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Cultural & Racial Equity in Practice: Current Policy and Research and the Future of New York City

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As New York City develops its first-ever comprehensive cultural plan, this convening will explore real-life policy and research programs that have implications for the future of the City. 

What is cultural policy? And what is a cultural plan? The program will open with a discussion between Tom Finkelpearl, Susana Torruella Leval, and Caron Atlas, who will discuss the myriad ways in which the arts and government policy intersect with and influence one another.

How have researchers been unveiling the ways in which arts and culture contribute to the overall well-being of cities? Mark Stern of the Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) at the University of Pennsylvania will discuss SIAP’s current work documenting and analyzing the non-economic value of New York City’s cultural assets across the five boroughs. This work is made possible with funding from the New York City Cultural Agenda Fund in The New York Community Trust and the Surdna Foundation.

How can cultural policy address historic inequities in the sector? Risë Wilson will moderate a conversation with representatives from two cities where arts agencies have implemented race-explicit programs that promote racial equity. Randy Engstrom and Jennifer Cole will speak to their work in the urban arts ecologies of Seattle and Nashville respectively, and explain how cultural policy can go “beyond the ATM.”

This convening will bring together local cultural advocates and arts leaders to explore these and related efforts, as well as the potential impact of these activities on the future of cultural policy and advocacy in New York City. The program will include time for questions from and discussion with the audience. Reception to follow. 

Please register here.


This event is sponsored and hosted by the New York City Cultural Agenda Fund in The New York Community Trust. Current donors to the Fund include the Booth Ferris, Lambent, Robert Rauschenberg, and Stavros Niarchos foundations; the Rockefeller Brothers and David Rockefeller funds; and The New York Community Trust. 

For those who cannot join in-person, the program will be available via livestream on HowlRound.TV.

Featured speakers:

Caron Atlas is director of Arts & Democracy, which cross-fertilizes arts and culture, civic participation, and community change. She also directs Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts NY (NOCD-NY), a citywide alliance revitalizing NYC from the neighborhood up. NOCD-NY is partnering with the Hester Street Collaborative to help create NYC’s cultural plan. Caron teaches at Pratt Institute and Hunter College and serves on the district and steering committees for participatory budgeting in NYC. Previously she worked at Appalshop, a community cultural center in the coalfields of Appalachia and directed the American Festival Project, a national coalition of activist artists. Caron has consulted with Animating Democracy, Pratt Center for Community Development, Network of Ensemble Theaters, Urban Institute, New York State Council for the Arts, and several foundations. After Hurricane Sandy, she created a wellness center at the Park Slope Armory evacuation shelter with over 100 volunteers. Caron contributed to Towards a 21st Century City for All and a Cultural Blueprint for NYC and co-edited Bridge Conversations. She was a Rockefeller Foundation Warren Weaver Fellow and is a Coro Leadership NY alumnus. She received her BA and MA from the University of Chicago. 

Jennifer (Jen) Gilligan Cole is the Executive Director of the Metro Nashville Arts Commission where she leads the city’s efforts in art, culture and creative economy. She has over 20 years of experience in organizational leadership and change management. 

Nationally, Cole serves as a chair of the US Urban Arts Federation and as a member of the PolicyLink cohort on arts and cultural equity. She has served as grant reviewer for ArtPlace America and the National Endowment for the Arts and delivers lectures and talks on the role of community transformation through the arts. Cole has worked extensively in the public and non-profit sectors in a variety of executive leadership positions including as Vice President of Strategy at HandsOn Network in Atlanta, GA and as principal in a private consulting practice focused on change management and strategic long-range planning.  In addition to her active work in the arts, she is an active civic and community leader in Nashville. She is Board Member of the Nashville Downtown Partnership, the Music Makes Us Program, the Housing Fund (Community Development Financial Institution), and the Metro Disaster Response Fund. She is a graduate of Leadership Nashville and Leadership Tennessee.  Cole served on Mayor Karl Dean’s transition team and was appointed by him to temporarily lead the Office of Flood Recovery following a county wide flood disaster in May 2010. 

