How Access Spends the Money: Programming Patterns and What They Mean
The Rockefeller Foundation
Partnerships Affirming Community Transformation (PACT)
This Request for Proposals
In communities across the United States, changing demographies and increasing local diversity are leading to more contact across racial and ethnic groups. Daily, through public conversations and the media, Americans hear that they are ill equipped to contend with this contact, that divisiveness and confusion are fragmenting the American experience. Yet their actual experience often contradicts this message, as communities struggle, with varying degrees of success, to discover, understand and engage the multilayered differences that characterize contemporary life in this country. The exploration of who America is—and will become—is informed by the energy and drive of communities tapping into deep reserves of concern and creativity to make a better life. Often the power of the arts and humanities is facilitating transformations within these communities.
Against this backdrop, the Rockefeller Foundation announces its second Request for Proposals for PACT: Partnerships Affirming Community Transformation. This round of PACT is focused on issues of race and ethnicity, whether explicitly and directly or as embedded in community issues such as education, economic opportunity and violence prevention. PACT is designed to identify, learn from and affirm the work of communities that are developing new ideas about America, about changing concepts of American identity and democratic values in a society increasingly defined by multiple pluralities rather than majorities. Specifically, PACT seeks efforts that engage culture and the arts to understand deeply rooted hopes and fears, discover and articulate shared values, stimulate and sustain change and mobilize diverse forces to transform communities.
Whether “newly arrived” or “native born,” Arabs are encouraged to play a very particular brand of identity politics in Detroit’s public spaces. This politics is often described as “inclusive”; it is driven by relentless appeals to diversity and pluralism, yet its ultimate goal is the “appropriation” of Otherness, an end that can be achieved only if the differences that set Others apart are somehow naturalized, normalized, muted, consigned to another time, or linked to a place and way of life the Others have left behind. The Arab-American identity ACCESS fosters through its cultural programs bears all the markings of this assimilative process, and the success of the Cultural Arts Program depends on the following tendencies, all of which buttress the interlocking (and largely unstated) agendas of the American funding establishment.
(1) Most of its programming is designed, carried out, or packaged in English. As with the monolingualism of Arabic TV in Detroit, the anglophone tendency in ACCESS cultural arts programming is not as obvious as it seems. The turnout for ACCESS events is heavily Arab-American, and many in the audience can speak (or at least understand) Arabic. Indeed, Arabic is spoken by more Detroiters today than ever before. The growing reluctance to use it (or Aramaic) at readings, workshops, festivals, art shows, and museum exhibits is attributable to the unquestioned link between English and the idea of a “larger public.” ACCESS cultural arts programs are meant to educate and impress this public. To be effective, to improve the pervasively negative image of Arabs in American society, these programs must be conducted in English.
“The granting agencies put a big emphasis on education and developing new audiences for traditional art forms,” Howell told me. “The new audience for Arab culture is the non-Arab audience, or the assimilated Arab-American audience, and both groups speak English. From my perspective as a grant writer, I’d say the whole multicultural arts movement is oriented toward English speakers. Basically, English is the language all the groups have to communicate in if they want to be heard.”
The performance of Arabic song and the use of Arabic calligraphy in painting and other visual arts are important exceptions to this rule. But song lyrics need not be comprehensible to have emotional effect; and Arabic script need not be understood to have iconic power. When lyrics and letters are posed as “literature,” and their aesthetic impact is based on what they mean, ACCESS programming quickly reverts to English. The Arab-American poets and novelists who read at ACCESS events do so in English. By contrast, the singers at ACCESS concerts perform only in Arabic, even though the introductions, the program book, the banter between songs, and the advance publicity for these concerts are in another language entirely. In both cases the same message is being sent: the audience ACCESS seeks to educate and impress speaks English, and the Arab-American identity it celebrates is constructed within (and as part of) an English-speaking discourse.
