In the July issue of Studio Potter we ran an ARTICLE about a collaborative effort to address institutionalized racism in the field of ceramics. Artist Melissa Weiss proposed the effort on Instagram as a way to hold individuals and organizations accountable in ramping up or initiating antiracist efforts. One-hundred-thirty artists have signed the letter so far, putting their names behind the effort, making a public commitment to use the call-to-action whenever they are invited to lead a workshop or participate in an exhibition. 

In the call Weiss issued on Instagram, she wrote, “This is about providing access that the ceramics field has been terrible at doing. It is work and it’s not okay to not do it.”    

Her words, when read, were fiery and inspirational. 

Many hearts heard her call to action and fervently agreed.  

We all want the field of ceramics to be more reflective of the equity we envision in our idealized world. Talking to Weiss and Danielle Carelock, a North Carolina potter who was willing to offer a Black perspective in the drafting of the letter, humanized the call to action and demonstrated that. While the language of the letter is unwavering, there is room for discussion. Examination of the craft world is something Weiss is asking of herself as much as she was asking it of others. 

People are more divided than ever on how to move forward as citizens of this nation, let alone as members of a niche craft community. The decision to live a life of an artist, an artisan, is inherently political. It is also an inherently privileged life choice. Effective conversations about racism require vulnerability and compassion from both sides of the table. Motivated by a desire to effect change, the letters calling for action lead with an intent to communicate a firm line, but the heart of their motivation is to help and offer allyship. Those who write letters and those who sign them want to be active participants in antiracist work in the community they love. My hope is that reading the following sampling, conversations from the administrative side of our field, will highlight some of the roadblocks, the red flags, and the potential to reach a new horizon. Leigh Taylor Mickelson, James Lobb, and Jill Oberman, in sharing their experiences, their perspectives, and their own unanswered questions, demonstrate the humanity within the institutional side of ceramics. We will hear from a freelance consultant with over twenty years of experience working in nonprofits, the executive director of a nonprofit ceramic center, and an arts administrator who now works at a for-profit residency (with over twenty years working previously in nonprofits). Our individual conversations are woven together here. We discussed the complicated history of and ongoing work to resolve issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and how those efforts are shifting as new vocabulary is adopted to facilitate more effective and pointed conversations: antiracist, systemic racism, and White fragility, to name a few.

  

Jill Foote-Hutton: Thank you for agreeing to do an interview and explore the questions at hand in a public arena. I hope our conversation illuminates, for those who may not know, what work has already been underway on this front and demystifies the operating mechanisms of an art organization. Since the end of May, we have seen a lot of letters like the letter Weiss organized originating from people who are making an earnest effort to be allies or enact change at a faster pace than it has happened thus far. The responses, anecdotally at least, have been varied. A defensive posture in response to difficult questions is, while not productive, understandable. 

Leigh Taylor Mickelson: I think a letter like this and a conversation like this can help institutions in deciding what to do before they make decisions on who to bring in for workshops. I think it ensures that they ask themselves, "Is there a person of color who can do this job?” You know? “We need to have a May workshop. We haven't had a person of color in a while.” I think it just needs to be on the forefront of their minds. I think you would have to be living with your head in the sand these days to not be thinking that way. 

Jill Oberman: You know I helped Ayumi [Horie] edit a letter to [The Archie Bray Foundation] and over one hundred people signed it. One thing I kept saying in the process was, "These can't sound like demands." I kept trying to convey a tone of engagement and inquiry. But some people will receive a query as aggressive, no matter how delicate your aim. It's difficult. It's a tricky time.

Foote-Hutton: When I was working as an arts administrator, DEI work almost started to feel gross, because you often felt like your job was to count human percentages. Asking yourself, “Ok, how many people of color have we had? How many LGBTQUIA+ people have we had? How do we know if they are queer? How do we count them?” All in order to secure funding from foundations asking for quantitative data on inclusivity efforts. Foundations won’t award funds unless organizations are doing the work, and organizations need funds in order to do the work. The work being: reach the underserved audiences who didn’t have access.

Taylor Mickelson: Yes, you didn’t always know about your audience’s racial or gender identity. And you know, it wasn’t always a question you felt you could ask. On applications for a residency, a lot of places don't ask applicants to identify their race or positionality. We ask where they went to school, their address, why they want the residency – but asking for race is not something I ever had on a form.

Foote-Hutton: You know, the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis meets quarterly with organizations that administer their grants, and they discuss how organizations can effectively and sensitively employ demographic gathering tools in applications. Of course, there is always the option to not declare a positionality, if an applicant was disinclined to share the information. May I ask, do you now know more about the demographics your organization serves?

