Equitable Grantmaking in Practice: Artists as the Genesis of An Inclusive Creative Ecology

Gargi Shindé // BRUSHSTROKES
Chamber Music America

Gargi Shindé: Gargi is Program Director for Jazz at Chamber Music America. She leads three programs distributing over $3.1 million in support for creation, presentation, touring, and ensemble development in the field of jazz. She recently launched CMA’s Performance Plus program, supporting women bandleaders by creating apprenticeship opportunities with veteran jazz icons. She is a contributor to “RE-Tool: Racial Equity in the Panel Process,” a resource to achieve racial equity in the grants review and selection process of artists and arts organizations. Gargi has over a decade of experience in arts education, program curation, and artist development. She has lectured on classical Indian performance history and the aesthetics of improvisation at conferences in the United Kingdom, Spain, Canada, and the United States. Gargi is a classically trained sitarist and composer, whose collaborations bridge Indian classical music and the traditions of jazz.


The focus of my work as Program Director for Jazz at Chamber Music America (CMA)[1] involves tackling systems of absencing, which beleaguer US institutional frameworks. With the exception of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which launched the Doris Duke Ensembles Project, jazz –America’s heritage art form—is a diminished priority in an approximately $20 billion national arts philanthropy portfolio. Furthermore, Black and Latinx composers and performers, the originators and innovators of this music, are conspicuously absent from commissioning programs and grant support for presentation, touring, and audience development, especially the cultivation of Black and Latinx jazz audiences across the US. CMA’s own flagship commissioning program, New Jazz Works, which awards up to $37,000 to a single jazz composer-bandleader, has never commissioned a Latina composer in its twenty-two year history. Of the program’s 234 commissioned works, less than 3 percent are created by Black female composers.

Faced with an untenable future, CMA’s Board of Directors began discussing issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity and how they relate to the organization’s overall impact in the small ensemble music field. Our Statement of Commitment, adopted in 2017 states, “CMA believes that there is a fundamental difference between inviting ALAANA[2] communities into a Western European-based structure and revising the structure itself to include ALAANA musicians, presenters, composers, and others in the field to fully benefit as active participants in the organization” (CMA 2017). Equipped with only anecdotal or unverified data on the racial composition of its membership, grant applicants,[3] panelists, grant recipients, board of directors, leadership and staff, we needed to rapidly activate a method of self-identification in order to examine the organization’s programs, services, publications and communication channels to fully understand the people who create, perform, and present these music traditions. The jazz program became the pivotal benchmark for us to gauge progress.

Jazz presents a unique sociological lineage. Its genealogy is inextricably linked with systems of oppression, and the experience of marginalization and exclusion. The infinite and awesome original repertoire created by Black and Latinx artists in this music, to capture Homi Bhabha, remains a persistent intervention “in those ideological discourses of modernity that attempt to give a “hegemonic ‘normality’ to the uneven development and the differential, often disadvantaged, histories of nations, races, communities, peoples.” Yet its institutional appropriation by the academy, its absorption into Western European classical aesthetics, jazz criticism, and patronage have virtually written out its multicultural, syncretic encounters in aesthetic development – the spirituality of jazz as it were. Apart from the commodification of yoga perhaps, it would be hard to come up with an example of a practice so completely untethered from its cultural roots.

So, how would CMA go about instilling inclusivity in the funding landscape when grants selection processes were established through the framework of the Western European classical conservatory model of excellence? How would we assess the very notion of excellence? Whose practice determines innovation in this music? What is the value of receiving a substantial commission, the privilege of unencumbered creativity in a largely unregulated performance industry? With the conservatory divide in jazz pedagogy, which artist groups historically have received the information, the know-how to enter the institutional systems of arts funding, the privilege to receive the financial endorsement, and the eventual entry into the greater mainstream cultural narrative? Interrogating equity thus became the starting point.

