Happy Hour on the Fringe: Global Pandemics and Activism with Maori Karmael Homes (Philly Arts for BLM part 2)
During the global coronavirus pandemic, FringeArts is pivoting the focus of our podcast to checking in with our artists, our audiences, and our community partners during these unprecedented times. Since we can’t gather, we’ll chat remotely about how we respond to this crisis, and how the role of art during a pandemic shifts.
As promised, a bonus episode with BlackStar Film Festival’s Artistic Director & CEO, Maori Karmael Holmes. Due to technical difficulties, some of Maori’s audio cut out during the conversation we had in the previous episode with Danny Orendorff and Anne Ishii, and so we set out to have a deeper and more intimate conversation about white supremacy, the arts, and Black Lives Matter. You can read more about BlackStar Film Festival here, and can find out more information about Philly Artists for Black Lives here.
Raina Searles: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. My name is Raina Searles and I’m the Marketing Manager at FringeArts. In the wake of the global Coronavirus pandemic, many of us, especially those in arts organizations, have had to reflect on ways to do our work despite dramatic social disruptions. One thing FringeArts is excited to continue doing is connecting our artists and community partners with all of you listening through this podcast. We’re diving into how artists are responding to the pandemic, the intersection between art and public health and how community partners are working to meet the specific needs of their constituents. You can learn more about what we’re doing at FringeArts by visiting https://fringearts.com/covid-19/. And as always, enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence.
Tenara Calem: Hey, everyone, Tenara here. I wanted to pop in before the episode starts just to contextualize what you all are about to listen to. So originally I sat down with Maori Karmael-Holmes, Danny Orendorff and Anne Ishii to talk about their coalition, Philly Arts for Black Lives Matter. That episode is actually already up, and I encourage you all to take a listen. However, technology failed us that day and Maori’s side of the conversation did not upload. So she and I scheduled a separate time to dig deeper into these themes- just the two of us, which is what you’ll be hearing today. You can listen to this conversation on its own, but it does scaffold off of some subjects we discussed in the previous episode. So I lovingly nudge you all to the first part before you listen to this. In any case, I want to thank everyone for listening to our work and tuning into the thoughts of some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence. Enjoy this conversation with myself and Maori about the intersection of nonprofit culture with white supremacy.
Tenara: So, Maori thank you again so much for joining me a second time after we had these technical difficulties in the last section. I want to make sure that our listeners hear from you something specific that you had mentioned when we originally recorded, which was about the relationship between your work with this open letter and then BLM as an organization. So if you want to just clarify real quick for folks, that would be really helpful.
Maori Karmael-Holmes: Sure. I just wanted to flag that, you know, Black Lives Matter is, of course, you know, I think becoming the name of this long 400 year journey for civil and human rights for black people in the US. And so it has become- and it’s both the term of the moment, but also the name of official organizations. And so there are Black Lives Matter chapters in several cities, including Philadelphia. But it is also, being a hashtag and being a name, you know, our project is in support of the cause. But I just wanted to be really careful that we were not affiliated with the Black Lives Matter chapter in Philadelphia. Not to disassociate ourselves, but also not to misrepresent in any way.
Tenara: OK. Awesome. Thank you for that clarification. So we spoke a little bit as a group about the way that nonprofits participate in these processes of limited resources and scarcity mentality, etc.. I’d love to hear from you specifically about what ways you see nonprofit arts and culture organizations as perhaps perpetrators of upholders of these larger systems of white supremacy. Perhaps that’s a really big question to ask.