Lobb: We [Pottery Northwest] have a cohort of eight resident artists, and we serve about two hundred adult students quarterly – I should say, we used to before COVID-19. We have a board with thirteen members. And, we have hundreds of donors and patrons who come to our gallery, lectures, and other events. We haven't collected specifics on the student body or the patrons of the organization, but right now half of our resident artists identify as people of color. Three members of our board and one member of our staff. Two of our incoming resident artists identify as LGBTQIA+.  

Oberman: We [Red Lodge Clay Center] are a for-profit organization and we serve our local community in terms of classes and outreach. Red Lodge, Montana is tiny, so our class enrollment is tiny. You know, really, it's a percentage of the population which is just under 2,300. We do two free workshops a year that serve our local and regional community. Our largest audience reach is through the gallery and residency program, four long-term residents, and several short-term residents throughout the year. Those programs can reach a global audience, but usually the individuals participating in those programs are from the United States.

Taylor Mickelson: I think when you're a consultant you're all over the place in terms of your demographics of who you're serving. One of the places I work with is very rural, but upscale. The closer my clients are to New York City, the broader the demographics get. 

Foote-Hutton: Embedded in the question of, “What demographic do you serve?” is, “How do you define ‘underserved’ populations?” Can you speak to how your organization, or the organizations you work with, identify underserved?

Taylor Mickelson: The underserved population in Baltimore was a higher percentage of Black students that were low-income, and in Port Chester, New York, it was a higher percentage of Latinx population. As a consultant now, I’m working with a nonprofit that has a big outreach program where there is significant overlap between low income and minority. I think there have been some strides made regarding arts access for people of color, but the income gap is a real factor. And that is related directly to the achievement gap.1 One of my clients is very focused in their outreach to try to use art education as a component in reducing the achievement gap that exists, which is just as much about economics as it is about race.

Oberman: Well, we certainly don't want to be four white people working at the Red Lodge Clay Center making a narrow definition of what underserved is, but based on the makeup of our state, which is pretty white [Montana is 88.8% White, 6.46% Indigenous, 0.76% Asian, and 0.44% Black, according to current statistics], we feel our underserved population is probably more defined by economics than race. There are some very rural areas in Montana where people certainly have limited resources to spend on the arts. [The poverty rate in Montana is 14.4%, ranking it in the middle of the pack when set against poverty rates of the rest of the United States.]2

Foote-Hutton: One of the things I noticed when I was working in arts administration, as I was trying to get programming in front of underserved populations, was that there were a lot of communities who had their own programming already underway. They didn't need us at all, but in order for the non-profit to receive funding... We needed them more than they needed us. Do you notice that in your experience?

Taylor Mickelson: Yeah, I definitely notice that quite a bit in our desire to be a community resource to the underserved population and be the organization that provided access to the arts. Because we believe that everyone needs the arts, because it teaches life skills that other subject areas don't teach you. It felt at times like it was pulling teeth. Here we were offering free programming, but to get that free programming in front of the population we wanted to serve was very challenging. I think the thing that was most successful was having community partners (service organizations, non-art organizations) that already served that population be the ones to say, "Here's this great opportunity for you, your kids, or your family. Sign up this way." So, we weren't the one saying, “Come, we have this thing for you,” but [rather] someone they already trusted and saw as a resource. The partners were our go-betweens. We found that to be a really important factor in getting in front of underserved audiences. The other thing we found was, while you can find ways to reach the youth of underserved populations, it was really hard to reach the parents, and I think there are a lot of factors there. I think there are cultural interests, but there are also things like – this population is focused on basic needs, like putting food on the table. They might not feel like they have the time or energy for this kind of recreation. It was hard. It was something we had to guess at. We always felt like,”Here we are, offering these free community workshops and...” (pantomimes looking around at a low attendance). It took a lot of time and different avenues to have the programs become as popular as we thought they should have been. A lot of times it felt like guesswork. I think there are a lot of barriers: financial or cultural. The answer to this question is something I would still like to know, and I don't know how to find out the answer. 

Foote-Hutton: What does “advancement of the ceramic arts” mean to you personally and to the organizations you work for?

Lobb: That's in Pottery Northwest’s mission. Our mission is “to foster excellence in the ceramic arts” and I think that's pretty much the same thing as advancement. We do that through all of our programs – we could dissect the semantics, but I know…

Foote-Hutton: Well, I think that’s a good point. So what does excellence mean? Before this year, and what does it mean now?