In search for answers, I was guided by alternative modes of documenting jazz. Photographs of iconic artists as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell brutally beaten by police just moments after a performance or pivotal studio session, force us to confront the circumstances of creative production and artistic realization. In the zeitgeist of the Black Lives Matter movement, several contemporary and millennial black jazz artists including Terence Blanchard (Breathless), Greg Lewis (The Breathe Suite), Samora Pinderhughes (The Transformations Suite, The Healing Project) and Christian Scott (K.K.P.D/ Ku Klux Police Department) remind us that for Black jazz artists and audiences, artistic creation and reception does not merely begin and end at its aesthetic parameters. To evoke Bhabha again, “it forces us to confront the concept of culture beyond the canonization of the “idea” of aesthetics, to engage with culture …produced in the act of social survival.” Artists are themselves dynamic, living archives rarely factored into mainstream narratives of jazz. Pianist Don Pullen and drummer Andrew Cyrille, two of jazz’s most iconic innovators, as young artists, performed for the domestic staff of the mansions of East Hampton, NY, which were comprised entirely of black women at the time, until those bars closed. Where does the legitimacy of excellence formed by an authentic and robust audience of Black female, domestic workers factor into the juggernaut of art music criticism and tastemaking?

The metaphor expanded includes many untold or interrupted stories, such as New Orleans and Puerto Rico: records, tools, instruments, compositions, and entire oral histories lost in displacement and environmental devastation; entire creative habitats undone; audiences wiped out. Under what circumstances are these master artists producing excellence, while simultaneously finding themselves absent from the larger momentum shaping the American cultural landscape? The possibility then for CMA to commission iconic artists, such as Andrew Cyrille, Wayne Shorter, David Murray, Nicole Mitchell, Dafnis Prieto and Oscar Hernandez, has its foundation in unraveling vertical constructs of culture: notions that have not only undermined sustainability for the individual artist, but also contributed an artifice in place of an authentic grasp of aesthetic development.

At the end of American Composers Forum’s day-long Racial Equity and Inclusion Forum in Minnesota (American Composers Forum 2019),[4] President and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, Jesse Rosen, addressed the following proposition presented by an audience member: “There is a systematic problem of both unintended bias and blatant racism in orchestras who [sic] don’t really want change, particularly audiences and boards….” Rosen acquiesced, “Orchestras have a lot to answer for, there’s no question about that. We have a history of active discrimination in our field, and we’re living the legacy of that impact … deep and extensive … there’s no mistake about that. And there are many people in orchestras who still like it to be pretty much the way it’s been, and are not really advocating for change.” Orchestras, according to a 2018 New York Times article, are among America’s least racially diverse institutions (Cooper 2018). In a 2014 study, African American musicians made up only 1.8 percent of the nation’s players. In a recent blog post, “Black Classical Composers Making News; Now Activate the Audiences,” audience development expert Donna Walker Kuhne (2019) recounts a music critic’s observation on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s performance of flutist and composer Valerie Coleman’s Umoja, Anthem for Unity. “That it took it 120 years of actively commissioning composers before landing on this demographic says a lot about how little the orchestra has noticed the city it has lived in all this time.” It was the first time the orchestra had ever performed a classical work by a living African-American female composer.

Rosen’s concluding remarks at the Equity Forum, in contrast, did not offer a promise of change nor an intervention for an inclusive future of the orchestral world; rather, he proceeded to defend the exclusionary nature of symphonic music: “Why do orchestras want to play dead white music? One of the reasons is that people want to hear it. It’s the transactional reality … I don’t know how you tell kids in the three hundred youth orchestra in Venezuela that they are pillars of white supremacy, or the five professional orchestras in Mexico City that they are pillars of white supremacy.… in Soweto where Mandela organized the African National Congress, where 60 of his colleagues were all shot to death…the Minnesota Orchestra plays there.” That the leader of the League was oblivious to the colonial legacy of symphonic orchestras, proselytizing forces of cultural imperialism in these former colonies, provoked a social media furor, exposing the music community’s fragile tolerance for the League’s failure at diversifying the field despite being allocated a disproportionate amount of arts funding. Additionally, Rosen missed the forty-five year ascendancy of El Sistema, a more authentic, hybrid and transformative adoption of Western Classical music in Venezuela. Through direct calls for Rosen’s resignation, the League’s position in the American cultural imagination for a moment became destabilized.

