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Tacoma commission alters application that excluded white artists

An invitation from the Tacoma Arts Commission calling for artist submissions from people of color was altered Monday after the agency received negative feedback from Dori Monson Show listeners. The listeners questioned the exclusion of white artists. Whether the change was necessary or not is another issue.

One of Dori’s listeners asked about a posting from the Commission that called for Pierce County artists to submit original artwork for the People’s Community Center Portable Artwork Collection. Eligibility for this one particular project included being an artist of color. The application has since been changed to open eligibility, with priority given “to artists of color with ties to the Hilltop community.”

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Prior to the alteration, though, a listener asked Dori whether it’s legal for a government to exclude white artists in a solicitation? And Dori, too, shared the gap in understanding about the need to seek artists of color, seemingly excluding white artists.

Dori wasn’t sure, so he called Tacoma Arts Commission Administrator Amy McBride. She explained that the City of Tacoma has a “commitment to equity and inclusiveness” and that the goal is to identify where there are gaps and where people aren’t getting access.

“And this is a specific strategy on a specific project to address a gap that we found glaring,” she said.

In 1998, Washington state voters approved I-200, which targeted affirmative action programs. It added language to Washington law that said public entities will not discriminate or give preference to any persons based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting. It is unclear how it would relate to such art projects as the one in Tacoma.

MyNorthwest reached out to Peter Lavalle, with the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, who said he had not seen the Tacoma posting but issued the following response:

Generally, places of public accommodation, including government offices that provide benefits or services to the public, must provide services on a nondiscriminatory basis. The public accommodations provisions of the Washington Law Against Discrimination are RCW 49.60.030(1)(b) and RCW 49.60.215. Under these provisions, governments cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin by creating opportunities that are limited to certain racial or ethnic groups.

White artists and inclusiveness

McBride explained that most every solicitation is inclusive of all artists but that in a recent call for mural artists, the roster didn’t include any African Americans and “only one, maybe two artists” of color within the whole batch.

“Community members were very concerned about that and we had to take some time to say, ‘Wait a second. What do we need to do bridge that gap? What are we doing that isn’t reaching those people?’” she said. “And sometimes you have to make a shift to say, OK, we have to have a strategy that allows this specific set of folks who maybe thought they could apply or didn’t have any chance to, to let them know that we’re serious about being inclusive to them.”

Dori countered that the original solicitation seemed to make it clear that the application is inclusive of everybody and that “it’s certainly not your guys’ fault the demographics of who responds.” McBride disagreed.

“Well, I think as an institution it is. I think we need to be proactive …” she said. “We’ve been saying for years, ‘Well, we put it out there, anybody could apply if they wanted to and then a lot of people don’t.’”

“And then, we as an institution, I believe, need to say, ‘What can we do differently to make sure we’re getting this out to everybody so that they feel like they can have access?’” McBride said. “And sometimes I believe it needs to be explicit so that we actually end up opening the pool even broader to more people than we do if we just do the regular order of business all the time. And it’s a strategy to accomplish that. And it’s a small amount of resources to really kind of act as a training program. I want access to talent. I want to know who is out there who hasn’t been coming to the trough, so to speak.”

With all that said, McBride was unsure as to the legality of excluding white artists in this solicitation.

“I don’t know if it’s right or wrong. It’s just a strategy to try to actually be more inclusive in the long run,” she told Dori. “So if it’s a legal issue I suppose I could look into that or we could change the language and make it open to anybody who wants to, but the focus of this call will be around increasing access by artists of color.”

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After the show aired, McBride told MyNorthwest that she received multiple calls — including a couple “mean ones” — of people being upset about this posting, so they changed the language.

“Anyone who wants to apply is not precluded,” she said.

As she told Dori, though, the invitation was meant as an innocent way to increase inclusivity.

“I believe it’s just a small strategy to try to increase the pool of people who believe that they can have access to what we’re funding and what we’re doing and it’s just one pilot small project to try to do that in a neighborhood that has a history of African American residency and legacy,” she told Dori. “So it’s kind of specific to that spot.”

Richard Oxley contributed to this story.

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