Diversity, Equality, Bus Lanes, and Arts

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.

Excerpted from "Endless Cities"

See Penalosa, “Endless Cities”

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.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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10 Responses to Diversity, Equality, Bus Lanes, and Arts

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  7. The words “egalitarianism” and “democratic” have been popping up on every art policy website over the last year. They are used along side other terms such as “diversity” and “inclusion” – hopeful sounding attempts to envision a new purpose for art organizations.
    As funding sources such as the NEA and the James Irvine Foundation continue to change the focus from Art itself to social engagement with art you can see one art advocate after another beginning to use this new language.
    The problem is that Art (which is what this is suppose to be all about) isn’t made with democracy in mind. It’s easy to sound admirable by saying “Greco-Euro-Anglo” art work ( that old white stuffy stuff) should be no more or less than “Afro-Caribbean or Indo-Asian” work (that fun colorful exotic stuff). But if you are going to insist on egalitarianism what about hand painted Nascar t-shirts? Do museum gift shops need to sell Hustle magazine along side books on Manet? Would summer concert series have to include a performance by each and every kind of ethnic music style to qualify for a funding grant?
    Ok, maybe my examples are extreme but my point is this – If you insist that the art programs that will get the funds to survive be “egalitarian” (i’m still not sure what they even means) then it seems you are asking to set “quality” up on the shelf. Does the Bowling Pin Museum deserve a proportionally equal amount of funding as the Metropolitan Museum of Art? And more to the point how is that decision going to be made in this new egalitarian world?

  8. Herb Paine says:

    Linda, brava! I admire the way you’ve framed this issue and believe that it merits considerable in-depth discussion as it relates to social-political impediments to promote egalitarianism, the nearsighted priorities of public and private sector funders (often limited by donor intent and politics), and the implications for artists and arts organizations to sustain themselves and their media. My take is that a breakthrough on this matter requires a radical rethinking of the structural arrangements and financing mechanisms for arts and culture. I like that you use the term “creative infrastructure” because it gets us away from a disproportionate focus on entrepreneurialism. Rather, we might consider that the ends of public and social policy are about cultivating environments in which experimental and conventional forms have the opportunity to present themselves and subject themselves to the preferences and tastes of their audiences. For example, as Malraux redefined the “museum,” so might we reformulate the notions of “venue” in order to make arts affordable and accessible. We might also discount the emphasis on quality and focus on appeal. Not all art forms will have equal appeal to all but that each has appeal to some should not preempt them from access to the arts-transportation highway. Finally, with reference to your point that “funding entities should not be allowed to privilege one form of art over another except insofar as their mission requires them to do so:’ Notwithstanding the restrictions on funding entities to honor donor intent, your point is well taken. No recent event attests to your point as well as the direction of the City of Phoenix to grant special emphasis to the so-called “majors” on the premise that symphony, ballet, and opera are the sine qua nons of a rich cultural life — or for the leadership of those organizations to proclaim that they are more equal than others. Current public policy does privilege a select few while offering shall we say token support on behalf of diversity — all the while with the reality that each is financially and operationally vulnerable. No way to build a culturally creative community!

  9. Deb Gilpin says:

    Fascinating to think how this would play out in our community!

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