Written by Sandra Blake
In April, I attended the Kennedy Center Arts Summit, hosted by the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. The Arts Summit bills itself as an event “designed to bring thought leaders from the arts and related fields together for conversation and connection… The 2016 edition of the Summit will focus on Citizen Artistry, the idea of using the arts to influence positive change in people’s lives. Together, we will examine this idea, and its application in today’s society…”
Did the Arts Forum live up to this ideal, especially through the lens of addressing gender bias in the arts?
What is the Arts Forum?
The Forum itself was a beautiful, even opulent, event. Event-branded hot drink thermoses, delicious foods, and relaxing interior meeting rooms gave the event a feeling of importance. The attendees included celebrities from all fields of the arts, heightening the event’s legitimacy.
The co-hosts were the world-loved Renee Fleming, known principally as a classical singer of opera, and Yo-Yo Ma, the household name and international cellist, founder of the Silk Road Ensemble. The Ensemble performed live to everyone’s delight and seemed to be composed of as many women as men.
The morning plenary session was made up of presenters and panelists, including established performing artists and leaders in other fields. Alice Waters, popular chef, author, and food activist located in California, and Dr. Corinna Lathan, founder of a biomedical engineering research and development company were just a couple of these panelists.
The afternoon was organized into breakout sessions of the stated Kennedy ideals: service, gratitude, innovation, creativity, exploration, freedom, courage, and justice (more on this below).
The evening was capped off by a reception in the atrium. The guests, bite-sized munchies in hand, were treated to the piece de resistance: Renee Fleming on the raised stage singing jazz numbers while accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma.
There is no arguing that, as an event, the second Kennedy Center Arts Forum was first rate and magnificently executed.
How was the content?
While the event was lavish and well-executed, I am afraid that the content fell short, especially when viewed through the lens of addressing gender bias in the arts.
The morning events started by addressing the topic of “Activating Citizen Artists.” This topic became somewhat muddled in my mind. Forum speakers asked questions like, “What is a Citizen Artist?” “How can we collectively mobilize Citizen Artists to change the world?” “What can we do individually to live our lives as Citizen Artists?” “How can the Kennedy Center support Citizen Artists?” I wasn’t always sure whether we were absorbing the concept of artists as citizens, or of citizens as artists. While the topic was thoughtful, the speakers, for me, did not sufficiently offer answers to the questions they raised or suggest adequate actions for implementing the concept into our own lives.
The ratio of male to female speakers in the A.M. sessions was also discouraging. The program pages revealed that of “Featured Participants,” 19 were male and only 8 were female, a ratio of more than 2-to-1.
As I mentioned above, the afternoon was organized into breakout sessions of the stated Kennedy ideals:
1. Service – How can we encourage more artists to act as social entrepreneurs?
2. Gratitude – How do the arts transform healing?
3. Innovation – What are arts-driven pathways to invention and exploration?
4. Creativity – What are the preconditions for creativity?
5. Exploration – What are new frontiers for the arts in technology and business?
6. Freedom – What is the playbook for putting the arts at the core of education?
7. Courage – How can the arts help us to address our biggest social challenges?
8. Moonshots – What should cultural institutions look like in 2050?
I chose the ideal of “Courage,” thinking that the topic was most likely to touch on the issue of gender bias and equality. While I was hoping for discussion, the breakout session turned out to be a solo presentation. The topic exclusively addressed the experience of people with disabilities in the theater. While people with disabilities certainly do experience discrimination and bias in the theater, they are certainly not the only group to do so. Women artists and creators are still greatly underrepresented in the arts, and representations of women in theater often carry a negative bias.
I would have liked for the topic of “Courage,” especially in the context of addressing our social challenges, to be inclusive of many issues that face our society, including the challenges that women in the arts, including theater, encounter on a daily basis.
The issue of gender bias was not addressed at any point in the Arts Forum, which is a major loss for both the Arts Forum and for women in all aspects of the arts. We are only going be able to overcome the gender bias that exists within the arts by acknowledging and attacking the issue.
What is the Take Away?
The Kennedy Center Arts Summit is a wonderful event with lofty goals, but there is certainly room for improvement, starting with the inclusion of gender issues and representation in at least some of the discussions. It also remains to be seen whether the event is just a forum for discussion and think-pieces, or if people will be spurred to actually take action and create change.
During the reception, each participant was photographed with a written reminder of their goals within the arts. As you can see from my photo below, I will continue to fight for awareness of gender bias in the arts, and that includes have the topic addressed at next year’s Arts Summit.