(2) Although Arab culture is showcased, its American context is always dominant. The idea of a “general audience,” in whose presence Arabs must represent themselves, functions as a backdrop against which immigrants (and other marked groups) must consciously imagine America and attach themselves to it. This ideological exercise reveals itself clearly in the design for “Creating a New Arab World: A Century in the Life of the Arab Community in Detroit,” an ACCESS lecture series and research project funded by the NEH. In accordance with NEH guidelines, the grant proposal for this project emphasized the need to make Arab immigrants part of the “American story,” even though many Arabs and Americans would find their inclusion in that story coercive.
Using the language of diversity and multiculturalism, ACCESS posed a solution to the problem that it hoped the NEH would fund.
Many Arabs, especially Muslims, feel that their culture and religion distinguish them significantly from European immigrants, who came to America as members of the dominant Judaeo-Christian civilization. This latter view, though rooted in a sense of cultural exclusion that is real, ignores the extent to which local varieties of Islam and Arab identity have been shaped by life in America and are, for that reason, uniquely American. The difficulty many Arabs and non-Arabs face in making Arabs part of the American story is amply reflected in the local media. Every three years or so, the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News run multi-page articles on the Arab community, and in each bout of reporting—usually provoked by political troubles in the Middle East—the Arab community is presented as if it were a novelty on the American landscape. The fact that Arabs have lived in Southeast Michigan, and elsewhere in North America, for the better part of a century has not yet been fully realized by most Americans. (ACCESS Cultural Arts 1994, 2)
Despite the rhetoric of boundary breaking, the themes on which “Creating a New Arab World” fastens are located squarely within America’s discourse about itself. The objective is to make Arabs an audible part of that discourse, a goal many Arab Detroiters enthusiastically support. The NEH was supportive as well. In 1994 it gave $85,000 to the project, making ACCESS the first Arab-American organization ever to receive NEH Public Project funds. One might argue that boundaries are falling down; one might as easily argue that Arabs are being encouraged (with generous government assistance) to imagine themselves in explicitly American terms.
The project we envision is committed to breaking down these well-established historical and cultural boundaries. It will address the challenge of identity and diversity by exposing Detroit’s Arab-Americans (and members of the non-Arab community) to the unique society local Arabs have created through their experience as settlers in a new world. By focussing on a few central themes—family, faith, work, language, food, and the artistic heritage—we will attempt to tell the story of a living community that exists in a continual state of transformation.…On the basis of fieldwork done in Metro Detroit, twelve humanities scholars will present lectures designed to enable lay audiences (1) to situate the Arab-American experience in relation to larger world events; (2) to show the interaction between various American and Middle Eastern notions of family, morality, society, religion, and self; and (3) to point out how the outcomes of these cultural interactions have changed over the course of a century. (ACCESS Cultural Arts 1994, 2)
(3) The Arab artistic traditions presented are mostly folkloric or classical; the modern products of Arab popular culture, as they exist in Arabic mass media, are generally avoided. When Howell approached the NEA in 1987 with ideas for cultural programming in Arab Detroit, she was immediately referred to the Folkarts Division. When she contacted the Michigan Council for the Arts, she was referred to specialists at Michigan State University’s Folklife Museum. And so on.
“I learned from day one that Arab artistic traditions are categorized as folklore, at least for funding purposes,” Howell told me.
A lot of funding agencies are interested in authenticity. They want proof the artists we present are part of a tradition. When it comes to Arabs, they don’t support what we would think of as modern or Western-influenced art forms. We’re much more likely to get money for the creation of a performance ensemble that uses ouds, qanoons, nyes, and durbekkes [Arab traditional instruments] than we are for one that plays the same music on electric guitars, synthesizers, and drum pads. There’s actually a greater demand for modern instrumentation in the community, but folkarts panels only want the traditional stuff. You can fund a dabki [line dance] troupe, but you can’t fund a theater group, because theater is not considered an authentic Arab tradition. It’s funny. When we want to present modern music, like Asmahan or ‘Abd al-Wahhab, we have to pitch it as Arab classical music—to prove it’s authentic—which is exactly the way Arabs talk about it.