Lobb: It’s fair to say we're reassessing how we define excellence and what that means as far as how to carry out our mission by who we’re serving. I agree with the premise that being more diverse and inclusive leads to excellence. You have to rethink your structure. One example is – someone suggested, “Maybe don't think so much about how the work [submitted for juries] is photographed.” And that was kind of mind blowing to me, because  all my training says you need to have the best photographs – professional, great photographs. Otherwise, you're not going to get into the programs you're applying to. We have to do that and realize, “Well, maybe not everybody has access to proper photography equipment. Maybe we should be looking at cell phone photos to equalize juries.”  So, as far as what we do as an organization to advance our markets – we do that through our programs and the classes we teach. We have a lecture series and exhibitions and then our resident artists program. You know what I find as a craft-based institution? I've always thought it's important to strive to be both innovative and have a reverence for tradition. For example, our resident artists program, we have people that are doing ceramics and performance, or experimenting with new methods and new materials alongside working with clay. Those folks are working in the same studios with people that are very traditional potters working in a very traditional practice. And what's kind of unique about Pottery Northwest is that we rely on those resident artists to help us define or develop the classes we offer. So the classes we're offering are based on their interests and  their expertise. Our programming is a reflection of who they are. We're a White dominated field. I think that needs to change. I haven't practiced saying this. I'm a little nervous to put it out there – if you look at music and the contributions the Black community has made in music and how awesome that is, you know – I think about that and how much [ceramics] is missing out. Plus, you know, the more voices you have… I think of a board member who says, “Three people are smarter than one.” So, just limiting ourselves in the field to a homogenized voice – we're missing out on a lot of creativity and a lot of potential.

Oberman: I think “advancement” is looking around today and listening to what people want. Basically everybody wants a seat at the table. Everybody wants to be included and viewed. I also think that not everybody can sell out a show in an hour and make work that everybody wants to own in their collection; but I think everybody with Instagram and with social media can be part of the dialogue and the aesthetic. I think that what would be good for the future of our field would be to diversify our aesthetic and make sure that everybody is visible.

Foote-Hutton: That's one of the most interesting conversations: How do we go about redefining the canon? What qualifies as good? How do we expand those parameters?

Oberman: I don't think that everything we've defined as good is wrong. I mean, a bad handle still feels bad, no matter who made it or where they came from, if it's a bad handle, right? So some things we have defined as good are based on real, concrete experiences. But that doesn't mean it's not worthy of being investigated further, or to hear somebody's story, or to have a spotlight shined on it. 

Taylor Mickelson: I think advancement of the ceramic arts means different things to different populations. I mean, I think for a nonprofit that's doing community outreach, you're advancing the field when you're putting ceramics in front of new audiences, or making sure that they have access to ceramics so that you are building the next generation to have clay artists hopefully, right? So I feel like that's a really important part of advancing the field – ensuring there is a next generation of artists. To me that's all about access, making your classes accessible, whether it's for tuition-based classes or for outreach, community-based classes. For artists. I think about making sure that artists have access to the space and time for exploration in the field. So that we are constantly refreshing what the medium is and [what it] offers. We've seen clay entering into new territories – like the fine arts – which advances the field. I feel like part of advancing ceramics is having new eyeballs on the medium. That means the more you infiltrate – you know, breaking those glass ceilings that are there for the field is a huge part of it advancing. I think the legacy of clay starts with access to arts education, ceramic art education, and who gets in front of the medium. This is a huge part of how the audience will diversify and I think that's why nonprofits are so keyed in to diversifying the field, but it's going to take time. 

Foote-Hutton: Will you share with our readers a quick glimpse into the funding process for nonprofits?

Taylor Mickelson: You get into a cycle where –  it's April, we have to write this grant for a program that's going to happen eighteen months from now. There are programs you're going to run no matter what, [but] then there are programs you won't run unless you get the money. And there are programs that are grant funded, and you could pretty much count on that money coming every year, because you have developed a relationship with that funder. Those are the best kind. 

Lobb: I don't know that I would ever say that. There are grants we do re-apply for, year after year, some foundation grants that we get consistently, but – every year it's, “Fingers crossed. I hope they don't cancel us.”

Taylor Mickelson: When and if you do get funding, then you implement the program, which means finding the teachers, which for offsite education, arts education, it's not always that easy. I tell you, one of the things that I have always found really challenging is – you would really love your teachers, your teaching artists, to be someone that the audience you're reaching can relate to. If you're going to a school that is ninety-five percent BIPOC, it would be really great if you could hire a BIPOC teacher, but we had challenges finding people who are available to teach, that are willing to do the drive, to go to a school to teach for two hours, and, you know, we just didn't have the pool of teaching artists to draw from where we were. That was a big barrier. When you're writing in your grants about diversity, equity, and inclusion, you can talk about wanting to have people of color as your teaching faculty, but your ability to follow through really depends on your teaching pool, and who you have access to. 

Foote-Hutton: Have you ever had a scenario where a person of color was in a community class and they were really excited about clay and then they were groomed to become a community teacher?