Maori: It’s a massive question. And, you know, it’s not just about white supremacy, right? It’s also about patriarchy and misogyny and about, you know, I think like all of the intersectional things that keep the majority of people under, you know, to use a term from the 60s like the thumb of the man. Right. Like, I think there’s some there’s so much going on in that question that is not able to be answered succinctly. But what I will try to say is that… I’m not an expert on nonprofit industrial complex problems, right? I know that they exist. I have worked in non-profits for about fifteen years or so and so I have some sense of their structure. But I know there are actual scholars, you know, of course, who talk about the layers of problems that exist, and so I just want to say, preface it with that, I’m not an expert in that area. But I do know that the nonprofit structure, financially and management wise, is not necessarily set up to effectively change our society. Right? And so I think many of us find ourselves working in this space because we want to work in the arts, we want to work in pursuit of social justice or social welfare or philanthropy, you know or many of these fields that on the surface have good intention. And we don’t want to work in, say, corporate America, you know, or the financial industries or something like that, although those industries also are capable of doing good. Right? We know that. But there also is a way in which they’re all part of the same system. And it is naive or a huge mistake to think that working in nonprofits means you’re not participating in capitalism or that you’re not participating in perpetuating capitalism and the things that go with it, including white supremacy. Right? That is a fallacy. So I think sort of thinking about scarcity mentality and nonprofits on a local level, but also not just local, one of the things that has become baked into the structures is that I think many people who pursue these fields of work earlier on, you know, 60 years ago or so. Right? Were people who maybe set up nonprofits because they had family money, you know, or they set up nonprofits to funnel their family money or, you know, because they didn’t have to take a job to pay the bills. It was a job to fulfill something else. And that has widely… That’s widely divergent. People… This is a multi-billion dollar industry just like any other. But there’s, I think, just a lot of clouds around… Sorry I just feel like this is so long winded, but there are so many ways that people enter the field. And I think it has been a tradition. I guess the shortest way of saying this… Particularly let’s let’s just talk about museums. There’s been a way that museums have become a place where wealthy people go to work and don’t expect to be paid very much.
Tenara: Interesting. And I did not know that that was the context.
Maori: I mean, I don’t I don’t know how that happened, but that is what it looks like. I know that’s the same or public radio. Right? So these are two fields that I think we, many of us, acknowledge are public goods. They are spaces for the masses to participate in culture. And then they are populated and staffed largely by people of means, who maybe I don’t need to be paid. Right? Like, I think that is that is a tradition. But today, people want to work in those fields who don’t come from those backgrounds and are, you know, forcing these institutions to consider: Why is it OK for, let’s say, an assistant curator at a major museum to be paid, you know, barely living wage? Right? You know, thirty six thousand dollars or something like that in a city like Philadelphia. That is not… That doesn’t make sense for someone who also is assumed to have a master’s degree and who is assumed, you know what I mean, who’s walking in with debt because if they don’t come from a certain background, they’d have to pay for school. They’re walking in needing to get an apartment there, you know, all the things.
Maori: And you can quickly see how that is not enough money. Right? And so there has to be other kinds of support to keep that person dressed in the proper way and keep that person, you know, socializing in the proper way so that they can socialize with board members and they can socialize with, you know, their peers and their directors and things like that. And that kind of set up is, you know, life in the arts specifically. And I still believe I’m not answering your question, because I’m just… I think I hadn’t really, like, thought about it. I mean, I think about it all the time, but I hadn’t thought about it in a really crisp way to have my talking points. So I apologize for that.
Tenara: No apologies necessary. It’s a huge question. Right? And it’s a leading question. I will also say that because I personally strongly believe that the relationship between nonprofit culture and white supremacy is like a circle. So, yeah, I want to acknowledge that it’s also just like, you know, I want to just spark this conversation because I think it’s really important.
