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Arts programs could showcase diversity under ‘inclusion rider’ concept

Tuesday, April 24, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Austin’s Music and Arts commissions are in the early phase of a push to make the city’s contracts for cultural services take steps to reach out to underrepresented groups, in an attempt to give more opportunities to those who have been chronically shut out from the public arts world.

The push is part of the burgeoning movement to add “inclusion riders” to arts and performance contracts, which would include a statement of purpose to increase diversity of hiring across ethnic, gender and other demographics and a commitment to reaching out to and conducting interviews with a diverse field of candidates.

Locally the movement is being led by Sarah Rucker, a longtime event producer and director of community outreach services in the Austin arts community. At a recent Arts Commission meeting, Rucker said that many minority groups feel shut out from consideration for public arts initiatives that they would otherwise be qualified for, both in the public and private sectors.

“Most of my clients, the feeling is there that the city is not on their side as far as reaching out to them,” Rucker said. “A lot of individual artists and artist organizations in these underrepresented groups that I speak of are simply not applying for funding or applying to be an artist at South by Southwest because the outreach hasn’t come to them, and that’s their point of view. There’s more people who would benefit from this movement on behalf of the city than not.”

In response, the Arts Commission voted unanimously to form a working group to study the issue of equity in arts contracting, particularly how it could mesh with other similar efforts across the city and how the monitoring and reporting process would work across arts groups of all sizes who contract to produce work or events through the city.

“The idea is a noble one, and it’s something I think we can get behind,” Chair Lulu Flores said. “The devil is in the details with these contracts, especially with enforcement, and I think there’s a lot of things that need to be looked at a little bit further to see how they would be worded to make sure they’re accountable. I think City Council would need to approve the language to put something like that into contracts.”

Rucker said she’s not in favor of implementing a quota system in the execution of city arts contracts. Rather, she said programs such as the Music and Entertainment Division’s newly created weekly street performance program should include a two-way system for contracting artists, with the department actively reaching out to solicit applications from artists in underrepresented groups on top of offering a general open application portal.

She said her hope is that Austin could be seen as a leader in the public sphere around the issue, joining prominent artists such as actors Frances McDormand, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in having their performance contracts require producers to reach out to underrepresented communities for talent both on and off screen.

“I don’t agree with quota systems at all, and there’s an issue when we have to go so far as to list how many people from a certain group applied and were considered,” Rucker told the Austin Monitor. “The goal of outreach is not being achieved when you talk about quotas. That’s the complete opposite of what I’m talking about.”

The Music Commission at its April meeting held off on forming a working group on the issue in favor of having city staff research the language in existing contracts to determine what steps could be taken. It is expected to have an item on its May agenda dealing with inclusion riders.

Arts Commissioner Bears Fonte, who joined the working group that has yet to hold its first meeting, said he hopes to find a balance between the intent of the inclusion rider concept with the realities of policing the issue for public and private entities.

“Austin is the town to be forward-thinking on these matters, and we have to study how these would be structured for us,” he said.

“We have to be conscious of various levels of art organizations. The requirements we’re putting on people, we don’t want to do anything onerous, but we have to find a way to always be taking a step forward on this. We’re putting these concepts into practice across our individual programs, but it would be good to have something uniform that applies to everything.”

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