Under her leadership at Metro Arts, Nashville has increased its public art collection by 4700%, finalized a city wide general plan focused on creative economy and the arts, passed artisan zoning policies, expanded artist affordable housing and production space and launched a sector-wide effort to deepen racial equity within the arts. Cole is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Mary Washington College (now the University of Mary Washington) in Fredericksburg, VA where she earned her degree in English.  


Randy Engstrom has been a passionate advocate and organizer of cultural and community development for over 15 years.  He is currently the Director of the Office of Arts and Culture for the City of Seattle. As Director of the Office, he has expanded their investments in granting programs and Public Art, while establishing new programs and policies in arts education, cultural space affordability, and racial equity. Most recently he owned and operated Reflex Strategies, a cultural and community based consulting business that worked with foundations, non-profits, and local government. He served as Chair of the Seattle Arts Commission in 2011 after serving 2 years as Vice-Chair, and was Chair of the Facilities and Economic Development Committee from 2006 to 2010. Previously he served as the Founding Director of the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, a multimedia/multidisciplinary community space that offers youth and community member’s access to arts, technology, and cultural resources (www.youngstownarts.org). Prior to Youngstown, Randy spent 3 years as the Founding CEO of Static Factory Media, an artist development organization that owned and operated a record label, bar/performance venue, graphic design house, recording studio, and web development business. In 2009 Randy received the Emerging Leader Award from Americans for the Arts and was one of Puget Sound Business Journal’s 40 Under 40. He is a graduate of the Evergreen State College in Olympia, and he received his Executive Masters in Public Administration at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs.

Tom Finkelpearl is the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. In this role he oversees city funding for nonprofit arts organizations across the five boroughs and directs the cultural policy for the City of New York. Prior to his appointment by Mayor Bill de Blasio, Commissioner Finkelpearl served as Executive Director of the Queens Museum for twelve years starting in 2002, overseeing an expansion that doubled the museum’s size and positioning the organization as a vibrant center for social engagement in nearby communities. He also held positions at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, working on the organization’s merger with the Museum of Modern Art, and served as Director of the Department of Cultural Affairs Percent for Art program. Based on his public art experience and additional research, he published a book, Dialogues in Public Art (MIT Press), in 2000. His second book, What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation (Duke University Press, 2013) examines the activist, participatory, coauthored aesthetic experiences being created in contemporary art. He received a BA from Princeton University (1979) and an MFA from Hunter College (1983).  

Mark Stern is Kenneth L. M. Pray Professor of Social Policy and History and Co-Director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. An historian by training, Stern has taught social welfare policy since 1980. His scholarship covers United States social history, social welfare policy, and the impact of the arts and culture on urban neighborhoods. He is author of Engaging Social Welfare: An Introduction to Policy Analysis (Pearson Educational, 2014) and co-author of One Nation Divisible: What America Was and What It Is Becoming (Russell Sage Foundation Press, 2006), which examines the history of social inequality during the 20th century.

Stern is co-founder and principal investigator of the Social Impact of the Arts Project. Stern’s monograph, Age and Arts Participation: A Case Against Demographic Destiny, was published by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2011.

Susana Torruella Leval serves as Chair of the Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission and has been an art writer and curator of Puerto Rican, Latino and Latin American contemporary art in New York City since 1970. She was Director of El Museo del Barrio, from 1994 –2002, first serving as Chief Curator, and was named Director Emerita. Torruella Leval was Chair of the Cultural Institutions Group (CIG) in New York, and Vice President and President Elect of the Association of Art Museum Directors. She has recently joined the editorial board of the International Center for Art of the Americas at The Houston Museum of Fine Arts, and has been named to the board of the Institute of Museum and Library Services by President Obama.

Risë Wilson is the inaugural Director of Philanthropy for the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. As a member of the foundation's senior leadership team, she is spearheading the design of a grants program that embodies the fearlessness, innovation, and multidisciplinary approach Rauschenberg demonstrated in both his artistic practice and charitable endeavors. Before entering the field of cultural philanthropy, Ms. Wilson founded The Laundromat Project, an award-winning organization that mounts public art projects and other art programs in local laundromats as a way to help neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, Harlem, and the South Bronx amplify their creative power. Her seventeen-year tenure in arts and culture includes roles at the Ford Foundation, Parsons: the New School for Design, MoMA, and the International Center for Photography. She holds a BA from Columbia University and an MA from NYU.


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