Maori: So I mean, and I realize I’m not even answering about white supremacy, so let me leave the sort of financial piece alone. But I want to think about specifically white supremacy in nonprofit culture. There also is this legacy of savior projects, right? And so there’s several organizations that operate on the basis of taking care of… this is something that I’ve thought about for a long time, the sort of needy Negroes. Right? And so if your organization is serving needy Negroes, however that turns out and their affiliates. Right? Like needy Negroes. And then their affiliates. And so that could be a youth program that could also, you know, that can easily also become immigrants, that can also easily become teen moms, whatever it is, that is a way to raise money. That is the way to justify your organization’s existence. And that… Funders make a decision about which needy Negroes they’re interested in. And then organizations find themselves basically pivoting their work every five to seven years to the whims of the funders. Right? Which is wholly not just and also incredibly toxic and makes for these organizations to always be sort of like dancing for the funders and pivoting their work so that they can always be trendy or worthy of funding. And if you show up and this is very personal to me, I have been running an organization that is focused on black people, on black cultural production. And if you don’t show up and sort of share, you know, the woes of your organization and how needy you are and how sad you are, they’re, they don’t know what to do with you. It’s almost like if you don’t demonstrate that, if you don’t demonstrate the need in a particular way, it’s not that there isn’t a need. Of course, we all need funding to do our work. But you need to be desperate almost. You know like there isn’t a way to show up as a whole person or to show up, you know, well resourced. I’ve had people say to me, like, everything looks really good. It doesn’t seem like you need my money. And I’m like, why shouldn’t it look good? You know what I mean? Why shouldn’t it feel good to attend this event? Why does it have to be.
Tenara: … looks good because there is money. Like money allows us to like, exhibit and parade our resources and the accomplishments that we have in our work. And so, like, how do you think I got to look good, you know like.
Maori: Or how does it continue to look good also.
Tenara: Yeah. Right. Right. Yeah I think, I just wanted to clarify that, like for me, like I know that you sort of put away the financial part of the conversation and I I realized that, like the statement that nonprofit arts, culture and white supremacy is a circle is… can feel pretty inflammatory to some people. But I think what I meant more was that the relationship, that nonprofit culture specifically in arts and culture sector, but not exclusively… The relationship it has to finances and to funding exactly what you’re saying and how funding is so connected to capitalism and how capitalism is so predicated on systems of white supremacy existing. That is the circle to me. Like that’s the snake eating its own tail. And I mean, you just talked about it specifically and how we how we make ourselves appealing and how nonprofits make themselves appealing to people who want to feel good about what they’re doing without thinking about the systems in place there.
Maori: Yeah. And the non-profits themselves replicate this behavior. And so, you know, there’s just again, there’s no way to really get into all the nuances of it. But, you know, we behave as if there aren’t enough resources. And this is probably the biggest thing I want to say. We act as if there aren’t enough resources when there are. And so then we’re competitive with one another. You know, organizationally, people often don’t share data. They don’t share salary structures. They don’t share many things for fear that they have to hold on to it. Right. That’s what capitalism produces. Sort of lack of transparency and a lack of camaraderie because you feel like, well, I have to hold on to this for my organization and my project. And so in some ways, that makes sense because you’re doing work that is necessary, which most of us are doing. You feel like you’ve got to protect that at all costs. When, that’s actually not necessarily the case. Right. Like, there is no lack. I’m just so tired of hearing people talk about that. You know, ‘the resources are limited in this and that’. And it’s like that’s actually factually incorrect. They’re being misdirected. But there are a ton of resources. Right. And so it’s interesting. I mean, I’m really challenged… I think what we were talking about in our original conversation, speaking of scarcity mentality as well. In fact when I found out that the budget from the city for the arts in this city is only four million dollars, which is the budget of a small nonprofit, I was very, very shocked that that’s all that the city has reserved for the cultural production. You know, with the first museum, the first arts school, the first music school, I mean, we could go on and on about cultural output of Philadelphia now. And that that’s all the city is putting forward. It’s just shocking.
Tenara: And you had mentioned last time we spoke that this this was a shock to you because you were coming from other cities where that wasn’t the case. Is that true? Maybe I misheard you like that. Is this, like, incredibly deep, like deviant and divergent example of a city budget to arts funding compared to other major cities in the United States?
