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Opinion | David C. Howse and David Dower

Put the spotlight on arts in Boston’s conversation on race

The Spotlight series on racism in Boston lays out painful truths that too many of us would prefer to deny or deflect.

An additional chapter could be written on the arts sector.

The arts community has shown an admirable commitment to highlighting Boston’s rich diversity and addressing inequities through art, and in risking the messy conversations that come with that. Race was at the center of the recent debate around the Institute of Contemporary Art’s presentation of artist Dana Schutz, following the display of her controversial portrait of Emmett Till at the Whitney Museum in New York. Hosted by ArtsEmerson, the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre overflowed when playwright Claudia Rankine explored “whiteness” from the stage. The American Repertory Theater’s presentation of Anna Deavere Smith’s “Notes from the Field” invited audiences to participate in small-group discussions about the school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionately impacts black communities.

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Smaller arts organizations have also been bold in provoking conversations about social and racial injustice, from Company One’s production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s “An Octoroon” to the Boston Children’s Chorus singing about the gruesome death of Emmett Till at their annual Martin Luther King Jr. concert.

And the arts sector has found willing and productive partnerships with a number of city departments in approaching the challenges of race and equity in Boston. But even acknowledging the significant ways that arts institutions large and small have pushed the conversation forward, the arts are not exempt from the impact of racism. Funding is disproportionately distributed to large institutions whose audiences are overwhelmingly white, while small, cultural-specific organizations struggle to pay bills. Crucial parts of the arts ecology are chronically overlooked — by both the media and local donors — including longstanding institutions like The Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, the Strand Theatre in Uphams Corner, and Hibernian Hall in Roxbury.

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Meanwhile, the ranks of decision makers at the executive and board levels of arts organizations show the same white homogeneity as in the city’s businesses and government. Eloquent as these leaders are, those most directly in the path of the presidential election’s destructive consequences were not heard.

Yes, racism is pervasive in the arts sector. And yet the arts provide a vehicle to expose and reckon with it.

Research shows that “cultural participation builds bridges across neighborhood, ethnic, and class divides in ways that many other forms of civic engagement do not.” Large cultural institutions and vibrant community-based organizations alike show the city to itself, much as the Globe has done with this series. Boston’s stages, museums, and cultural venues invite the city to celebrate its rich diversity — and also to grapple with the truth about who we are. Artists are uniquely positioned to help the people of Boston learn, transform, and heal.

Boston’s arts organizations have begun our parts in this effort, but have much further to go. And we must persist. The decisions that we make in our organizations — the people, the art, the artists — display our values for Bostonians, along with thousands of visitors, to see.

Putting arts at the center of our most vexing conversations is a crucial part of the path ahead.


David C. Howse is executive director and David Dower is artistic director of ArtsEmerson.