Taylor Mickelson: Yeah, actually, that happened. We had a program where we had a weekly clay class for a high school group. It was for middle school and high school. They met every week through the whole school year. We offered it every year because we had a family foundation as the funder and it was reliable funding. We had one kid that started in middle school. She came back every year through high school, graduated, decided to go to school for early childhood education, but decided that she wanted to be involved with us because she was from the neighborhood, and she started out as a teaching artist. We gave her teacher training and she became a community arts teacher. That is the model we were trying to copy again and again, but it took, you know, working with her for seven years in our classes for her to realize that this is something that she wanted to do. Even though she's not going to grow up to be a clay artist, most likely, she has those job skills and she liked the idea of giving back to her community by being a bilingual person of color. She was Latinx and she could teach classes in Spanish. So it was one of our best success stories. We advertised for bilingual teachers. There just was no one that had the combination of language and clay skills in our area. What happened with our student is what needs to happen on a grander scale. It takes time and intention. This was something we wanted to see happen. The other thing about that program is that, while they were in high school, the students had paid summer internships. We would bring them in and they would be teacher's assistants. They were getting job skills before they were even out of high school. Then if an assistant wanted to continue with us, we would give them the opportunity, we would hire them as assistants for various other programs. Eventually, once they built a solid skill base in clay, lesson planning, and classroom management, they were able to teach kids in the program. It is this kind of programming that nonprofits can be doing to achieve goals of widening their pool of educators.

Foote-Hutton: That anecdote speaks to the next question, which is: What steps have you seen in the field, or in your organization, that already aim to create equity in programming, staff, and audience? Are there specific notes you can share from your experience as a resource for nonprofits, for-profits, K-12, or higher education?

Lobb: For exhibitions, invitational exhibitions specifically, we seek out BIPOC artists to participate, and have been for about the past two years. We curate by committee, and to ensure we have diverse representation we use a spreadsheet with columns to keep us on track regarding diversity of the work: wood fired to brightly colored electric fired, that kind of thing. Then we do the same thing to ensure diversity of artists represented. Yeah, I know, it's checking boxes, and that kind of sets off red flags with some people, but quite frankly – I thought, “This feels so disgusting,” but I don't know how else you're supposed to make change . This past year, we've asked our review panel to consider diversity as an asset among the resident artist applications. 

Foote-Hutton: How do you do that when juries are usually blind? When I would organize juries, I aimed to have the diversity in the jurors, but, even when applicants would identify their race, gender, and orientation, it wasn’t on the projected images, resulting in an impression of a “color blind” panel to a degree. 

Lobb: We're learning through all this. We don’t, in our call for applications, say what we're doing with demographic information. We’ve learned that if we don't say we're going to give more consideration to BIPOC applicants, identifying exactly how we're going to use this information and why it would be positive for someone to report their demographic, then people aren't always going to report it. Right now, we don't know how accurate the demographic information about the applicant pool is. So, while we do have a diverse group of resident artists right now, our application process still needs some fine tuning. For our community classes, we set up an inclusivity award for BIPOC, LGBTQUIA+, folks living with different abilities, and from other historically marginalized groups to take classes for free or at a reduced cost. We’ve introduced a sliding scale. The issue with that is – we opened the door, but how do you get people to the door? We just started right before COVID, doing some more outreach, sending fliers to all of the library branches and organizations or community centers in the south end of Seattle – historically where most BIPOC communities live. Outreach is the first part and then building community partnerships is going to be a key component. It’s one thing for people to see a flyer and another, before they genuinely know who we are, to want to interact with us. And even if they might want to interact with us, there is the issue of transportation [because we’re on the opposite side of town]. But we haven't even gotten to that point yet – to find a resolution for the transportation issue. 

Foote-Hutton: Maybe organizations need to start partnering with metro, getting passes for people to solve the transportation issue.

Taylor Mickelson: I think DEI has... every grant out there asks how organizations are being diverse, equitable, and inclusive in their practices. That's a good thing, because it has forced institutions to start thinking in those ways whether they like it or not, if they want to get funding from certain entities. I think NCECA is tackling the issue of needing to diversify the field and acknowledging that we have this Eurocentric perspective – a perspective that has made it challenging for people of color to be part of the clay community – and they are starting to make changes. It has had an impact on how other institutions are thinking about how they curate exhibitions, how they form their decision-making committees and residencies, and things like that. I remember when I was on the NCECA board we were being more intentional when we were putting shows together, making sure that we didn’t present exhibitions with all White artists. But I also remember being very challenged by that, especially when it came to Black artists, because we just didn't… there weren't that many people out there. There were five people you had on the tip of your tongue. People who you knew of in the field and then, even those Black artists didn't know who else was out there. This was a couple of years ago. Who else was making functional art, that was Black? I see that slowly starting to change, because of organizations like The Color Network and now especially because of social media. Lately, I have learned about so many Black potters that I never knew were out there. Where have you been all my life? You know, where have you been?  

Foote-Hutton: When I was  relaying a similar anecdote the reply I received was, “Well you couldn't find them, because you were just looking in your pool of experience.”  I can tell you, it did not feel like that is what I was doing. I certainly began in my pool, but then, when I did find BIPOC or LGBTQUIA+ artists, I would look at the people they were looking at, and then look at people those people were looking at. The avalanche of Black and Latinx artists in these past months has felt miraculous. The difficulty in identifying these artists in the past is likely just one more indication of how tightly locked the system is, even when we think we have thrown the gates open.