Maori: Well, I mean, definitely in comparison to New York and Los Angeles, we know that just because of the recent solutions. I am not 100 percent sure what the budgets are of the other cities. So I grew up in Los Angeles. I went to high school in Atlanta, an undergrad in D.C.. My understanding, I don’t know for sure what those budgets are, but I know I knew that those cities had arts offices. Right? Like there were in City Hall in Atlanta, it’s called City Hall East, you know, there were actual sort of cabinet level commissioners, you know, like Tom Pink or Portland New York. Right. Like who report to the mayor who have real power and have real influence on funding. And also, you know how the arts policy gets made in the city. And it just until Nutter brought in Gary Steuer and established, you know, OACCE, whatever it stands for, you know, we didn’t have that in Philadelphia. The cultural fund was an aside, but there was no arts czar, if you will, which just seems ridiculous, particularly in the city. Right. We should have had it a hundred years ago. So it just, that was shocking to me. And the number is shocking. And even with the current office, I mean, I’ve been really, really amazed. And I this is an unpopular thing. But I’ll say, you know, I have not seen what the creative economy office has done at all. So, you know, in some ways when I was when people were like, well, that office is going to be cut, I was like, well, you know, I don’t know what they do. I totally get with the cultural funding does and know that they need to continue because they fund my organization and they fund a lot of organizations in the city. And, you know, I think to the extent that they can participate in advocacy and policy setting, but that’s not, of course, their mission. Their mission is to to direct these funds. But I am not clear, about what the cultural economy office does and what their value has been. And maybe they’re too new. You know, maybe they need more time. But, yeah, I’ve just been really wanting to to… Yeah, just wishing that we had a way more robust office in place because of what we do. I mean, that’s why people come to Philadelphia by and large, its for the arts. That’s what people know about the city, it’s the arts. It is not Comcast. People don’t even know Comcast is based here. I mean, it’s just sort of like. I don’t know.
Tenara: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think this point that you don’t know what the office does is it speaks way more to the attitude that city hall has about that arts will just happen, you know, because I think like. I’ve worked with the Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy before. So I know that they have a really strong hand in anything that is considered like public art. Obviously, that is like coming from this city in a way of like connecting, even if it’s just as I don’t love this word, but even as passive as like walking past installations like that, that’s very much their focus is connecting Philadelphia to public art. And the problem then is that there is this perception that it just appears and then there isn’t a team of really hard working people who believe in the mission and public art for everyone that is making it happen. And so then to get rid of the entire office, there is an expectation that that’s actually not going to affect the amount of art that happens in Philadelphia. And something that I’ve always struggled with is like you can take away arts funding and art will still happen. Like, I’m not trying to say that there will be no more art in Philly because we know that that’s not true. But it is you know, it is a huge slap in the face for people who understood their role in our community as like being actively welcomed and encouraged by the city of Philadelphia. Like we want artists to live and stay and work here because it matters to us. And like the arts, are a human right. And, yeah, so it’s it’s utterly ridiculous to that. Like that there is no acknowledgment of the ramifications of getting rid of any arts funding in the in the city hall budget to zero dollars. Like that that won’t drastically affect our sector. And then by extension, you know, coming back to sort of why you and I are in conversation with each other, the way that art can then help dismantle these systems of oppression and how we need art to help imagine alternative futures, essentially. One more question I wanted to ask, and this is perhaps a good place for us to land before our conversation is over. So talking a little bit about the intersections of arts and culture organizations, white supremacy, the current the current attention or spotlight that is being shown on work that Black Lives Matter has been doing for years. I’m wondering if you know of or if you believe in alternative organizational structures that might help advance anti-racism and anti oppression missions. Because I think that there… And so then maybe actually the question I’m asking let me rephrase, is, do you believe that it’s possible for an existing nonprofit that perhaps does not have anti-racism or anti oppression in its framework to then course correct and transition into an organization that is like fighting for this in their every breath? Or is it actually a process of completely disbanding these organizations and reforming into these alternative models? Did that question make any sense?
