The cultural sector is seeking alternatives to business-as-usual. This article introduces a new series, titled “Remember the Future: Culture and Systems Change,” co-produced by Art.coop and NPQ. In this series, queer, trans, and BIPOC artists and cultural bearers reflect upon the unique role that culture has played and can play in activating and enacting structural change—and in building a solidarity economy.
Efforts to remedy historic race-based harms by prioritizing care for land, resources, people, and cultural expressions are flourishing. These efforts go by many names—solidarity economics, restorative economics, and just economics—to name a few. Whatever one calls them, they both represent an emergent economy while also building off the nation’s rich social movement history. Economic change is not only possible—it is already happening.
We are seeing growing numbers of economic initiatives in the arts that center solidarity economy efforts, which seek to prioritize people and sustainable community problem-solving ideas over profits. While the pace of change can be frustratingly slow, we are encouraged by growing interest in building a solidarity economy for artists.
In this movement, artists themselves are playing a leading role. In large measure, this movement has been spurred by economic necessity. As Natalia Linares and Caroline Woolard wrote two years ago in NPQ, “It’s clear that artists need a solidarity economy if we are to overcome our status as exploited workers.”
Too often, funders aim to create a harmonious society through diversity, equity, and inclusion practices that only put more people into problematic systems.
There are specific funding strategies that philanthropy can employ to shield artists from the capitalist market. These include supporting below-market loan financing, helping artists acquire affordable studio space and housing assistance, and assisting artists to form worker and producer cooperatives that can help them to achieve dignity at work and economic security.
Nonetheless, too many funding institutions continue to follow well-trodden paths when it comes to economic development and investments in the creative sector. Too often, funders aim to create a harmonious society through diversity, equity, and inclusion practices that only put more people into problematic systems. As Eliya Imtiaz, former managing editor of the “Michigan in Color” section of the Michigan Daily, put it last year, “Similar to most ideals in this country, the current notion of DEI heightens the façade that everything occurs on an individual level.” Or funders deploy capital in ways that, borrowing from Wall Street advisors, are more intent on institutional preservation than shifting power—a point Clara Miller powerfully made a couple of years ago in NPQ, when she wrote about how many of the same funders that had come together to support a community development financial institution to protect residents from foreclosure were investing in the very private equity firms that were the leading beneficiaries of the foreclosures.
Artists are essential to any vision that calls the future into question.
Artists and culture bearers are rejecting those superficial efforts and have some advice to offer. For instance, Art.coop and Grantmakers in the Arts are collaborating to educate funders about power-shifting and solidarity principles, creating shared language and frameworks that funders can draw on as they develop and implement funding strategies.
Artists are also highlighting the role that creative workers play in crafting a collective vision of a just, equitable economy. They are showing that they have the creativity, imagination, and courage to experiment in ways that can, when capitalized, transform culture and power. For example, in Memphis, Anasa Troutman, executive director of Historic Clayborn Temple, is creating new economic systems with artists at their center. Troutman insists, “Historic Clayborn Temple, and others like us, can teach philanthropy a few things.…Artists are essential to any vision that calls the future into question. An artist spends their whole life practicing how to…take something that looks one way and alchemize it.”
Anasa is right: Artists can indeed help philanthropy rethink its pace and purpose. This belief informs the work of our philanthropic organization, the Center for Cultural Innovation. As Linares and Woolard remind us, “There have never been radical movements without radical artists and creators at the helm.” We believe that funders must lend artists an ear and commit to act on more of what they hear from artists and arts workers who have people-first values at their moral core.
For example, CCI supports the Cooperative Community of New West Jackson in Jackson, MS, a grassroots effort to build a sustainable community by securing property in a community land trust. The community is incubating cooperative enterprises based on leveraging the untapped skills of residents, rooted in members’ art and creativity. As Nia Umoja, lead coordinator of the efforts, has explained, the goal is to mobilize residents’ untapped agricultural and construction backgrounds to transform abandoned property into urban farming and cultural spaces, including a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, housing rehabilitation, guest house management, and an arts studio. As Sarah Westlake wrote for ArtPlace America, “residents are learning how to add their own forms of artistic and cultural expression to the aesthetic of each creative reuse strategy and are beginning to understand that they have the ability to lead their own revitalization efforts.”
A related example on this theme: two artists—Victoria Jones, executive director of the Black arts organization, TONE, and James Dukes, CEO of the Memphis-based record label, Unapologetic—are working with the Community Development Corporation of Orange Mound to purchase and develop a seven-acre site that will be owned by a community-based organization, such as a landholding cooperative or community land trust, and will provide resources and places for artists to work and create.
What magic might unfold if more funders chose to imagine and plot with people like Jones and Dukes?
James Baldwin once said: “Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.” Though people often say that economic systems that honor people and our planet will never work—the phrase “there is no alternative” has long been a refrain—or that alternatives are too risky, or that artists and culture bearers are “peripheral” to our economy and quality of life, plenty of historic and contemporary examples suggest otherwise. African Americans’ central involvement in the US cooperative movement as described by scholar Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard, many Indigenous practices and traditions, past and present, sou sous, mutual aid efforts, community land trusts, and more recent successful capital raises and cultural activations for the Boston Ujima Project and East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative (Oakland), which seek to shift power, capital, and ownership to BIPOC communities, are just a few.
Our current system of neoliberal racial capitalism is designed to perpetuate inequalities. Finding the offramp from this economy to one that serves all can be difficult work. Systems are like walls; they don’t come down easily or by themselves. If we are paying attention, however, there are guides to help with this work. Artists most affected by historic and systemic harms are showing us how to imagine and build paths to a better world, and one that will benefit us all.
Artists and culture bearers are showing that they have the creativity, imagination, and courage to experiment in ways that can, when capitalized, transform culture and power.
Some of these artists’ voices and stories are featured in this series, co-organized by NPQ and art.coop. For example, a writer from the Applied Mechanics Collective in Philadelphia describes how the collective is not only artist-run and -operated, but it is also producing public artistic performances rooted in speculative fiction to tell stories that open the imagination to visions of radical self-governance and conflict resolution. Another article tells of a partnership in Western Massachusetts between a theater company and a Native cultural center that supports the Nipmuc nation both by building the local Indigenous economy and supporting youth education in Nipmuc values. A third article illustrates the many connections between cooperatives, the arts today, and African historical traditions. More broadly, the final author in the series suggests that through their many contributions, artists are showing us a way towards liberation.
There is, in short, much movement afoot. Of course, no one can predict when a fundamental economic shift will happen. But two facts suggest that systemic change may occur sooner than most think: the economy doesn’t work for most people, and it doesn’t work for the Earth. Artists and culture bearers are showing that they have the creativity, imagination, and courage to experiment in ways that can, when capitalized, transform culture and power. Society may be undergoing such a shift. What we learn from it will be determined by our openness to problem solvers who seek liberation, equitable wealth distribution, and the ability of communities to direct their destiny.