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Can low-paid workers at nonprofit cultural groups afford to live in the Berkshires? A new survey attempts to find out

Mahaiwe marquee lit up at night

The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington is one of many organizations supporting a new survey that attempts to answer the question of whether low-paid worker at arts institutions in the Berkshires can afford to live here. 

A group of nonprofit cultural organizations from Berkshire County and Columbia County, N.Y., want to hear from current and former arts sector employees who may consider themselves underpaid and unable to support themselves and their families.

Backed by the 1Berkshire economic development agency based in Pittsfield, the Berkshire/Columbia Compensation Equity Project is surveying entry-level and mid-level arts and cultural workers in the nonprofit field.

The online questionnaire seeks details about “how chronic low pay for nonprofit arts professionals perpetuates inequities, contributes to personal and family instability, and is a barrier for participation in the regional arts and culture sector.”

“Passion is not a substitute for livable wages,” according to a joint announcement from leaders of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington and the WAM Theatre in Lenox. Community Access to the Arts (CATA) in Great Barrington, the Berkshire Arts Center (formerly IS183 Art School) in Stockbridge and Art Omi in nearby Ghent, N.Y., also signed on to the statement.

The executive leaders said that “the local arts sector cannot make good on its commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion without addressing head-on the issue of compensation. Entry- and mid-level jobs that pay adequately are key to creating an on-ramp for people of diverse socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds to pursue a career in the arts, ultimately strengthening the sector as a result.”

The survey is open through Dec. 5 at https://bit.ly/Equitysurvey2022. Results, combined with focus groups and an analysis comparing compensation levels, would result in recommendations and commitments to increase equity. The details are expected to be announced early next year.

The project, funded in part by the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, was launched by the Multicultural BRIDGE Inclusive Leadership Cohort.

“Berkshire Taconic is grateful for the committed arts and culture organizations that have taken on this important project to critically examine compensation levels to better ensure equity,” said Emily Bronson, the senior community engagement officer at the foundation. “This information will help retain and recruit skilled staff who are vital to the region’s workforce and our neighbors.”

For the past four years, BRIDGE has served as a consulting partner and coach to Berkshire Taconic in their efforts to develop capacity and accountability within local arts institutions, and identifying barriers to access in the cultural sector, said Gwendolyn VanSant, the Founding Director and CEO of BRIDGE, in a statement.

VanSant touted the results of the Inclusive Leadership Cohort for Social Change (ILC) program’s efforts to accomplish change.

“This is the result of leaders authentically listening to concerns raised by a much wider set of arts professionals in our community,” she pointed out. “I’ve witnessed earnest efforts in identifying how these cultural institutions have made progress on issues like pay equity, a need for more diverse leadership and audience participation, and culturally relevant presentations and programs.”

“These are the some of the highest priorities we’ve identified in our arts community here to create new pathways to solutions,” VanSant said.

At the WAM Theatre, Producing Artistic Director Kristen van Ginhoven stated that “by assessing and ultimately improving compensation in entry-level and mid-level jobs, we can improve access to careers in local nonprofit arts organizations for candidates from diverse socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, improving our organizations, extending our artistic breadth and better serving our community.”

Other leaders signing onto the Compensation Equity Project include the Berkshire Art Center’s Executive Director Lucie Castaldo, Community Access to the Arts Executive Director Margaret Keller, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival’s Deputy Director A.J. Pietrantone and the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center’s Executive Director Janis Martinson.

“This group is incredibly committed to doing something,” said Aron Goldman, an Amherst-based consultant who said he was hired for the project on the basis of his racial equity work in western Massachusetts and nationally.

“When young people, people of color or from other marginalized groups are trying to make a go of it,” he said, “these leaders really want to make sure there’s a pathway, there’s hope and there’s a future for those folks, not just because it’s the right thing but because that’s what’s going to lead to extraordinary and transformative artistic expression, and that’s what this area is known for.”

“We’re really hoping this will spread beyond these six groups,” Goldman told The Eagle in a phone interview, by using positive peer pressure on the arts and cultural sector, as well as the broader nonprofit field.

“These are ideas that most people in the region consider incredibly important,” he said. “What’s missing, though, is the strategy to really make a difference.”

According to Art Omi board member Gavin Berger, “new cultural offerings in our region are attracting growing numbers of homebuyers and visitors, while underfunded compensation models for arts professionals, especially entry- and mid-level workers, sustain outdated and elitist notions that working in the arts is a privilege that justifies sacrifice.”

He said that “the problem with that assumption is that it reserves work in the arts for individuals who have other forms of financial security or are willing to sacrifice financial security for work in the nonprofit sector, limiting the voices and perspectives represented within our sector.”

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com.

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