Maori: It makes sense. I think there’s no binary. You know, I don’t think there’s like an either or. I think that some organizations are going to need to… This is not going to be quick work for one. This is not something that happens after you read Beverly de Angeles and then figure out like, oh, you know, we’re anti-racist now. You know, it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. I mean, that impetus is also rooted in capitalism, right? Like, we’re always in a rush. We think that there’s a way that we can consume enough to solve a problem. And that is not how this works. Right? So I think that, say, every single organization in the city, every nonprofit arts institution committed to doing deep reflection and analysis and listening. And, you know, all the things and, you know, created strategic plans… you know say people got consultants and created anti-racism strategic plans, that took them to some kind of shift over the next five years. It’s going to look different like strategic plans do for every single organization. Now, some organizations may decide, you know, that they need to disband. You know, perhaps the PENN Museum is like we actually cannot exist because we perpetuate X, X and X by holding these objects. So we’re gonna get rid of these objects and thus we’ll close. Right. And then I’m not picking on them, but it just came to me. Something like that could be possible. Whereas another institution, you know, and again, this is not a specific example, but, say, a contemporary art institution that does not collect. They can have their next show be very different. Right? So I think it just depends on the nature of the organizations and how honest and truthful they want to be. I mean, this will be painful. This is literally. And I know people are hitting people over the head with this but, you know, it’s really older than 1619. But if we want to start with 1619 and enslaved Africans arriving at Penn’s Landing. Right like we want to start there for Philadelphia. If we want to think about, actually I think it was 1622. But whatever, you know, if we want to start with the history of enslavement in this country and what that has produced, that has definitely been a 400-year project that is not going to be solved in 30 days.
Maori: And so there’s just I think it really is going to be different. I think there are seats that people should be willing to give up. You know, when people talk about wanting to make room for black and brown leadership, some of that means people will have to leave their seats. But that doesn’t mean everyone has to leave their seats, right? What I’ve noticed the language that I really appreciate that’s been emerging is that there isn’t… We not only need allies, we need accomplices. There isn’t any social justice that has been advanced in this country. That was not in participation… Like black people didn’t make themselves free. White people have been a part of this. Just like women don’t get liberation without men’s participation. This doesn’t happen unless everyone is committed to this. And so getting people on board and getting people caught up and educated will take a while. And it may be the position of arts institutions to help with that education. You know, we think about… and they’re not the only… they weren’t the only one. But I know that oftentimes in acknowledging rights for LGBT folks, you know, people think about like this happened after Will and Grace and it happened after Ellen and it happened after, you know, this wave of, you know, I don’t- alternative is not the right word, but this wave of different presentations of family and love life.
Tenara: Like Modern Family and, yeah.
Maori: Mhm, but I mean, before Modern Family. I mean, people really talk about the… in the era of don’t ask, don’t tell. Right. During Clinton’s presidency and having Will and Grace on TV and then looking at legislation a generation later, you know how it shifted because people were in a totally different mindset. So, I mean, that is because of the arts, in many ways. Right. I think that is an example that we can think about. And so it’s like if theaters and dance companies and museums and, you know, all the cultural institutions make commitments to start shifting their leadership. If people look at their boards, they look at their executive staff because it’s not it’s also not as simple as putting black or brown people in these positions. Right. Those black and brown people also have to be committed to this work. Right. And that’s something that often happens, is that, you know, we put people. It’s almost like we try to solve this by putting the problems in blackface and that blackface is often literal. You put a black person in a position. But that black person is still a white supremacist. Right. That doesn’t change the problem if they’re not also committed to some kind of shift. And so that’s why I’m like, that’s why it’s not just as easy as giving up the seats. This really is… Has to be like a longer term commitment that is from the board down, fully invested. You know. If the staff is woke right. To like use that term. And the board isn’t then nothing is really going to change. Right. Right. You know, so I mean. Yeah. So I just, I don’t… I think some institutions will need to close and or shift. And that’s true of nonprofits generally. Right. That’s another thing with the non-profits sort of complex, is that organizations often stay around long past their expiration date. Right. I think about I think about TV a lot. And there are some shows that are meant to go on forever. You know. Right. Like a bad example is Law and Order, of course. But like Law and Order has been on for like a thousand years. And then there are shows that do what they need to do for six seasons and then they close. Right. And I think that if we’re truly honest about solving problems, which is what non-profits are supposed to do, then most non-profits should be planning to sunset.
