State of the Arts: Presenting & Multidisciplinary Work

By Brandon Gryde

In late January, I had the great privilege to attend the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) Conference in New York City, which convened in-person for the first time since 2020. It was a wonderful opportunity to re-connect, and connect anew, with friends and colleagues from across the arts sector.

I often share that Presenting & Multidisciplinary Works is less a discipline at the NEA (such as dance and music) and more of a program category. The breadth of projects we review are broad and include arts series presented at performing arts centers, local festivals, and community-based projects that feature artists from across disciplines and offer arts learning opportunities. This diversity of organizations and program types allow us to learn more about and support the ecosystem that supports artists, audiences, and community.

Here are few things that I’m hearing:

The ecosystem is fragile. After three years of COVID, everyone is feeling overworked. Development staff are scrambling for fewer available funds as philanthropic priorities are shifting. Marketing staff are trying to figure out how to reach and engage audiences who no longer want to leave their homes. Arts education and community engagement staff are taking on greater responsibilities as institutions are realizing that the work they’ve been doing – nurturing relationships with key community partners – is an effort that should have been core to the organization’s strategies and not just siloed into a single department. Employers are trying to address the inequitable distribution of teleworking opportunities between administrative staff and front-of-house staff. And of course, artists have been working through all of this, navigating artistic development, the challenges of touring, and receiving fair compensation.

The ecosystem is transforming. From contracts with artists to the inequitable distribution of wealth, many report that the way we operated pre-pandemic was not always healthy for, or supportive of, those in the sector. Artists, independent arts workers, and arts institutions are reimagining the way we do business, exploring new models for ethical and equitable ways to work in partnership with each other. It’s been exciting to see the leadership of artists and independent arts workers gaining recognition for their efforts around systems change. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) artists and arts workers have raised their voices in calling out inequitable practices and highlighting the increased emotional labor they must undertake to support cultural change. And of course, the #MeToo movement continues to influence conversations around arts leadership and the tolerance of abusive visionaries.

The ecosystem is energized. I am excited to see the ways in which arts organizations have been working to respond to calls for change. Applications coming to our discipline are demonstrating increased representation of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists and artists with disabilities in their programming; and organizations are working toward more equitable and authentic community partnerships rather than being merely transactional. But this is when the work gets harder. As life starts to feel “normal” again (whatever that means), the momentum for change from the past few years might slow down. There will be times when it feels easier to slip into old habits; but this is when it’s important to double down In recent years, many laid out visions for a more just sector through DEI statements and other actions. We must continue to revisit these foundational efforts to ensure that these values are internalized, institutionalized, and intrinsic to our daily endeavors.

I’m part of the ecosystem. I can’t very well talk about the arts ecosystem without acknowledging my role as a federal funder. I’m very excited that the Biden administration and Chair Maria Rosario Jackson have prioritized equitable practice and a healthy arts ecosystem. We learned a lot from the American Rescue Plan grant program – including providing guidelines translated into other languages and offering a simpler application – that resulted in increased access to the federal funding system and continues to impact our thinking today. I’m also part of the ecosystem as a community member. This past weekend, a conference attendee approached me expressing deep concern over the historic neglect of BIPOC queer and trans artists within the field. I shared that, as a gay Mexican American, this was not an issue I was immune to. The sense of relief that I understood the issue was palpable from this colleague. I am proud to work with so many colleagues at the NEA who truly care about helping to build an equitable creative sector.

No matter where we sit in the creative sector, we can all aspire to be good shepherds of creativity, aiming to bring out the best in our institutions, artists, funders, audiences, and communities.

Brandon Gryde was appointed director of Presenting & Multidisciplinary Works and Artist Communities in March 2020. In this position, he manages the Art Endowment’s grantmaking for presenting and multidisciplinary works and artist communities.