Recently I participated on two funding panels: the National Endowment for the Arts for theater projects and a California foundation for commissioning new music. Artistic excellence was a key criterion on both panels.
Defining quality used to be easy, although taste was always a mitigating factor. Now in our multicultural society, it is more complex. No longer can we calibrate merit solely through a Eurocentric framework.
Experts on my theater panel reviewed applications from ensembles with budgets in the tens of thousands to those with budgets in the tens of millions. Projects included amateurs learning to tell their own stories , alongside avant-garde works, free Shakespeare, revivals of classics, puppet tales, new scripts, site specific and culturally specific productions. Communities served included Latino, African American, LGBT, elderly, children, the incarcerated, and homeless in urban, inner city, and rural locations.
Music panelists judged choral, electronic, jazz, and orchestral proposals against Balinese Gamelan and East Indian vocal projects. String quartets competed with a Tibetan music master, Ghanaian drummer, Turkish singer, and Beijing Opera performer. Projects ranged from minimalist to the operatic, traditional proscenium-based concerts to multidisciplinary extravaganzas.
There were limited dollars to grant, so competition was steep in both panels. Excellence mattered, and there was no lack of artistic excellence, but quality had to be judged through multiple worldviews and experiences. Panelists came from varied aesthetics, ethnicities, generations and geographies to allow for a fair review of the proposals. Equity and parity, as well as cultural competency factored into our decision-making.
Liking an artist or project was not sufficient. Listening and learning from one another’s comments were vital as we navigated beyond personal taste. Context matters, traditions are essential, and community is crucial.
Colleagues approached proposals from multiple perspectives as we discussed the value of each application. For some projects, I was an advocate, others I deferred to those with more relevant information. Ultimately, group wisdom prevailed and distinctive proposals were recommended for support.
Back home in Vermont, definitions of culture are also transforming. As Burlington is now a refugee resettlement center, we are experiencing an influx of new immigrants. At Burlington High School, 29% of the students speak a language other than English at home.
As our communities grow and change, so too must artistic offerings evolve to be more reflective of many traditions. Diverse forms of dance, theater, music, film, and visual arts must be nurtured and cultural pluralism celebrated through multiple histories, thus allowing all residents to lead more expressive lives.