Taylor Mickelson: We have to share our research with each other or else things just won't change.

Oberman: So at this point, what we've done is make pledges – mostly because of COVID. Any new initiatives are moving really slowly. I don't want to sound like we're blame-shifting, but if we say we want to do more outreach for the underserved populations in our regions, or that we want to partner with the indigenous population in our state – they are not going to have us come and do a workshop next week. No outsiders are allowed on the reservations right now and schools are not in session. But we have pledged to make changes in three aspects of our programming: We pledge to have more diversity in our gallery artist representation. We pledge to have more diversity in our residency program, potentially offering a residency for BIPOC artists that is funded on some level in terms of tuition, rent, material fees, or travel, so people can actually afford to get here and share in the experience that is Red Lodge. Finally, we pledged to increase our outreach to our underserved communities in our local and regional areas.

As the gallery coordinator, I have already started to do research. We have a year-plus of our future programming already planned, so those changes won't necessarily show up until late 2021-22. I'm trying to reckon with the different layers of diversity, in terms of emerging versus mid-career, BIPOC, LGBTQUIA+. I want to bring all of that into every exhibition, so there's a wider range of voices. It’s complicated. When you find – if you find – someone to bring into the gallery who hasn't had exposure, and then they get exposure at someplace like Red Lodge Clay Center or Northern Clay Center, then suddenly all of the ceramic organizations want them. It can seem to happen quickly. Then they become one of the usual suspects. You're always having to mine the field to find that next level. The way that I personally have curated in the past is that I would start with an idea and move forward from there. One of my favorite shows was “Home Sweet Home.” I invited artists that were both potters and sculptors who used the idea of home, house, or architecture in their work. I didn't look for artists based on race or gender. I looked for artists who focused on that theme. The exhibition was expansive and inclusive when considered through the lens of the theme, but it wasn’t that diverse if we look at it in terms of race. I am trying to figure out new ways of finding artists that I like, and curating based on what they're already doing. It's a little bit of a shift in the way I'm thinking about how I curate. It’s a challenge for me. It's a challenge I've opened up for and am excited about.

Foote-Hutton: Have you seen conversations about racism and/or inclusivity happening in the past, before the recent civil unrest? Not just at Red Lodge Clay Center, but with any of the other organizations you have worked with in the past?

Oberman: I was part of the NCECA board for six years. I just finished last March, but NCECA has been talking about this for many years now. I think NCECA has been strongly focused on DEI for at least six years. Josh Green, it's been a mission of his, to raise and increase inclusivity and diversity. We used to talk about how, fifteen years ago, diversity in ceramics meant potters and sculptors or men and women. That's kind of ridiculous in retrospect, but that's how slow ceramics has been to become aware of this problem.

Taylor Mickelson: A turning point, in addition to when Theaster Gates spoke at NCECA, was when Roberto Lugo was an emerging artist. I feel like those were two very powerful moments in the NCECA world that kind of turned a light bulb on the field. I think the systemic racism that exists in the field was there, and is there, because we didn't even realize how White the field was. We were not looking at it. Yes, diversity meant a man and a woman, which was another thing. You know, the field used to appear as all White men. Women breaking into the field or organizers making sure that juries weren’t two White guys – you had to have a man and a woman, somebody who was older and younger. That was diversity, and if you could get a person of color in the mix, even better. Even with the Japanese influence on the field, it's still been a White world, you know, in America anyway. In the mid-nineties the conversation was craft versus art, then it was gender, and then it was either you had this Eurocentric viewpoint or you had the Eastern viewpoint. People seemed to go in either one of those directions or, sometimes, it was a merging of the two. Just two, east or west, even though when you look at ceramic history you see ceramics was in every single culture. Somehow it still remains – White people making pots – whether you were influenced by this or that.

Oberman: You know, after Theaster Gates’s keynote lecture, people came right up to Josh Green with checks in their hand that night. Which was great. NCECA created the Multicultural Fellowship that night, on the spot. I mean, the parameters of what it became was developed later. But right away people came up to Josh with money and thinking,”Oh, this is what Theaster meant.” From there NCECA really started moving forward to increase diversity. I think that some of the pushback, in terms of what just happened on social media, was that we didn't get all the stakeholders to buy in. Even though people may agree with NCECA, maybe we just started making changes. I keep saying that NCECA doesn't have a racism problem. They have a public relations problem. Because we've really been trying to make changes. [In the time since I spoke with Oberman, NCECA has brought Edith Garcia on board as the communications director and Gerald Brown as the social media curator.] I mean the conference planned for Richmond, Virginia was all set to be the most diverse programming you've ever seen. There was going to be diverse voices, diverse perspectives, diverse conversations, and diverse exhibitions. I mean, the 2020 NCECA ANNUAL CATALOGUE is called “Burden of History.” I think we were all set to make that very public, but maybe we didn't get enough buy-in from our membership, even though they might have agreed with us.

