Access Cultural Arts: How To Succeed in the Representation Business
When discussing ACCESS’s public arts programming, the operational strengths of the organization must be kept in mind, as these are frequently overshadowed by the personal reputation of Sally Howell, founder of the ACCESS Cultural Arts Program and its director from 1987 to 1995. Howell has a degree in Middle East studies; she has lived in Israel, Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan; and she speaks Arabic. She is not an Arab, however, and for this reason her success is commonly attributed (by Arabs and non-Arabs alike) to all the qualities Arab immigrants are said to lack. I am often told by Arab friends that Howell has “organizational skills” that Lebanese (or Palestinians, or Yemenis, or Chaldeans) do not; that her vision of the community is holistic, not clannish or sectarian; that she has a firsthand understanding of the methods and standards of “white people”; or, more intangible still, that she has a sense of possibility that extends beyond “big talk, dreaming, and scheming.”
I asked Howell how she interpreted this way of talking about her success. Her answer, an impromptu analysis of the “cultural representation business,” served both to confirm and deny the validity of her image in Arab Detroit.
If these observations are read simply as the opinions of a non-Arab (and identity politics demands such a reading), they will be easily misunderstood. The same views, more strenuously expressed, can be heard among Detroit’s Arab-American activists and intellectuals. The mainstays of the “cultural representation business,” grant writing, interpretive work linking heterogeneous communities, the creation of funding relationships between “special populations” and institutions of the larger society: these are projects Detroit’s newly arrived Arab immigrants are rarely equipped (and seldom concerned) to handle. It is American-born Arabs and their non-Arab allies who dominate the cultural representation business, and they do so using the skills and intellectual habits they have acquired as members of the (same) metropolitan, English-speaking, college-educated, managerial class. If Sally Howell’s prominence within this stratum of identity brokers is often ascribed to her non-Arabness, the perception is an optical illusion. More significant by far is her ability to “tap into” the multicultural agendas of America’s dominant funding agencies.
I think the thing I bring to this job which gives me a clear advantage is the fact that I can write a good, competitive grant. Very few people in our community can do that, and if they could, they wouldn’t be working for my salary. They’d move into the mainstream. That leaves WASPy “do-gooders” like me, who have this volunteeristic mentality which a lot of people in the community find utterly bizarre. But that’s good, because a lot of the big granting agencies are run by people like me. I speak their language. I can tell them what they want to hear, as well as what they need to hear. That’s incredibly important. In the [immigrant] Arab community, I’ve noticed that most people just don’t know how to represent their culture to a non-Arab audience. It’s likely to come across as arrogant, or defensive, or second rate, or just weird. A lot of people [among Arabs] just assume that no one [among Americans] would want to know about them, right? Or they don’t know how they are different from most Americans—or if they do, they don’t want to talk about it in public—so they haven’t developed effective ways for telling Americans what’s unique or special about Arab culture. That’s the biggest disadvantage. Because really there’s this huge opening right now for effective cultural representations of almost any “special” group. Schools, museums, city and state governments, companies—they all want to develop new audiences or deal with new immigrant populations. I just tap into that agenda.
During her tenure at ACCESS, Howell oversaw roughly $2 million worth of public arts programming, most of it supported by grants from government agencies, big business, and private foundations: the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs, the Michigan Humanities Council, the United Way, the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Fund, the Ruth Mott Fund, Dayton Hudson’s Corporation, Ford Motor Company, and others. Unlike the “one man” approach that prevails among the Arabic TV impresarios, Howell used these resources to build a programming infrastructure whose upkeep is shared by dozens of local scholars, Arab artists, community volunteers, and mainstream institutions. The ACCESS Cultural Arts Program oversees the Museum of Arab Culture, teacher workshops and curriculum consulting for Detroit area schools, artist referrals, a performing arts series, the Aliya Hassen Library (with its five thousand books, periodicals, and videotapes on the Arab world), and ongoing ethnographic and historical research projects on Arab Detroit.
In 1991 Howell gave official shape to her informal network of volunteers and consultants by establishing the Arab-American Arts Council (AAAC). The council consists of about thirty members, Arab and non-Arab, most of whom are English-speaking, college-educated professionals. It specializes in events typically described as “high profile,” most notably Fann wa Tarab: An Evening of Art and Musical Ecstasy, a biennial event featuring leading Arab-American musicians, visual artists, and poets. Fann wa Tarab is always held at a prestigious venue—the Detroit Institute of Arts, for instance—and the flurry of newspaper articles and radio interviews that accompanies the event is designed, quite specifically, to celebrate Arab musical, literary, and artistic achievement in America.
Whether high profile or low, ACCESS cultural arts programming has had a considerable impact on the popular image of Arabs in Detroit, who, even in today’s climate of “diversity,” are widely viewed as a politically suspect minority that can and should be excluded from public discourse. This relentless experience of marginalization leads many Arab-Americans to doubt it is actually they who are being recognized when inclusion finally comes.
“If you told me ten years ago,” said ACCESS executive director Ahmed, “that we would be doing joint projects with the Detroit Institute of Arts, I’d have said you’re crazy. That wasn’t even a fantasy for us back then. Sally made us realize it was possible and…it wouldn’t have happened without her. A lot of these big-time organizations aren’t comfortable working with Arabs, but they can work with Sally; so that gives ACCESS an inside track.”
Yet movement down that track is being funded and sped along by the most mainstream elements of American society: big government, big business, and the educational establishment. Without ACCESS as an institutional base, Howell’s programming ideas (and her role as “white cultural ambassador” for Arab Detroit) would hardly impress these benefactors. Excellent programs have failed to attract funding in the past. In the early 1980s several Arab cultural organizations sprang up in Detroit—most notable among them, the Arab-American Media Society (1980–86), which produced high-quality musical performances, lectures, poetry readings, and a nationally distributed radio program, “Arabesques.” Unlike ACCESS, however, the Arab-American Media Society could not institutionalize itself within the domain of American identity politics. It was not tied to important patronage networks in the state or federal government, a condition that forced it to court the erratic largesse of the Arab Gulf states; nor (with a part-time staff of four people) could it organize, stand for, or administer a critical mass of Detroit’s Arab community. Despite the obvious quality of its work, the Arab-American Media Society eventually fell apart. In Arab Detroit, as in other American immigrant and ethnic communities, the big funders of public culture expect a specific range of payoffs for their investment. Their support goes to institutions that interweave audiences, constituencies, markets, and identities in consistent, ideologically useful ways. This logic can be seen in every facet of ACCESS cultural arts programming.