FIELD NOTES | Safety Is Not a Performance

Can we keep artists and arts workers safe?
President + CEO Lisa Funderburke
March 13, 2023

Dear ACA Network,  

Questions about physical and psychological safety come up so often in my conversations with artists, administrators, funders and partners that it has become core to my job to think about how we can create safer creative environments for all. Particularly people who have been historically and systematically marginalized, deemed less than human or less than ideal compared to cisgender heterosexual white able bodies.

What is a safe space for artists and arts workers when the world is in constant crisis?  

The only thing I know for sure is that safety is relative to the person experiencing it; we can’t assume what feels safe for us will feel safe for others. It is nearly impossible to develop a universal standard for safety at artist residencies — or anywhere for that matter — as systems of oppression exact power over marginalized people in the form of physical, psychological, and state-sanctioned violence.* Yet doing nothing is not an option. In speaking with people who have been hurt or harmed while participating or working in an artist residency, the following recommendations surface repeatedly:

  • Practice self-awareness. Individualism enables some of us to believe we are immune to safety issues. Bear in mind that violence affects all of us. Borrowing from author Heather McGhee in The Sum of Us, “We are all indeed living under the same sky.”
  • Know your environment. Artists and arts workers are often invited into spaces with a heightened focus on the beauty of the experience. Tell people about the less desirable aspects, too. If the laws that govern your geographic location directly impact artists or staff members, communicate this openly, clearly and accurately. This requires routine and rigorous questioning, deep curiosity and thoughtful analysis of place reinforced by a plan of action. Transparency is critical.
  • Ask people what they need. Be prepared to research and respond to questions honestly, even if it exposes ugly truths.
  • Avoid overpromising and underdelivering. If you invite an artist to your space, “place them in a situation where their ability to be publicly visible does not put them in active danger,” as my colleague Zooey Arnold-Conner stated. If they could be in active danger, you must thoughtfully discuss it with the artist.
  • Plan proactively. Avoiding the topic of safety until something happens is not an option. Develop policies, processes and practices now to reasonably accommodate individuals, and don’t be afraid to disclose what you cannot do.
  • Don’t make assumptions. Just because an incident only happened once doesn’t mean it can’t happen again. For some of us, merely existing invites violence. Be a good bystander when someone is experiencing abuse. Know how to interrupt or intervene.
  • Resist surveillance. Believe that people are doing what they said they would, not undermining the organization’s mission. Know that when a challenge arises, you can work through it together. This is the foundation of trust.
  • Listen deeply. You cannot train your way into being an ally, accomplice, co-conspirator or anti-racist. It does not matter how many statements you write or posts you like and reshare on social media; the people you want to be in solidarity with will determine how you actually show up.

Those who enjoy certain privileges are being called to work harder to protect others. Everyone has the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; to live free from cruelty, torture, inhumane treatment, and punishment. We will only achieve this as a society — and as people who support creative freedom — if we are in unbreakable solidarity with the most vulnerable people in our communities.  

We want to hear more from you about matters of safety.

To artist residency programs that operate in a state or region that has passed anti-trans legislation, anti-abortion laws, limited access to reproductive healthcare, criminalized the teaching of U.S. history, or that disproportionately polices Black bodies: What changes are you making to support the fundamental human rights of artists, staff members, and local residents? Let us know.

In community,

Lisa Funderburke
ACA President + CEO