluctant dragons”).
Yet more radical would be adopting a philosophy not of “diversity” but of “egalitarianism.” There is a tendency not only to maintain flagship “institutions” but also flagship “forms.” In a more egalitarian city, arts organizations would not shoe-horn plays by or exhibits featuring African-American artists onto stages and museums in February but would consider the spoken word poet and the operatic tenor as equals, the former training with mentors for ten years on the street, the latter for ten years in a music conservatory. Why should I, from my position of white liberal privilege (see Ian David Moss on that one), be allowed to espouse that one type of Greco-Euro-Anglo derived form of art is better – or for that matter worse – than the Afro-Caribbean or Indo-Asian art of my neighbors? I should not be. Similarly, funding entities should not be allowed to privilege one form of art over another except insofar as their mission requires them to do so.
My point is this: perhaps it is time to stop talking about diversity and start talking about equality – equality of participation, equality of access, and equality of value.