Arts and Culture

To mixed media artist and community organizer Brianna Harlan, Louisville’s arts and culture scene is built “on a white supremist foundation, point blank.”

That’s not just Harlan’s opinion: it’s also a takeaway from months of research she’s been conducting on how welcoming the city’s art scene is for Black artists, artists of color and their work.

Nearly two dozen people with ties to the Louisville arts and culture scene met over Zoom Sunday to talk about how to tip the scales away from inequities within the industry.

“I don’t want to make this super formal because it doesn’t need to be,” Harlan said of the small virtual gathering. “It’s a community meeting, not a presentation or seminar or lecture.”

This was Harlan’s first group work session for an effort she’s been organizing since early summer, which she’s been calling “Louisville People’s Art Report” and has been sharing updates via her Instagram.

In July, Harlan released a survey, developed with a colleague of hers who is familiar with how to gather this kind of information. She received 265 responses.

Sunday was the first time she shared some of the survey’s qualitative analysis with others.

“I don’t want to focus too much on naming institutions, only because the whole point is that this work is going to be a bar for all institutions,” Harlan said. 

But she did say, after reading respondents’ experiences of racism, sexism, tokenism and wage disparities, that a “resulting theme” is a “white supremist foundation.”

Museums and art institutions across the country, such as New York’s Guggenheim Museum or San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, have been forced to reckon with systemic issues within their industry that marginalize Black people, women, people of color and LGBTQ people, driven both from within and by external forces.  

In the process of designing and drafting the final report, Harlan began to sketch out, in real time for the session participants, some of the purposes for doing this: “to set a standard for all arts and cultural spaces, initiatives, institutions, etc. for DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] action” and “to nurture an equitable and thriving art and cultural scene.”

During Sunday’s Zoom chat, Harlan also reviewed the survey’s quantitative data.

“When you go to art openings, do you often see the city’s diversity represented?” Harlan read off the survey question. “Almost 90% of [respondents] said no. So this is even just attending the show, not the artists that are represented, but who is in attendance, who is having access to this, who’s… welcome in that space.”

More than 95% of the 256 survey respondents also said that the Black artist community is not fairly represented at commercial art shows, she added.

Then there’s the issues of racism and sexism, which her survey respondents reported to be pervasive issues in local arts and culture, and nearly 93 percent said tokenism is a problem.

One attendee, who asked WFPL not to have her name used for this story, urged Harlan to get the report out as quickly as possible, especially as many local organizations are about to go through leadership changes.

“Having something like this, to be able to literally say like, ‘Look, this is what people are saying, can we talk about this,’ it’s really helpful,” she said.

Harlan expects to finish and release the full report by winter, after which she plans to host another community discussion to break down the findings and start to develop demands. She also anticipates another round of information gathering, possibly in the form of a survey again.

“The point isn’t to bash the arts and culture scene or create drama at all,” Harlan said. “It’s to build the scene that we want, and to unlock the doors that have been keeping us from our potential.”

Harlan said she hopes people will see this as a “point of learning.”

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts Reporter.