The same logic can be seen in the ACCESS Museum of Arab Culture—originally called the Arab Folk Heritage Museum—whose carefully prepared exhibits highlight traditional dress, weaving, jewelry, cuisine, coffee paraphernalia, embroidery, traditional housing (both urban and rural), oral tradition, and (at the classical end of the spectrum) Arab variants of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Muslim contributions to science, and the Arab-Muslim tradition of education. What the Arab world might look like in the modern, national era is only faintly sketched out in the museum, which is toured by more than six thousand visitors (mostly students) each year. The museum’s newest exhibit, A New Arab World, focuses on life in Arab Detroit. Unlike the exhibits in the older wing, A New Arab World represents a community that is committed to tradition yet at the same time is historical, diverse, adaptive, and a natural part of the modern world. Given the close juxtaposition of these two very different representations of Arab culture, the visitor might be forgiven for concluding that Arab Detroit is historical, diverse, and adaptive because it is American and that the Arab world is traditional and slow to change because it is Arab. This view, be it said, is widely endorsed in both the Arabic- and English-speaking sectors of the Arab community.
(4) Programming is concerned to position Arabs within American culture, not outside it, and this internal position is consistently marked as “ethnic.” Much of ACCESS cultural arts programming involves collaboration with other nonprofit arts groups, and with very few exceptions these groups are identified with Detroit’s ethnic and minority communities. With Casa de Unidad, ACCESS put together Andalusian Legacies, a concert showcasing Spanish/Arabic musical and dance traditions. In tandem with New Detroit, a race-relations alliance dominated by big business and the African-American community, ACCESS organizes the annual Concert of Colors, a daylong world beat concert featuring Arab, African, Asian, Native American, jazz, and Latin performers. ACCESS poetry readings are often interethnic collaborations as well.
Blendings of this sort are based largely on programming expediency—they mirror political coalitions and can therefore be easily organized—but they also represent a way of marketing diversity that is supported by corporate, municipal, state, federal, and private funding agencies. The polite language, according to Howell, is one of “building audiences for ethnic and minority arts,” but the rhetoric is easily translated into an idiom of “building markets” (for corporate sponsors) and “building constituencies” (for government sources). Diversity and multiculturalism are treated as means to these ends, and an organization’s ability to expand programming beyond ethnically uniform audiences is always an important part of program evaluation. The following statement, which Howell inserts into a wide range of grant proposals, is addressed specifically to these themes.
This image of vibrant heterogeneity is somewhat misleading. The programming policy Howell is trying to appease is one that attempts to locate “new audiences,” label them, and turn them into manageable, mutually compatible units. In practice, ACCESS need not reach an audience that reflects the true ethnic diversity of Detroit—most of its events (like the events of other minority and ethnic arts groups) are effectively in-group affairs. Rather, ACCESS needs to build working relationships with the government agencies and corporate interests that, for reasons of their own, are trying to reach Arab Detroit.
ACCESS has been successful at integrating Arab-American and non-Arab audiences. In recent years, the Cultural Arts Program has branched out from its earlier efforts to provide performances of traditional Arab dance in the community, or to teach traditional instruments and crafts to Arab-American youth. By assembling the Arab-American Arts Council in 1991, a volunteer advisory board made up of artists and arts patrons from all corners of the Arab-American community, ACCESS has been able to attract internationally known artists and writers such as Simon Shaheen, Jihad Racy, Foday Musa Suso, Bernie Warrell, Pedro Cortez, Anton Shammas, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mona Simpson, and Diane Abu-Jaber to perform for audiences that reflect Metro Detroit’s true ethnic diversity. Our ability to collaborate with artists and arts organizations both within and beyond the Arab-American community has enabled us to transcend homogeneous crowds and attract new audiences. As we continue to serve the most traditional elements of the Arab community and to reach out to non-Arab Americans, we are forced to be flexible and responsive.