The virtual adaptation of this year’s Art Month allowed us to shine a spotlight on the talented individuals shaping the District’s art scene and expand the dialogue around the art community beyond Hickok Cole’s doors. Through a three-part webinar series, we invited key stakeholders in the art world – from curators and artists to developers and more – with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to comment on art’s unification qualities and identify the ways in which it impacts our society on a daily basis.

Our final Art Month panel, Art + Progress, examined how a renewed focus on social equity and justice in the arts is impacting creative communities in our region. Host Peter Nesbett, Executive Director at Washington Project for the Arts was joined by Cara Ober, Founding Editor at BeMore Art, Sandy Bellamy, Director of the General Services Administration’s Percent for Art, and Charles Jean-Pierre, a Washington, DC-based artist.

If you missed the conversation, don’t worry. You can revisit the recording, or read on for our top three takeaways from Art + Progress.

Our definition of progress is changing

“Today, progress is increasingly about issues of inclusion, accessibility, social equity, and justice,” says Peter Nesbett, Executive Director and Keeper of Imaginative Futures at Washington Project for the Arts,“which puts the attention on the context of art, and the biography and experience of the artist, as much as on the object.” Technology and social media have increased access to the artist themselves, carrying the artist’s voice and the messages behind their work further and than ever before. A recent example of this phenomenon is the reach and impact of the street mural at Black Lives Matter Plaza here in DC. Sandy Bellamy, Director of the General Services Administration’s Percent for Art program touched on the project’s virality, noting “it inspired people to emulate that particular work of art and express its simple yet complicated notion that Black lives matter.” 

Artwork, within the context of current events, politics, and today’s human rights issues, helps to tell a more holistic story by increasing exposure to a diverse set of voices and experiences. So as these experiences influence the artist, so does it influence their work, making it impossible to appreciate art without appreciating what’s happening in the world around us. “I’m finally at an age where I can recognize patterns in my work,” commented Charles Jean-Pierre, AKA JP, a DC-based artist. “And I feel like we’re in the same position as we were four years ago, heading into the 2016 news cycle. I feel like our Black bodies are politicized. But I think globally, darker people have been suffering and it’s not just an American problem. People are dying everywhere at the hands of people that look like them so I think this climate is based on racism but also on power dynamics. And that’s where I use my works to try to understand.” Today’s definition of progress calls on everyone to share in the burden because of how frequently we witness it’s presence – or lack thereof.

The message behind art can withstand the test of time

Governments have long commissioned artwork to reflect the ideals of the people in power. Sandy makes the argument that because of the lifespan of most public art, it’s important to commission culturally diverse artists and promote culturally diverse perspectives within our society. “When you look at neoclassical architecture and artwork in DC, there’s a lot of white men on horses, very few women and even fewer works commissioned by artists of color,” she adds. “But that doesn’t reflect who we are as a people today.” 

This is an opportunity for artists to break through the noise of divisiveness and realize the true definition of America. “Artists have always had the ability to speak directly to the soul and that will reveal the truth and the underlying humanity that we all have,” she says. “The more perspectives we have and the more artists of color at the table, the faster our journey towards embodying the true sense of freedom and democracy will be.”

Cara Ober, Editor at BeMore Art agreed, adding “By their nature, artists are comfortable saying things others are not capable of and they’re able to do it in a way that resonates.” She shares that the magazine’s community based and community accountable approach to local art has lent more people a voice when they want to express themselves while highlighting diverse talents and raising their profiles. 

How to create more equity within the art world

Working as an artist in a region with no shortage of established museums is an incredible privilege and undoubtedly provides inspiration to many. But Peter notes that they’re also seen as a point of contention in that they “embody the structural biases of the nation that gave birth to them.” “Museums have the most power of any entity in the art world,” Cara explains. “They have the power to legitimize careers. They have the money and the resources to invest in them and therefore it’s the job of museums to provide context and education and explain to people what they are seeing.” She pointed to declining attendance and membership as proof that these institutions are losing sight of their audience and the types of works today’s museum-goers hope to see. 

The hierarchy of decision-makers in the art world, including museums, elite galleries, and private curators, can create a barrier for contemporary artists seeking to broaden their reach. One solution to create a more democratic landscape is by expanding our approach to public art programs to increase representation and participation. “I’m currently working on a project with the Haitian Embassy where we’re commissioning Haitian artists to come to DC to create a public art installation,” JP shared. “I operate from a global perspective and from a place of privilege as an artist with an American passport. When I’m abroad, I’m constantly told how lucky I am to be an American so I leverage my privilege and access to help more people to create.”

Sandy adds that she’s working on a project that enlists the community’s perspective to make sure the work that’s installed reflects their lives and individual experiences. “I see it as a pragmatic decision. It’s important to meet people where they are instead of just plopping a work of art in their community selected by people who are not members of that community,” she explains. “Each property we commission art for has its own group of stakeholders made up of teachers, principals, architects, members of the ANC’s, and even high-schoolers. They select artists from a very diverse database of every demographic you could think of. And to me, they are perfectly capable of selecting outstanding works of art for their own community enjoyment.”