Foote-Hutton: James, circling back, I’m curious, you said Pottery Northwest began to really focus on this issue two years ago? What was it that turned your head toward the antiracism issue at that time?

Lobb: It's always been important to me, but I've had my own coming to terms with how to do this work. We have some community members that really wanted to see it happen, including my former operations manager. I think I would – I would point to the bathrooms. That's where it all started. 

Foote-Hutton: Was that about gender? 

Lobb: Yeah. I wish could recall an anecdote, or neat little story. I’m sure a number of different things were happening in the background, but there was a call to de-gender the bathrooms. That's been a national conversation. The conversation at our organization was, “We talk about being inclusive and welcoming, but we still have male and female bathrooms.” The attitude of the majority was, “If we just remove the gender from the bathrooms, that's an easy step we could take.” I'll be honest. I struggled with that. I was like, “That's going to make people uncomfortable,” and now, two years later, I'm like, “Yeah, of course we don’t need gender identification on the bathrooms.” That has to do with education. I went through a training, LGBTQIA+ and gender diversity training, and I heard a person say, “I'm so tired of talking about this. I just want to be a person, and I just want to go to the bathroom.” It still chokes me up. In that moment, where I worried, as a director, about the impact it would have on our population, I shifted my thinking. It’s about someone’s safety over your own discomfort. That conversation was a catalyst, but we’re also very fortunate that we are part of Seattle Center where there are all of these cultural organizations. We have the RACE AND SOCIAL JUSTICE AT SEATTLE CENTER organization, which became active a couple of years ago. We've been participating in their programming and learning through that. It's an awesome resource. It's not a panacea, but more people are smarter than one person. They facilitate multiple organizations together on antiracist work. I want to say this: I thought we were doing pretty well. Then, the protests erupted and I started paying more attention. I saw how deep the problem of racism runs and how much work we actually have to do. The Seattle City OFFICE OF ARTS AND CULTURE put together a RUBRIC3 to assess antiracism in cultural organizations, with the lowest score of “1” equaling an organization fixed on the status quo, that doesn’t see that there's a problem, and doesn’t see any reason to change, and as a result is upholding White supremacy within  the organization – not really intentionally or unintentionally, but  just not really thinking about it. The other end of the rubric – “6” – being very proactive toward racial justice and social justice [where] everyone who works in  the organization is thriving. In between those two are organizations where people see the problem, but feel too busy to deal with it. I saw Pottery Northwest as right in the middle, like number “3”, and hopefully with some work, we could come to a “4”. But I’ve learned it isn’t really up to me, the White guy, the executive director, to decide where we are. It's really about the perception of people who are working in these organizations. When I was told we were at a “2”, that really bummed me out. I thought we were doing better, but we've got a long way to go. While we may be diverse, we're not doing all we can to make sure that people's voices are being heard and that they're part of the decision making. I think – I guess I would say, “I don't know,” and that's where I'm at right now – learning more about where our problems are, what we are doing wrong, and what can we do better? 

Foote-Hutton: Do you think this conversation takes attention away from the craft or do you think, if we can all learn from this time, that the field and the craft will just get better? Has anyone in your sphere of community raised the issue, “This isn't our problem. We should be focused on pots?”

Lobb: I have faith that's not the direction this is going to go. If we do this right – I have heard the concern raised that this work is going to disrupt the field. It’s going to disrupt our usual processes of doing things. One of the tough questions that has come up is in regard to our work-study program and the economics of how we operate that program. We rely on our work-study students for labor to fire kilns and mix glazes, and that's pretty common for organizations like us. But, if you look at who has the time and who can afford to offer that labor up, it's typically not people of color. So we have to ask, how can we do that differently? Should we pay our work-study students so that we can be more diverse with that group? Then that leads to the question, “How can we afford to possibly do that? That's crazy. We can't afford to pay people. That's just not how we do things.” So that is the kind of pushback we are dealing with on a personal and organizational level. Right now, we've committed to hiring a consultant who's versed in antiracism to help us push this forward, because – speaking personally – I'm totally guilty of analysis paralysis. I don't want to make a mistake. I don't want to be harmful. And then that just leads to a lot of inaction. With the assistance of a consultant, I would love to look at everything that we're doing through that antiracist lens: the work study program, the resident selection process, the classes that we offer, back to the question of transportation – all those things.

Oberman: At Red Lodge Clay Center, it’s not that we have turned down artists of color for residencies, it's that only a handful of artists of color have applied. So that's the systemic problem, right? And so, what can Red Lodge Clay Center do to bridge that gap or meet halfway? Is it because students don't know about the program? Does it go all the way back to school, to kindergarten when you're exposed to ceramics, and then you have it in middle school, and then you fall in love with it in high school, and then you go to college? I don't know. 