The fact that Rosen’s tenure has lasted twenty-two years at the League was provided as further evidence that his leadership alone should be held responsible for the bureaucratic inertia. One Twitter post in particular seemed to align itself with Rosen’s position. Dutch musicologist and artistic director of the NTR ZaterdagMatinee, Netherlands Public Broadcasting Company’s concert series, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Netherlands Radio Choir, Kees Vlaardingerbroek (2019a), tweeted,

In the 30s Nazi musicologist Heinrich Besseler fought against the Great Evil: ‘The Jew’. Nowadays some American musicologists likewise want to purge the world of music. Their Great Enemy: ‘The White Male’. So their approach is not just racist, but sexist as well. Progress indeed.

Vlaardingerbroek was as oblivious to Rosen’s Jewish American identity as was Rosen, in his misappropriated proximity to the South African apartheid, in defending western symphonic orchestras in Soweto. Vlaardingerbroek (2019b) is also the author of “Bach was geen vrouw en westers. Nou en? Identiteitspolitiek rukt op in de muziekwereld” (Bach was not a woman and [is] western. So what? Identity policy is advancing in the music world). In this deVolkskrant article, Vlaardingerbroek warns the reader of the threat of identity politics imported from the US, and that “The dangers of this assault on heritage should not be underestimated…. A forced replacement of the great masters by female contemporaries or composers with non-European roots will irrevocably lead to destruction of public interest, to empty concert halls and eventually even their closure,” a direct contrast to Walker Kuhne’s optimism in the opportunity to revitalize an aging orchestra audience demographic by programming prominent Black composers. “Coleman’s identity is an important factor to many, but especially to children all over who may never have this world was open to them – as composers and as listeners. … cultural organizations with the foresight to perform these works are being handed a wonderful opportunity to extend a welcoming invitation to communities of color….” Whether the reverberations of equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility (EDIA) efforts are reviving old tropes of reverse racism in Holland or Minnesota, where a 1863 law still makes it illegal for the native Dakota people to live in the state, the US “melting pot” paradox is its greatest advantage in progressing the conversation toward a more equitable cultural ecology, while also actively unraveling the effects of structural racism in artistic production and reception.

Our willingness as cultural institutions to valiantly engage with our racial past can often be motivated through a cynical pitch for philanthropic dollars. In 2017, New York City (NYC), as culturally rich and diverse as it is segregated in public access to the arts, mandated data collection on the diversity of cultural institution staff, requiring arts organizations to submit meaningful goals in making their ranks more diverse. This initiative was motivated by evidence that most robust and thriving institutions were helmed by white male leaders. With a subway grid connecting virtually every NYC borough to the island of Manhattan, these mainstream institutions have come under criticism and scrutiny for their failure to engage audiences of color, and for their lack of sensitivity in creating an inclusive environment for these communities.

Recently, Carnegie Hall was one of the first to make a grand gesture celebrating NYC’s immigrant legacy through an ambitious, citywide project, Migrations: The Making of America. Closer examination, however, reveals a sophisticated marketing sleight of hand. Over 137 events across NYC and its boroughs were programmed to engage audiences of color whom the institution has not had success cultivating. Only nine were actual main stage events at Carnegie Hall. Only four of those nine artists that the organization risked its curatorial and production resources toward were artists of color. Kevin Gover (Pawnee), director of the Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian, was featured in a promotional video, but Martha Redbone (Cherokee/Shawnee/Choctaw), the festival’s only native artist, was relegated to an ancillary educational event. Community-based arts leaders who nurture diverse audiences in their venues despite the paucity or absence of funding support were forced to choose from a roster of artists contracted by Carnegie Hall, rather than being invited to participate in an advisory capacity for programming expertise within their own communities. The large institution’s paternalistic approach exposed a superficial commitment to diversity. Instead of creating a welcoming gateway for audiences of color to fill the seats of their storied venues, Carnegie Hall, in pursuit of diversifying its branding, maintains its tradition of segregating and marginalizing audiences of color.

Since its Statement of Commitment, CMA now reports approximately 75 percent of its grant recipients are artists of color. Its presenting support effectively reaches organizations helmed by administrators of color, enabling them to continue fostering their authentic commitment to inclusivity within their audience communities. CMA was also featured in Stanford Social Innovation Review for “addressing inequities at the community level in creative, systemic ways.” Diversifying applicant pools has resulted in diversifying the notion of excellence, and removing barriers in accessibility to CMA’s grants applications is where we invest most of our resources and strategic thinking. The result has been many historic firsts for the organization, including the island of Puerto Rico receiving support to foster audience communities and artists for the first time in CMA’s program history.

