Independent artists’ remarks to Durham City Council VIII, December 5, 2019.

Above: Durham artist Meg Stein addressing City Council. 

Posted below are the comments made by local independent artists to Durham City Council on December 5th, 2019, on the crisis of arts funding in the city. Thank you to Meg Stein, Mary Alta, and Margaret Chapman for sharing their comments. You can listen to the audio here, starting at Item #19. See previous speakers’ comments here (August 22)here (September 5)here (September 19), here (October 10), here (October 24), here (November 7), and here (November 21). 

 Meg Stein

“My name is Meg Stein. I am a visual artist and a proud resident of Durham since 2006. I recently joined the Durham Cultural Advisory Board and also am a member of the local arts advocacy group Art Ain’t Innocent. I am here to speak to the need for more funding to individual artists here in Durham. I haven’t seen the proposal that Monica Byrne, Marshall Botvinick and Akiva Fox are writing, so I can’t say whether I support it, though I am very grateful for all their hard work. And I do very much support the idea of direct city funding to independent artists, but only if that funding is used to repair not exacerbate inequality in the arts.

Being an artist is very hard, but some of us are advantaged—usually not because of anyone’s intention to do so, but because of how social and cultural structures in our country are designed. Because I am heterosexual, I married a man who makes a higher salary than I do, one that I benefit from. Because I’m white and my husband is white, I inherited through marriage financial resources that allowed us to buy a home—wealth that my husband’s family started accumulating back when only the white portion of our population could own businesses and homes. Having access to generational resources means that I have had financial support—from my in-laws and from a home equity loan. That has meant I’ve been able to only work part-time and spend the rest in mostly unpaid artistic work in my studio. The affect that this kind of middle class access has had on my artistic career is profound. Of course I’ve worked hard, but I didn’t gain these resources through hard work alone—but because of structures that advantage people, and artists, who are part of dominant groups.

I’m sharing all of this, because I’m not an anomaly. Everywhere I look I see how, even in our progressive city, white artists are more supported, more resourced, more listened to, more trusted than artists who are Black & Indigenous People of Color. Arts funding cannot and will not be impactful if it does not directly address these disparities and work to transparently, aggressively and clearly right our wrongs. Any city funding for independent artists must include mechanisms that guarantee a significant percentage of the funding will go to BIPOC artists and BIPOC-led organizations so that our whole community can benefit from this, not just some of us. I say we need to address racial equity over other forms of equity since race is the single greatest predictor of outcome across all of our institutions.

Many of us already know all this, but despite that these disparities remain, which is why good intentions are not enough. We need concrete mechanisms in place so that city funding outcomes do not rely on the jurors’ and administrators’ intentions alone. The City of Durham has precedent for including race-explicit factors in how it uses its money—for example, in how the city hires contractors. Since approximately half of Durham’s population are POC, then at least 50% of this funding should go to POC artists. Anything less is the equivalent of watching a concert where half the musicians don’t have microphones. Anything less hurts all of us because we as a community are not connected, are not supported, are not allowed to be creative. Thank you.”

Mary Alta

My name is Mary Alta, I’m the director of the Durham-based nonprofit Girls Rock North Carolina, and I’m here today to advocate for the proposed expansion of funding for the arts in Durham. Girls Rock NC was founded in Durham 16 years ago. We offer arts-based programs for girls, transgender youth, and gender- nonconforming youth in the Triangle, from second grade through high school. 

Our mission is to work to empower young people of marginalized genders through music, creativity, and collaboration, to be more confident and engaged members of their communities. We do this work because we believe that creative collaboration, community building, and social justice education are some of the most powerful and impactful tools we can give young people that will serve them the rest of their lives. 

Each year, we work with more than 350 young people through summer and intersession camps, in-school after school programs, a teen mentorship program, an adult program, and community workshops. We collaborate with other local youth-serving organizations like Student U, arts orgs like Music Maker Relief Foundation and Duke Performances, and loads of local businesses.

At our programs, young people learn to play instruments, write original music with others, and perform at music venues like The Pinhook or Motorco. They attend workshops on topics ranging from zine-making and DJ-ing to Transformative Justice and Oral History. Above all, we build a supportive community between and among young folks and our huge community of volunteers. Countless adults and young people come to us with stories about how this organization has changed their life. One in four of our young people receives financial assistance to attend our programs and we never turn anyone away. We do and build so much with so little. 

Girls Rock NC began in Durham, grew up in Durham, and contributes hugely not only to the massive community surrounding music and the arts in the Triangle, but also to the lives of young people whose voices are traditionally not heard or not valued. Our mission is to elevate the voices of those most marginalized, and that is at the forefront of everything we do.

We work with more than 350 young people each year but can only pay a staff of two people. It’s difficult for me to talk to girls and trans kids about how much their voice matters and how they can use it to express their thoughts or to protect their communities when we the organizers know that our own work isn’t adequately funded or valued by our city. Thank you.”

Margaret Chapman

“I’m Margaret Chapman and I’m co-chair of the Board of Directors of Girls Rock NC.

We are one of the first and longest running Girls Rock organizations in what has become an international movement. We have gone from being an exclusively volunteer-run summer camp in 2004 to having 2 year-round employees and a handful of seasonal staff who not only run 5 weeks of summer camp in two cities but also run multiple year-round programs. A quarter of youth participants in camps and afterschool get full or partial financial aid, and our teen-run programming is free. We are continually expanding our reach and our community, and we feel like the work we do amplifying youth voices and giving young people—especially girls, and trans, and gender-non conforming folks—a supportive space to be creative and to express themselves is more important than ever.

We do all this on a budget of around $150,000. About ¾ of that comes from programming fees; the rest comes almost entirely from small donations from our community.

Unfortunately, we are getting priced out of new Durham in many ways. 

While Girls Rock is an international movement, it’s not an international organization. Each local girls rock is completely independent and autonomous. There is no umbrella organization that gives us any funding. When we look at other successful Girls Rock organizations, they often have access to government and foundational funding that just does not exist for the arts in North Carolina. 

We still rely on hundreds of volunteers to run our programs. We do not want to exploit the passion of our overworked staff and incredibly generous volunteers. We are always nervous that we will burn through our seasonal staff because we can’t pay them enough, and that we over-rely on the good will of volunteers.

But given the rising cost of living in Durham, we are stretched to the limit making sure our current staff are paid a living wage. This is a situation many small local arts organizations face, one that sees many organizations closing because it is unsustainable.

Not to mention we’ve long envisioned having a space where we could run our year-round programming without having to pack up all of our musical gear each day, a place where our LGBTQIA teen group could meet regularly, where we could hold weekend and evening programming for our community.

But we are priced out of new Durham.

The women and non-binary folks who started GRNC and kept it going for the last 16 years represent part of what has always made Durham itself. The young people who have been part of our community over the last fifteen years are the activists, artists, musicians, community leaders who make Durham appealing today, who are driving this amazing and quite frankly overwhelming Durham renaissance. 

We urge you to allocate competitive funding for small, local arts organizations like ours that could go towards operational costs. Please, as Durham continues to change, don’t leave us behind. Thank you.” 

One Comment on “Independent artists’ remarks to Durham City Council VIII, December 5, 2019.”

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