Foote-Hutton: Do you think when there have been BIPOC artists in the applicant pool who didn’t receive an offer, but were close, do they know they were close? How often do you see repeat applications?

Oberman: There have been a few people that reapplied, and usually that worked for them. I mean, you know, oftentimes people that were close did reapply. When we interview applicants in the second round of the application process, we see them. I don't know if that's a good or bad thing, but that part of the process is not race blind. It is a part of the process that allows us to see who the applicants are. It’s an opportunity to gauge their mannerisms and their comfort zone. I think people know, if they are interviewed, that they are close. Then they often apply for a second year. 

Foote-Hutton: If any of you received a letter from an artist that you had invited to an exhibition, a sale, or to teach, that was asking about what steps have been taken toward antiracism within your organization, how would you respond? Would you be in a position to use it as a conversation starter?

Taylor Mickelson: I think the letter assumes a lot of things, but it also doesn't tell me what answers the artist sending the letter is looking for in order to do business with me. That's one problem I have with the letter. I don't know what answers you want in order to move forward. And maybe that's not the right response. Maybe the intention of the letter is to have a conversation about how an organization is being diverse. I think organizations, whether they look diverse or not, do not always reflect what they wish to be or their efforts towards being diverse. I also think organizations are working in other areas, like community outreach, and they might be doing a lot of great work over here in one area of programming the visiting artists or exhibiting artists can’t readily see. They may only see that we’re offering workshops and tuition-based classes. There are different goals in place for that program. I think if the letter were to be a little more open-ended, like, “How is your organization pursuing more diverse, equitable and inclusive programming?” artists might find out that the organizations have incredibly robust community outreach programs that are serving a diverse population. A  lot of organizations use tuition-based classes to fund other areas of the organization or to cover overhead. Tuition-based classes make it possible for organizations to go and do outreach classes. What is an organization supposed to say if they are in a state that is 95% White? How can you be diverse and have a diverse student body and leadership if like, everyone In your county is White? There are parts of the country that are like that. Where you are in the world really might have an impact on how you answer those questions.

Foote-Hutton: You know, in listening to your answer, it occurs to me that one response could be to invite the artist to participate in the outreach programming. If an organization invites a ceramic artist to demonstrate in a traditional workshop scenario that's serving your tuition-based class population, and the artist wants to be working toward increasing equity in the field, why not bring them into other program areas? I think part of the motivation to create the letter was that the artists wanted to also hold themselves accountable too. At the root of the letter, and other letters like it, is not only the question, “What are you doing?” but also, “What can I do?” 

Taylor Mickelson: You know with workshops it’s hard to break even as it is. An organization often charges for the workshop based on what the artist charges the organization and those prices have gone up and up and up over the years. If we wanted to provide a scholarship to somebody who was a person of color or a low income community member, we would have to either secure funding from an external granting source or donor, or raise the prices even more, or else the artists would have to come down on their rate some to make scholarships possible. I think there needs to be a little bit of a give and take. And it's true that there are instances when we would invite BIPOC artists in to do workshops. When we did, we would try to organize it so that the artist would also do a workshop for a high school group that would be coming through because there's so much value in a student who is BIPOC seeing another person of color teaching. Sana Musasama always said that she would have never become an artist if she didn't meet a Black artist when she was a young girl. That is something we need to remember. We need to lead by example. 

Lobb: It's expensive to take a class with us. We're trying to buffer that cost. And that's where the scholarships come in. We also have a financial need-based scholarship, along with the diversity and inclusivity award we offer. So, if you have a low income, you can apply for a scholarship and pay what you can, or pay what you will, for a class, and then it's the same thing with the workshops. If we're going to do a weekend workshop, bringing in an artist from out of town, that's just more expense. So really, we just try to make sure that the tuition cost covers the expense of that specific workshop and nothing else. If you look at our history in the seventies, eighties, nineties, the big thing for Pottery Northwest was bringing in workshop artists. I don't know how we did it back then. Now, if we can do three of these a year, I feel good about that. It is hard to pull this off and have it be fair. We always set aside two spots in every class for scholarships. With our class caps, that means 10% of our enrollment is covered under scholarships. We often place almost everyone who applies.

Foote-Hutton: Jill, how did you initially respond to the letter?

