Even Progressive Arts Organizations Are Grappling With Charges Of Racism Behind Their Doors

Marilyn Nelson and Henry Bienen Poetry Foundation
In a photo from 2019, Marilyn Nelson, left, accepts the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the annual $100,000 award honoring a living U.S. poet for outstanding lifetime achievement, awarded by Henry Bienen, center, president of the Poetry Foundation. Bienen resigned as president of the foundation on June 10, after poets called for his ouster in a public letter. Peter Wynn Thompson / Associated Press
Marilyn Nelson and Henry Bienen Poetry Foundation
In a photo from 2019, Marilyn Nelson, left, accepts the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the annual $100,000 award honoring a living U.S. poet for outstanding lifetime achievement, awarded by Henry Bienen, center, president of the Poetry Foundation. Bienen resigned as president of the foundation on June 10, after poets called for his ouster in a public letter. Peter Wynn Thompson / Associated Press

Even Progressive Arts Organizations Are Grappling With Charges Of Racism Behind Their Doors

In the midst of protests that roiled the nation after the killing of George Floyd by police, three prominent Chicago arts organizations suffered a series of blows in early June — each set off by artists charging institutional racism or, at least, a failure to adequately address societal inequality.

On June 4, a tweet by The Second City alumnus Dewayne Perkins triggered a viral firestorm that stunningly led to the resignation of co-owner Andrew Alexander the next day. Then, on Saturday, June 6, 30 poets — including Eve Ewing, Nate Marshall and Jamila Woods — issued a list of demands to the Poetry Foundation; more than 1,800 other poets signed the public letter. On Sunday, June 7, protesters from Chicago’s theater community spray painted the plywood boards protecting the facade of Victory Gardens Theater in Lincoln Park; its executive director, Erika Daniels, resigned on Monday. Two days later, on June 10, the Poetry Foundation announced that its president, Henry Bienen, and board chair, Willard Bunn, III, were stepping down immediately.

What is happening?

Angelique Power says we’re witnessing moments of reckoning for cultural organizations that traditionally have viewed themselves as progressive participants in the fight against racial injustice. Power is the president of the Field Foundation of Illinois, which funds organizations that address systemic problems in “disinvested” communities.

The underbelly of power, she said, is what’s being exposed. “Determining how decisions are made, whose stories are being told,” Power said. The entire organizational structure of nonprofits needs to be upended, she said, because those institutions have governing boards that amount to little more than an “insular circle of reaffirming the same ideas and people” and require a considerable amount of wealth to join.

The Poetry Foundation’s ultimate response appears to head in the right direction: In addition to accepting the resignations of its top two leaders, the foundation committed $1 million to writers, including the Artists Relief Fund. The foundation also created a Board Equity Oversight Committee to audit equity internally.

The trouble at Victory Gardens Theater actually started in late May, before the Floyd unrest, when its seven-member playwriting ensemble posted a resignation letter on Medium, the blogging platform: “We … are deeply disturbed by the notion that our creative home aspires to be a truth-telling temple on its stage, but not in its administration.”

Ike Holter, one of the playwrights who signed the letter, said the “mostly white” board of directors failed to include the ensemble in its decision to name Erica Daniels, at the time Victory Gardens’ managing director, as the successor to outgoing artistic director, Chay Yew. For Holter, the move explicitly contradicted Victory Gardens’ mission. “This is a theater that prides itself on diverse voices and speaking to the community,” Holter said. But, he added, there comes a point when enough is enough. “You have to fess up and say, ‘This is not happening here, and it’s OK to leave these situations where you’re not being heard.’ ”

The theater was also forced to apologize after it boarded up its facade during the first weekend of June when looting and protesting spread across the city. While some theaters across the country were proactively opening up their lobbies as safe spaces for protesters, Holter said Victory Gardens’ move to lock down its property did not demonstrate solidarity. The theater issued a statement saying the boards were not meant to keep the community out, but to protect the historic theater’s facade.

When Daniels, the newly-named executive director, resigned, she said in a statement: “After listening to the voices of the artists, staff and others in the artistic community who expressed disagreement and growing outrage … I had decided to cede my role.” Victory Gardens’ board has promised to conduct a transparent search for its next leader and tapped board members E. Patrick Johnson, an African American studies professor and the incoming dean of the School of Communication at Northwestern University, and Sidney Lee, a Chinese-American business executive, to manage the process “using an inclusive and equitable approach.”

Photo of Credit: Jason Beaumont Productions. Caption: Angela Oliver is an actress and teacher in Chicago.
Angela Oliver is an actress and teacher in Chicago. After not feeling nurtured as a Black performer at theaters early in her career, she found her place in improv comedy at the Annoyance Theater in Lake View. Jason Beaumont Productions

As a performer on Chicago’s improv and sketch comedy scene for more than a decade, Angela Oliver knows what it’s like to be one of the few Black actors on stage. Oliver experienced racism as an actress in traditional theater but said the treatment was worse in improv. “You’re doing scenes on the spot so if racist things are happening and your coach or your instructor isn’t checking it, you just don’t feel safe,” she said.

Oliver said she felt tokenized at The Second City, and she wasn’t alone in that criticism. An open letter from alumni and employees issued on June 8 said the theater participated in racial discrimination, pay inequity, manipulation and monetization of the Black community. The letter came just days after co-owner Andrew Alexander resigned, saying he “failed to create an anti-racist environment wherein artists of color might thrive.”

The revered comedy institution has since posted online a series of steps it is taking to address the alleged racism, including hiring an outside HR firm to reviewing and investigating allegations of racism and providing directors, producers, stage managers and music directors in anti-racist education.

Angela Oliver said her love of improv motivates her fight to make the art form a safe and welcoming space, including for audiences who aren’t represented. “The art itself isn’t racist,” she said. “We have to take the art and make it accessible and present it to them from somebody who cares about them and values their voice.” For Oliver, that meant finding a theater where she felt more welcome. She now performs and teaches at the Annoyance Theater in Lake View. Oliver points out that artists fighting against racism in their field is a kind of emotional labor. “Why go to a space that doesn’t appreciate you and value you as you are?” she asked. “You shouldn’t have to fight.”

For Holter, a Chicago playwright whose work has been staged at the Goodman Theatre and Steppenwolf, the time is now for decision makers to put their money where their mouth is.

“Buy this person’s work. Start a relationship now — because all these theaters are down,” he proposed. “In six months, we’re going to be back up and what would happen if it was 80% people of color instead of 80% white in a city that is mostly people of color?”

Carrie Shepherd covers arts and culture for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @cshepherd.