Tenara: Right, because by their mission…
Maori: Right, If you’re going to solve this problem. Yeah. Yeah, exactly. You should be planning to close up shop because you’ve solved the problem. But what happens is we get employed, we get benefits. You know, we get this. We get that. And then we become these sustaining institutions that are actually not that different than for profit. It’s just a different pool of funds.
Tenara: Totally. Totally. Well, thank you, Maori, for doing this a second time and for being able to like. Yeah. For flexibility and going a little bit deeper. I really appreciate it. Do you want to. Are there any I know we did this last time, but I just wanna make sure that we can capture everything. Is there anything in terms of like next steps or next asks from this open letter that you guys wrote that either nonprofit leaders, nonprofit employees or individual artists can can do to help support this work?
Maori: Well, I mean, we are working on expanding, I think the website, to be a resource beyond signing this letter, right. Because we’ve sent it. They’re making their decision. So, I mean, that’s no longer the push, although I think that engagement with City Hall needs to continue, because what we’ve found is that they were like, well, we didn’t know this many people were concerned about this. So I think we’ve now opened up this line. We need to continue pressing on that line. And then there’s also offering additional support. I imagine because we’ve got folks activated, we will figure out how to build coalition and bring folks together. And so, you know, I think just sort of staying tuned for that. And joining us is important. So, yeah.
Tenara: So more soon.
Maori: Yeah. More soon, Is the answer. Yeah.
Tenara: Sounds great. I’m so looking forward to seeing what comes next, and being able to participate in any way I can. Thank you. Yeah. Thank you again for joining us. And I hope that, I hope that the conversation continues among not just nonprofit leaders, but also among our audiences as well.
Maori: Sure, sure, and I um… I’m just trying to think I feel like I don’t… I hope that that was answering sort of what you were getting at.
Tenara: Oh my gosh, yes. I just wanted to add for a larger conversation. I wasn’t looking for anything in, like specifically.
Maori: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I just feel I think overall, my gut feeling about this moment is just that we really have to be committed to long term shifts. And it has to be at every level. And I think the other thing that I wanted to consider is that- how we pay people for their time, how we see other people generally and acknowledge their work and all of that, like it’s all related. Right. Like how you treat the security staff and the people who clean your building and intern. You know what I mean? Even if they are white. Right. Like, I feel like that to me that sort of Intersectional approach that needs to happen. So it isn’t just about being anti-racist, It’s also about being feminist, and it’s also about being good stewards of the environment. And it’s also, you know what I mean? All of these things are inter-related. And that’s just something that I want to make sure that I hope that people are considering, because I think that this moment feels fucked. But for a lot of us, it is not. I don’t want to say… Not that different. I mean, obviously different, right? You know, in quarantine working from home. But, you know, I’m kind of amazed at the number of people for whom the murder of George Floyd, is the moment that got them woken up. And I don’t want to knock that because it only takes one moment. But I hope that people stay vigilant and stay like, you know, for instance, we should be pressing for the arrest of Brianna Taylor’s murders. Right. Murderers in the same way. I mean, that is another example. We often have been culturally responding to the murders of CIS men and we don’t have the same cultural output for the murder of CIS women, and trans folks, you know, so it’s like that is another layer of this. So it isn’t just about anti-racism. It’s also about anti-misogyny. Like, how do we combat all of that? Because, you know, this woman is murdered in her sleep, you know, is a frontline worker. Like, you cannot have a more sort of compelling case. And we’re not talking about it in the same way that we talk about George Floyd. And so that’s that’s just incredibly troubling. So just sort of I don’t know. I’m just hoping that we kind of continue to unpack all of these things, but also get that it… I’m really troubled by being in conversations where it seems like folks think that there’s some kind of fix that they can… Even if it’s like consultants, you know what I mean? Like that is not the answer. The answer. It’s like we have to kind of unpack our own selves. And I think we just don’t want to do that. That’s the hard way…