Oberman: I was nervous about it when I first read it, but then I also feel a little differently after some time has gone by. I look at the programming for the whole year, and there might be some shows where it's a little more or less skewed. One of the problems with that letter is that I don't know who's in the show until everybody's accepted. I can invite you and ten other artists to the show and you could send the letter back to me – you could be the first one to respond – and I don't know who's in the show yet; I know who I've invited to the show, but I don't know who's in it yet. That's a little bit of a hiccup, but it's a minor hiccup. I'm definitely working toward making each show have more visibility for diverse artists. So I don't feel so scared about replying to a letter like that, but the antiracist work is really just starting now. Here's the thing: There are a lot of ceramic artists out there making really good work. There's a lot of good pots. We sell mostly pots, some sculpture, but mostly pots, and there are really a lot of good potters out there. So what we need to do as an organization at Red Lodge Clay Center is look at the people who are fresh, because that's what we want – fresh artists. Whether that freshness comes from people we've been carrying for fourteen-and-a-half years, or whether we need to make room for a few more. And there's room! And there is not just Red Lodge Clay Center. There is Northern Clay Center, The Clay Studio of Philly, Akar, there are all of these other brick and mortar galleries showing really strong ceramics. There is room for us all.

Taylor-Mickelson: I think it all comes down to education. I think what a lot of the systemic racism really boils down to is White people having the privilege to be artists, to choose art as a pathway, to have access to it in the first place. When we all grew up, you had art in school, everybody did, and that has been slowly going away – not just clay, but all art. How does that impact decisions about what professions people choose? Do people feel like the arts are a viable career path? Higher education is where a lot of artists get their education. Certainly in ceramics – the people who are excelling in ceramics – a very high percentage of them learned in academic settings. That doesn't mean everybody. I mean, you have people like Malcolm Davis who never went to college. Another old white guy, but he was trained in community centers. If you don't go to college for ceramics, it doesn't mean you can't succeed in ceramics. A more current example is Osa Atoe. She's killing it. I had not heard of her until the beginning of this year, but when I looked more deeply at her practice, I thought, “Wow!” I do think the majority of BIPOC artists who are now visible have come up through the community classroom and workshop circuit more so than the academic route. That might be part of the problem with our field – is that it's very academic-centric. It’s very focused on hiring people coming out of higher education. That might point to one thing more institutions can figure out: How to take their students out of their community classrooms to support them in the transition between the pre-professional level and the professional level, by providing more development opportunities. At the organizations I worked with that was always our goal. We wanted to make sure we had a series of steps from beginner to professional. But whether that was accessible to people of color or not, then comes down to their economics, you know, and whether they could afford these classes or whether we had the ability to provide the kind of scholarships that were needed. 

I actually talked about the letter with my neighbor who's a curator at the Met. There are some questions in the letter that she would not have been able to answer positively until a couple of weeks ago. Even the largest nonprofit institutions are behind the eight ball on some of these questions. So, I do think that it’s going to be some time before ceramic institutions and smaller institutions will positively be able to answer the way they would like to be able to answer these questions. I think for White potters to sign this without having a conversation…  I don't know, I wonder if there's a better way to do it. 

Lobb: I think that we're welcoming, genuine, and approachable as an organization. We're kind of a calm organization, fairly playful. There's that personal interface that I think we do really well. We're run by people, and it's super obvious that we're run by people, for better or for worse – all the mistakes that we make. But what I hear people talk about the most is, when they walked in our doors and they met so-and-so and so-and-so greeted them and offered to show them around – that kind of thing just happens at our organization. It’s inherent in who we are. It doesn't require my leadership for people to welcome others into the space. I would love it if Pottery Northwest was a leader in the ceramic arts with DEI and antiracist work. Can we be leaders in this work? I don’t know, but that's what our aspirations are.  

Oberman: I was raised to be non-racist. So for 50 years, I've been non-racist. Now, for six months, I'm trying to be antiracist. Right? That's a different thing. It's not enough to be non-racist anymore. I feel the same for our organizations. We have been non-racist this whole time – colorblind in some ways – we need to be antiracist to make change.

The Weiss letter, and others like it, have evoked a variety of reactions in our community. Rather than lean in to an oppositional response, the administrators who chose to be interviewed by Studio Potter here, have allowed themselves to be vulnerable by sharing their honest struggles as they grapple with systemic racism. Can we engage each other with kindness and vulnerability, allowing room for nuance and history in our conversations? Can we recognize when we are feeling fearful and defensive and set those feelings aside to move toward solutions? As Oberman said, “There is room for us all.” 

Endnotes

  1. The term "achievement gap" is often defined as the differences between the test scores of minority and/or low-income students and the test scores of their White and Asian peers. But achievement gaps in test scores affect many different groups. Some groups may trail at particular points, for example, boys in the early years and girls in high school math and science. Differences between the scores of students with different backgrounds (ethnic, racial, gender, disability, and income) are evident on large-scale standardized tests. Test score gaps often lead to longer-term gaps, including high school and college completion and the kinds of jobs students secure as adults. “Students Affected by Achievement Gaps.” NEA, www.nea.org/home/20380.htm.
  2.  “Montana Population 2020.” Montana Population 2020 (Demographics, Maps, Graphs), worldpopulationreview.com/states/montana-population.