Raquel Iglesias and Ryan Blocker, image courtesy of the artist.
Raquel Iglesias and Ryan Blocker, image courtesy of the artist.
May 13, 2016

Questioning diversity in the arts: Raquel Iglesias and Ryan Blocker

Raquel Iglesias and Ryan Blocker are classmates, coworkers, and best friends. They have spent the last two years in the MA Arts Administration and Policy program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago participating in a number of different projects and organizations wrestling with the question of race and equity in the arts.

Their most recent collaboration is their thesis titled “Racing Culture: Exploring Race, Inclusion, and Equity in Arts Institutions,” in which they engaged a number of arts institutions around Chicago to further understand diversity policies. In this interview, a significantly condensed version of our discussion, we talked about equity, non-traditional writing modes, and identity in the arts.

Amie Soudien: How did you two begin working together?

Ryan Blocker: We’ve worked on a lot of different projects, such as the Oral History Activation Program at Homans Square. We also were diversity fellows at the Chicago Humanities Festival. We worked on a summer internship –

Raquel Iglesias: In Gary, Indiana. With a few other graduates we organized a panel at the Diversity Symposium here on campus. We’ve done so many things together, all situated around a conversation on community engagement, race in the arts, and representation in the arts.

RB: While we were diversity fellows for the Chicago Humanities Festival our thesis advisor Kate Dumbleton planted the idea and suggested that this could be our thesis research. It felt natural to do it together.

AS: How did you go about your research? Which institutions were you looking at specifically?

RI: We began working for an arts organization here in Chicago doing diversity initiatives. We didn’t know much about the landscape of this issue, or how people were approaching it. A big part of our role was to research how people were doing this work. From there we began interviewing other organizations.

RB: We talked to the Joyce Foundation, the Alphawood Foundation, we talked to the Black Ensemble Theater, the Goodman Theater, among others.

RI: From those conversations we realized that a shift was happening in the philanthropic sector. Funding institutions are actually saying, we want to fund equity, we don’t want to fund diversity. Equity is about actually seeing measurable differences, like fairness. It’s a different way of looking at diversity—not just having more brown and black people—but what role they play within the institution, more on a framework of social justice.

AS: The thesis is written in the format of dialogue. How does dialogue work against the traditional conception of a thesis?

RI: Our whole purpose of writing this in dialogue was to decolonize the traditional modes of doing research. It’s partially about accessibility for us. We don’t want this to be something that only other academics and arts administrators have access to, or read. We want to share this with our family and the broader public to expose some of the current ideas in the field.

RB: The dialogue format was based off of Cornel West and bell hooks’s book Breaking Bread. As people of color we are trying to orient the ways in which we have experienced race, and placing that in the context of traditional academic research. This thesis is thoroughly rooted in the intellectual labor and artistic labor of people of color. It’s about honoring those modes as well.

AS: How has your conception of diversity changed?

RI: We have a whole chapter devoted to that. Diversity is a term that is predominantly used within institutions. Often it’s a safe word to avoid talking about race, which is a difficult conversation to have within an institution. So they use this institutional language to avoid talking about blackness, latinos, indigenous people without using those specific terms. We complicate words like diversity, inclusion, integration…

RB: A lot of what comes out of the sector is: here’s a new word, this is what everybody is using. But it’s more of a complex negotiation of how terms change when policy does. There might be things that advance in conversation about policy makers but on the ground it looks different.

RI: A big part of that has been embracing specificity, and so when we use terms like diversity, in our research we’re specific about how we use that term. Are we talking about diversity in class or race? Are we talking about a group of people?

AS: How have your own experiences filtered into the thesis?

RI: In our last chapter we talk about the problematic internships or professionalized programs that exclude certain people because they can’t afford it. In that moment we acknowledged, we are two people of color writing this thesis in a professionalized program. Ryan said, “We’re not in this!” So we decided to add narrative vignettes at the beginning of each chapter. My two stories: one was about someone telling me I only got into this school because I’m Mexican. Another story was about trying to explain to my family, being first generation Latina, that I wanted to go into the arts. My parents didn’t really understand that. Why aren’t you going into business? My grandmother actually told me I didn’t fight for this in order for you to not live out your dreams.

RB: The vignettes are thematically related to the material in each chapter. One of my own vignettes was about my grandfather who worked as staff at a museum, and how that was a really demoralizing job for him. That impacted my own father, who loves museums, but is always quietly sad when we go into these spaces. Whenever we have conversations about equity, I always think about equity meaning everyone in the museum, including the staff we don’t acknowledge.

AS: Are there any institutional critiques through art in your thesis?

RB: In conjunction with our thesis we are also doing a podcast. We’re talking to artists and makers of color. The question was, are there any modes that artists are using that are helpful for administrators and for cultural planners to be thinking about? Artists can really wrestle with these things in really complex ways.