We are living in trying times. First Covid-19, now the righteous upswell of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to police brutality and generations of institutional and structural racism. Our cities will be in crisis for the foreseeable future. As mayors, your residents are looking to you to lead, to listen, and chart a course forward which centers Black, Indigenous, and People of Color that have been most impacted by systemic racism. You have a powerful tool at your disposal if you choose to use it. The arts and culture are one of the few things that can still unite us. They are humanity’s universal language in a time of crisis that is calling out for racial healing and equity.
We have all experienced the power of the arts to heal and unite. From joyful tears of listening to emotional poetry reading to the discomfort of watching a one-act play depicting domestic abuse. In both cases, and everything in between, the arts have the power not only to educate but also to steer us to action and to crystalize what must be done. Artists are powerful community leaders. They know and feel the emotional pulses of their neighborhood, and they can translate that to a mural, a play, a protest song, or a poem that calls people together, gives hope, and provides a path forward.
As Americans for the Arts wrote in our own statement on June 1, “We will continue to advocate for, lift up, and stand beside the artists, cultural activists, and arts professionals who work toward changing long-standing systems of power so that Black people are granted equal privilege and access and are free from threat and violence.”
We urge you, as city leaders, to do the same, for it is not only the right thing to do, but it is also one of the best ways to begin the process of healing and change. The arts have a long and deep history of being a platform for both dialogue and healing, discord, and unity. It maintains a unique and human place in shining a spotlight on inequities and injustice. Art unapologetically holds up the mirror to our society, our actions, our ideals and our fears. Art is the soul of a community.
In response to some of the protests following the murder of George Floyd, cities like Oakland have activated funding to support “breathing space and idea generation for what a just Oakland could look like, feel like, and be”. In their announcement on June 15, “Belonging in Oakland: A Just City Cultural Fund is a new multi-year program that will fund cultural practitioners of color to radically reimagine a racially just city.
An art project entitled “Their Names” represents roughly 28,000 names of individuals who have had fatal encounters with the police. Some 6,000 of the victims are Black. This project brings a humanity to the stark reality and forces us to reckon with the truth. This is the power of art. This is the role art can have in society and change.
As you gather your advisory councils to chart your course through this crisis, make sure you include your city’s artists. They will bring with them innovative ideas to unite and allow your city to equitably come back together in a way to involve all of your city’s residents. Artists give voice to movements. Embrace them, support them and make space for them. Your community will benefit.
About the Authors
Jay Dick, Senior Director of State and Local Government Affairs, Americans for the Arts
Ruby Lopez Harper, Senior Director of Local Arts Advancement, Americans for the Arts