Blind spots haunt even the most effective strategic EDIA approaches. At a recent Grantmakers in the Arts conference in Denver, CO, non-profit leaders and members of the Tlingit and Sicangu Lakota Native American tribes confronted a roomful of arts funders with a request: “if you are reaching zero native artists with your programs, and zero artists are applying, and consequently zero artists receive those grants, report it as such to your organizations, boards of directors and funders. This way we at least show up as a category.” The specter of genocide and erasure of entire communities and historical practices creeps into our work as cultural advocates and arts administrators. The poet laureate Fred Moten casts Black existentialism on an Odysseus-like figure choosing a metaphoric state of homelessness over the “exigencies and brutalities that go with claiming the United States as presently construed and constructed as home…. Should we set out again, for some different place, for another world for another country, as [James] Baldwin would say, that we still have to make” (Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning 2015).

As an advocate for an awe-inspiring community of jazz artists, I am allowed the privilege to participate in an ecology where artistic practice itself represents a microcosm of resistance. As administrators we can be a truly inclusive force with the realization that art reveals its true virtue as it thrives in its relational context. Yielding a quantifiable success rate in EDIA frameworks is best rooted in the philosophical thrust of our program design rather than the transactional value of adopting equity-based practices. We represent systems of absencing. The courage to disrupt our notions of what is credible in creative practice or who upholds artistic excellence, along with the vigilance toward ourselves and frequent re-evaluation of our programs has the possibility to inspire methodologies that nurture the individual artist and entirely transform creative habitats.

[1] CMA is a national membership organization for the creators, practitioners, presenters, educators and advocates of small ensemble music. It supports the national music community of over 6,000, mainly from the fields of classical, contemporary, jazz and new music, providing access to resources and benefits, such as professional development seminars, publications, grants and awards, and media tool kits, and through its annual National Conference, the opportunity to connect with a network of musicians, presenters, managers, other small ensemble music professionals, and institutional stakeholders across the country.

[2] Demographic data collection acronym adopted by CMA (African/Latinx/Asian/Arab/Native-American).

[3] CMA, since 1999, has implemented and administered the Doris Duke Ensembles Project. In addition to New Jazz Works, CMA administers five grant programs for the creation and presentation of jazz and classical music, and ensemble development.

[4] The complete live stream of the “2019 Racial Equity and Inclusion Forum” is available at https://livestream.com/accounts/12638076/Artists4Equity/videos/195975002.

Works Cited

American Composers Forum. 2019. “2019 Racial Equity and Inclusion Forum.” September 7. livestream.com/accounts/12638076/Artists4Equity/videos/195975002.

Bhabha, Homi.K. The Location of Culture New York, NY, Routledge, 1994.

Chamber Music America. 2017. “Statement of Commitment.” January. https://www.chamber-music.org/statement-commitment.

Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning. 2015. “Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey | Fred Moten, University of California, Riverside, December 2, 2014.” YouTube Video, 11:24. October 26. youtu.be/kiDudR513sw.

Cooper, Michael. 2018. “Seeking Orchestras in Tune With Their Diverse Communities.” New York Times. April 18. http://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/18/arts/music/symphony-orchestra-diversity.html.

McCarthy, Kerry, and Maurine Knighton. 2019. “The Role of Philanthropy in Advancing Equity in the Arts.” Stanford Social Innovation Review. October 7. http://www.ssir.org/articles/entry/the_role_of_philanthropy_in_advancing_equity_in_the_arts.

Vlaardingerbroek, Kees. 2019a. Twitter post, September 8, 2019, 5:54 a.m., twitter.com/KeesVlaar/status/1170651598692999168.

Vlaardingerbroek, Kees. 2019b. “Bach was geen vrouw en westers. Nou en? Identiteitspolitiek rukt op in de muziekwereld.” The Old Continent. April 25, 2019. http://www.theoldcontinent.eu/kees-vlaardingerbroek-identity-politics-in-classical-music/.

Walker-Kuhne, Donna. 2019. “Black Classical Composers Making News; Now Activate the Audiences. International Communications Group, Inc.” Walker Communication Group (blog). Accessed October 1. http://www.walkercommunicationsgroup.com/2019/10/20/black-classical-composers-making-news-now-activate-the-audiences/.