Last week, the Scene reported that records as well as interviews with staff members reveal that Metro Arts Commission’s commitment to equity is not reflected in its internal dynamics. Despite the agency’s 2016 equity statement and dedication of public funding to anti-racism and equity training for staff, the commission and the community, former and current staff members have sought to prove through documentation that the agency has retaliated against staffers who call for accountability. Staffers allege that the agency has paid lip service to the agency’s racial justice framework while tokenizing and exploiting the women of color on staff. Documents also show one staff member brought these issues to the attention of commissioners Marielena Ramos and Jim Schmidt for redress in 2020 and 2021, respectively. Read the full investigation here.
In response to the Scene’s reporting, Councilmember-at-Large Sharon Hurt appeared on 92Q’s Kenny Smoov Morning Show Tuesday to announce that the Metro Council’s Minority Caucus has requested a full investigation of the allegations made.
“There must be accountability from the Metro Arts leadership specifically naming Caroline Vincent,” said Hurt. “Metro Arts has failed on their commitments to people of color that they tout on their own equity statement and messaging about the public programs. They’re the only Metro department with a published equity statement, but they didn’t follow it. Secondly, they have mistreated the hardworking women of color, the civil servants who have been the champions of equity [and] the main implements of programming that we see in our community.”
She continued: “Ms. Vincent has had access to and has professionally benefited from years of publicly funded training, consultants and support. She, more than anyone, should understand that their actions and the internal workings of the agency were harmful and wrong to people of color.”
Hurt also spoke to allegations that former Black staff members felt that they were exploited for their community connections and backgrounds in racial equity organizing. Said Hurt: “[Metro Arts] basically said, ‘I’m gonna take everything that you know, everything that you do, take the credit for it, and then you better not say anything about it.’ … The caucus is committed to getting to the bottom and not letting it be swept under the rug.”
This morning, Metro Arts Commission issued a statement via social media regarding the Scene’s investigation:
“Last week, the Nashville Scene released a story with various allegations of unequal treatment of Metro Arts employees by the management of the agency. Metro Arts has a strong commitment to racial equity and inclusive practices as established by our mission statement and through the work of our CARE standing committee. We take these allegations very seriously and we will not comment on the specifics of these personnel allegations until a review is completed by that department, as is the appropriate process in Metro government. Indeed, Metro employees who have concerns about their department’s practices have myriad options available for addressing those concerns, both within Metro and through other agencies. Based on the findings of the Metro Human Resources review, we will determine what the next steps should be.”
Staff members contend that they did not document mistreatment through official Metro channels because they did not trust finance and operations director Ian Myers, who acts as the agency’s human resources coordinator.
The Scene reached out to arts and education groups in the city who partner with Metro Arts and/or receive funding from Metro under the agency’s umbrella.
Writes Jay Clayton, director of Vanderbilt University’s Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy:
“I am disturbed to hear the reported accounts of inequitable treatment of people of color within the Metro Arts Commission. The actions described in your article fly in the face of all that we have worked to accomplish through our partnership with Metro Arts in the program for Racial Equity in Arts Leadership (REAL). Since 2015, our collaboration with Metro Arts on REAL has benefited from the dedication and professionalism of former staff member Cecilia Olusola Tribble and current staff member Janine Christiano. At the same time, we have always found the executive director, Caroline Vincent, to be supportive of our collaboration and an effective partner. I hope the formation of an internal working group by the Committee for Anti-Racism and Equity will help resolve whatever problems may exist in this important agency.”
Writes Stephanie Silverman, executive director of the Belcourt Theatre:
“The Metro Nashville Arts Commission has been a leader in centering equity in the work of the arts community in Nashville. They have pushed all of us who are supported by or who work with Metro Arts Commission to look critically at how equity exists or doesn’t in our own programming and institutions — and how we can and must do better. It is also true that as a leader, especially a white leader, you can get caught in the systems you are either required or choose to operate in and allow those systems to shield you from hard truths. When three women of color experience similar hurdles and walls to their work and voice, it demands a look at the system and environment that not only allows it, but repeats it.”
Writes a spokesperson for Nashville Opera:
“Nashville Opera is deeply concerned about the allegations against Metro Arts leadership included in Nashville Scene’s September 1 coverage. The work of Metro Arts is critical to our community, and we urge the City of Nashville to undertake a thorough investigation of this situation to ensure organizational integrity, transparency, and equity.”
Writes a spokesperson for Nashville Repertory Theatre:
“All of us at Nashville Rep are committed to creating a culture and an organization that is representative of and responsive to the community we serve. Microaggressions in the workplace and reluctance around naming racist behaviors are not tolerated here. We are committed to permanent, ongoing EDI and anti-racist training for our board, our staff, and our associated artists. We expect our community partners to do the same, and we prioritize working with those who do. We commit to breaking historical patterns of inequity within the Nashville performing arts community through new career development tracks, promoting diverse creative teams, and ending working practices that present barriers to entering our organization.”
Update: Sept. 10, 2021: A spokesperson from Mayor John Cooper's office says: "The Mayor’s Office is aware of these reports and takes them seriously. Metro’s Human Resources department has initiated an investigation into this matter, and we await the results of that process."