A Seat at the Table

Tariana Navas-Nieves of Denver Arts & Venues leads a new effort to build a more inclusive Denver for artists. To begin? Ask lots of questions.
Who makes art in Denver? Not just the product, but the decisions that determine what is seen and by whom? What determines which voices are heard, what projects are funded, what communities are considered and consulted when policies and budgets are set?

Tariana Navas-Nieves hopes the answer to these questions eventually will be: everybody.

As director of cultural affairs for the City and County of Denver, Navas-Nieves leads an already busy division within Denver Arts & Venues (DAV), responsible for the Public Art Program, Create Denver and programming of the McNichols Building. In January, at her urging, her job expanded to include stewardship of the Diversity, Inclusiveness, and Equity Initiative for DAV.

Navas-Nieves, a native of Puerto Rico who had spent more than 15 years as a curator of Latin American and Native American art for private collectors and at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Denver Art Museum and Museo de las Americas before joining the city in 2012, is among a growing constellation of cultural leaders who are elevating consciousness about the importance of a representative approach to inclusiveness in the arts.

For Navas-Nieves, it's about much more than programming concerts, exhibitions and festivals meant to attract people of color and other traditionally underserved communities. It's also about building genuine connections by listening and supporting multiple points of view in our richly diverse city.

Confluence Denver: Tell us about your work with the Diversity, Inclusiveness, and Equity Initiative.

Tariana Navas-Nieves of Denver Arts & Venues leads a new effort to build a more inclusive Denver for artists.Tariana Navas-Nieves: Throughout my career, I've always done this work around racial equity, but quietly at times. As a person of color, you just learn how to do the work without bringing attention to it. Last year, I went to the annual Grantmakers in the Arts conference; they're a national association of both public and private arts and culture funders in the U.S. with a focus on racial equity in arts philanthropy, committed to increase arts funding for ALAANA [African, Latino(a), Asian, Arab and Native American] artists, arts organizations, children, and adults. They're really leading the conversation around not just who is being funded, but who is making the funding decisions. Some asked questions like, "How many cultural directors of color are there in the nation?" I found myself in a room of peers, where I was not the only brown person. I fell in love. To be in the room with others who had the same kind of driving commitment to this work was empowering and uplifting. I'm sitting there thinking, "I've been doing this for years. I've been walking the walk, but not talking the talk."

I had taken a risk earlier in the year. During budget time, I made a presentation to my agency, asking for a budget allocation to support work on diversity, inclusiveness and equity. It became one of Arts & Venues' key initiatives for 2017. I told them, "We have to be aware of what's happening with other local arts agencies. This conversation is happening on a national level. We have to be aware. We can't fall behind."

I was very pleased that this was supported and funding was approved to develop and implement this work.

CD: So, what will you be working on -- this year, and in the longer term?

TN: In preparation for this year, I focused my time on research, to understand and create the context for what's happening in the city as well as nationally. We also looked for the public-facing changes we can make somewhat quickly and easily. For example, we funded a project at RedLine that will increase the capacity around Spanish-language outreach and participation. We expanded our bilingual efforts. Our funding opportunities, information at McNichols Building exhibitions, the band proposals for the Five Points Jazz Festival are all bilingual in Spanish and English.

The way I see it is: Anything that we support is a way to gather information of what's happening in the community through real experience. The people that we work with and support, they are our agents in the community.

CD: It sounds like the work will begin with some soul searching on the part of the city itself.

TN: Yes. We will be investing in training. We first need to look internally: What does our staff look like? What does our Commission on Cultural Affairs look like, our Denver County Cultural Council? I'm sitting with each staff member and asking, "If you have a selection committee, who's at the table? How are we making sure the Denver community is represented?"

Everything we do must have diversity, inclusiveness and equity as a lens -- not just in the programming, but in the decision-making processes. That means I'm looking at every single program: How was it developed? How do you determine what the program is about? Does it have a commitment to community building and social change? Because it needs to have that at the core. Personally, I come from an arts background; I understand the value of arts for arts' sake. But as a city agency, we have to understand that the process and who is involved is as important -- if not more important -- than the finished product.

CD: What are you looking forward to building on, in terms of the city's progress in these areas?

TN: Representatives from our city's diverse and marginalized communities must be at the table, including but not limited to communities of color, people with disabilities, women, lower-income and LGBT. When I first started working with the Denver County Cultural Council, for example . . . two out of 11 members were people of color. Now there are seven or eight.

It is also paramount to build partnerships and relationships. We need to keep asking which partners are embracing community building and the advancement of equity and social justice. How do we facilitate and give them a platform to do the work?

It's not our job to helicopter in and tell anyone, "This is what you need." It's our job to ask, "What is it you need? You are our agents in the community. You tell us what you need and we determine how we can support you as the trusted outsider."

Once the door is open, eventually you create a partnership that it isn't a one-time thing. It develops over the long term if you check back in, care for it and keep listening.

CD: What do you mean by "agents"?

TN: The way I see it: Everything we support is a way to build community and gather information of what's happening in the community through real experience. The groups and artists that we work with and support are our agents in the community.

Having been a part of many advisory groups that wanted to reach different audiences, and often being the only person of color in the room where decisions are made, I've seen how it feels when the efforts come from a place of separation: "
We are opening the doors for you. You are in need and we are going to give."

They have really good intentions, but often they're making a lot of assumptions. Like, all people of color want free admittance, or, thinking that I would only be interested in Latino music.

It's so important that we actually ask the question of "What do you want or need?" from a space of humbleness. 
The moment someone says, "I don't know what you need, you need to teach me, you need to guide me," that's where the work starts. What a lot of efforts miss is that when you're coming from a place where there is no trust, you have to start by looking at yourself. If you look internally at your board and staff and what you see doesn't reflect your commitment, it's never ever going to work. You have to build long-term relationships that are built on trust by accepting where you are, the work that needs to happen and bringing diversity, inclusiveness and equity to your leaders' table. 

A diversity of perspectives will enrich your organization. I have a saying: "Don't plan about me without me."

CD: How will you approach trust building through this initiative?

TN: If we want to build the community and make a better Denver, and we want to impact to have an impact on marginalized communities, we have to accept that we are not the experts. Our diverse communities are. It's slow work, and it can't be limited to giving the money. The idea is to get outside of our own spaces, go to them, be a partner on that journey and be speaking at the same time about what it means to be a long-term partner. It is our responsibility to elevate our city, all who live in our city. The easiest part is the money. The hard work, and the most rewarding, is the relationship.

CD: Do you feel there's opportunity in the political moment to bring more people into this conversation, as "inclusiveness" becomes a more common refrain, in part because it's threatened?

TN: As an advocate, it's my responsibility to represent the needs of all of our communities. I feel that's on me, on my shoulders. I've always done the work -- I can't not do the work. In the current political climate, it's more imperative than ever.

While I'm hopeful, this is a journey, and I am steadfast. Urgency is what I'm feeling. If you'd asked me a year ago, I may have said I felt opportunity, but now, it's a real urgency, and this must launch us forward. It is more important than ever before, and the work we do now will have a huge influence on the kind of path we take as a city and a community that is for all and by all.

This story is part of a series underwritten by Denver Arts & Venues.

Read more articles by Laura Bond.

A former editor and staff writer with Westword, Laura Bond has written for Rolling StoneUSAA and Spin, among others. She is the principal of Laura Bond, Ink., a content and communications strategy firm that serves nonprofits across metro Denver.
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