SphinxCon: Quick and Dirty First Thoughts

Feb 24, 2013 | Events

I attended the inaugural SphinxCon  last weekend. Sphinx Organization founder and SphinxCon creator and host Aaron Dworkin pointedly and repeatedly clarified that a) the “con” in SphinxCon refers to the conversations he hoped the event enabled not necessarily to the idea of conference (as many of us probably assumed) and b) this inagural event was meant only to serve as the start of or catalyst for that conversation. At the risk of  understatement, I agree that the “conversation” about diversity in the performing arts is underdeveloped and uneven and want to do my part to sustain it and keep it productive. I’m grateful though, that I have other venues for doing this (my scholarship, my practice as director of the Center for Black Music Research, my growing sense of self as an archives activist) because I’m having a really difficult time writing up a “response piece” to the SphinxCon itself.

The topic is complex  and there have been many people sharing thoughts and opinions on diversity in the arts (at SphinxCon, in the blogosphere over the past couple of weeks, and elsewhere).  I am realizing that it will take me time beyond this post to sort through and follow particular threads of arguments. For now, the best I can do is offer some of what I’ve read so far and at least some initial thoughts in response to my experience at SphinxCon. Sarah Perry Wilson of FundWrite offers a nice overview here.

The Arts Blogosphere as Site with High Potential for Increased Diversity

Several of the higher profile arts bloggers have been busy with the topic of diversity lately. This is great and many important issues being raised with candor and thoughtfulness. My dear old brainiac AMC colleague Ian David Moss has been writing at his blog Createquity and if you check out his post, you’ll find links to some of the other members of the arts blog crew doing the same: Diane Ragsdale, Clayton Lord and others. Gladly, Nina Simon points up one of the glaring issues that comes to mind: in addition to arts audiences, arts programming, arts leadership etc, neither is the arts blogosphere as diverse as it could be. She makes an effort here to point to sources of information and ideas about diversity in the arts beyond the bubble. What other blogs are out there that I/we should know about?

Terminological Ambivalence

As I mentioned in my SphinxCon presentation, diversity in the (performing) arts is “always-already.” We all agree it is ‘good to have’ but we talk about it as though it is a limited resource, additive, ultimately finite. Critical race theorist Sara Ahmed calls these kinds of acts or language about diversity non-performatives meaning that they don’t do what they say they are doing. That ultimately , they maintain what is supposedly being redressed. Diversity as scarcity or as something only some of us do some of the time. Other non-performatives or words that are often used in ways that strengthen us/them; in/out; power/not or less; funded/chronically underfunded dichotomies include: Inclusion, Community, culturally-specific, outreach…

What ways have you found around the non-performativity or terminological ambivalence these kinds of words create?

Suggested (mandatory) reading:On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life by Sara Ahmed

Where My Ladies At?

The most powerful moments of the conference for me involved meeting and hearing the wisdom of so many women of color who are making a difference through the arts. Experiencing that as reality was perhaps the most powerful motivation for keeping up work that can seem sisysphean.

Thank you Jawole Willa Jo Zollar for the history lesson. For reminding us that collaboration–as a mutual listening process (not compromise)–is work, is active, and is exactly where the breakthroughs happen. For giving the shout out to archives! For outlining a full, meaningful and LIVED definition of community that we would all do well to refer to when we start in on that “diversity/outreach” talk (see above).

Thank you Maria Bauman for entering the conversation with humility but also inspiring confidence born of strength and truth and for dancing the best argument all weekend.

Thank you Toni-Marie Montgomery for holding it down in the highest tiers of higher ed admin.

Thank you Farai Chideya for putting the “always-already” of diversity in the arts into historical perspective.

Thank you Sandra Gibson for reminding us that true arts democracy comes from not just diversity recruiting for positions of arts leadership but ensuring that those in the positions have the power and authority to effect change.

Thank you Maria Rosario Jackson for your idea of “cultural kitchens” as spaces that create the possibility of/opportunity for cultural self-determination.

Thank you lunchtime and twitter crews for important reminders about where the best conversations happen.

Thanks of course Aaron, for creating the space in which some important initial conversations could happen. I look forward to more…




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