Jacob's Pillow director: Addressing bias 'takes time and consistent attention'

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For Jacob's Pillow, June 15 was supposed to be an exclusive night: a gala brimming with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, dinner under the stars, performances and an after-party.

Turns out, the event became too exclusive after a patron — a woman of color — was subjected to two incidents of racial discrimination, says Pillow Director Pamela Tatge.

The woman's interactions with these gala attendees — they included having her hair touched without permission and being quizzed over her ethnicity — prompted Tatge to put out a call for more inclusiveness at the 87-year-old dance institution. The incidents harkened back to a similar scene, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in May, in which schoolchildren faced biased comments from other visitors, which resulted in those patrons being banned from the museum.

Last week, Tatge described what happened in an essay published in The Eagle ("Jacob's Pillow dismayed by racism at gala," July 10), in which she described the occurrences in detail.

Reaction to her essay was swift, with dozens of emails of support and suggestions, thousands of shares on social media and tens of thousands of views at berkshireeagle.com. A few letters to the editor from dubious readers have rolled onto The Eagle's opinion pages, incredulous that these incidents actually happened, but otherwise the feedback has been positive, Tatge said.

Jacob's Pillow also has responded, pledging a greater focus for the work of its internal diversity and inclusion task force.

What happened?

In the first instance described by Tatge, a man seated behind the woman in a Jacob's Pillow theater reached up and touched her hair, worn in a loose halo around her head; he then said to his companion: "It's too bad they seated us here because we're going to have a hard time seeing the stage over that hair."

In the second instance at the gala, while at her assigned table, someone seated nearby asked her: "What are you?" rather than "Who are you?"

Tatge said the woman explained to her tablemate that she is biracial. More questions followed: "Who was black? Was it your mother or your father? What color was the person you married? What do your children look like? How do they feel about being biracial?"

Another woman at the table piped in, Tatge said, to say that her husband descended from servants, too, but they were indentured and Irish.

In her interview with The Eagle, Tatge expressed disgust that patrons at Jacob's Pillow were treating people of color "as fair game for one's curiosity or criticism" and that the incidents were "a worrisome sign of entitlement and bias."

Tatge said she apologized to the woman on behalf of Jacob's Pillow.

Using her op-ed column as a launching point for discussion, Tatge is seeking ideas to create an environment of inclusiveness; she asks for the community to send ideas to info@jacobspillow.org.

Story 'resonating with people'

The column had been viewed almost 22,000 times at berkshireeagle.com as of Thursday afternoon and has been shared about 2,700 times on Facebook. Tatge said she has received many emailed responses — about 70 — and only two were negative. Respondents were Pillow audience members, members of the Jacob's Pillow community and people of color, with reactions running the gamut from appalled to saddened, and from disgusted to outraged.

People of color, in particular, told Tatge that this kind of behavior is far from isolated, and some expressed relief that the problem was being acknowledged.

Her colleagues from around the country are responding, too, telling her that the problem of racism is pervasive in arts venues and that Jacob's Pillow was not alone. Writers also offered "wonderful suggestions, wonderful references and strategies" for how to address discrimination within the arts community.

"This woman's story is resonating with people. Too many stories are left unsaid. If we continue to be silent, we normalize this behavior, and there's far too much rhetoric going on in the leadership of this country that is polarizing and racist," said Tatge, whose column was published before this week's censure of President Donald Trump by Congress for his racist and xenophobic tweets against members of Congress. "We need to do what we can to create a climate to feel safe and enjoy the amazing gifts we have in Berkshire County."

As for the offensive patrons at the gala, Jacob's Pillow does "have a fair idea of who they were, but ... we can't be 100 percent sure," Tatge said.

To isolate or ban them would be counterproductive to a mission of inclusiveness, she said. Rather, Tatge wants to demonstrate inclusion as a community value and instead invite all perspectives to open and frank discussions on how to best achieve that as an organization.

Future work

The incidents and Tatge's response are helping to guide Pillow's panel on cultural competency, called the IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility) task force, which, in turn, will help direct staff and board member training.

Responses to the discrimination include implementing a message for visitors before every performance. When people are getting settled in their seats and being taught where the exits are, visitors will hear a message: "Thank you for joining Jacob's Pillow in our commitment to providing an environment that celebrates the art of dance, and supports an inclusive, diverse, equitable and accessible community."

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Further, in every program, Jacob's Pillow will publish a patron code of conduct, which states: "Please refrain from behavior that could disturb other patrons and performers."

Pillow staff are being trained and equipped to interact with patrons who are exhibiting bias, "to know how to respond in the moment."

For the past two years, the institute has worked with Multicultural BRIDGE to provide awareness training to staff and board members. On Wednesday, Gwendolyn VanSant, CEO of Multicultural BRIDGE, led a discussion for staff members of color at Jacob's Pillow. This discussion will inform a board and staff meeting Aug. 2 led by their in-house task force.

The task force will take suggestions from the public and staff, dissect and discuss them and recommend the best ideas for implementation.

"This work needs to be intentional, and it will never stop," Tatge said, noting that the training won't be left solely to an orientation period. "This takes time and consistent attention."

The woman who reported bias shown by other patrons isn't speaking publicly or identifying herself, said Tatge, who worked closely with the woman in constructing the op-ed column.

Tatge said the woman will visit the Pillow to help the organization conduct its task force work on inclusion and race.

Based on notes from colleagues in Berkshire County, Tatge believes cultural organizations are going to be having a conversation about best practices in the near future.

A fellow arts leader

One of the Berkshire arts leaders who has been discussing Tatge's essay is Laurie Norton Moffatt, director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. Moffatt said that while she hasn't seen or experienced racism from patrons, raising cultural sensitivity and awareness, and creating a culture of inclusivity, is something cultural institutions need to work on all the time.

"The nation is awakening, meaning a much deeper understanding that racism and lack of inclusivity doesn't have to be overt," Moffatt said.

Becoming aware of unconscious bias or inadvertent comments can be much more elusive, Moffatt noted, but it requires work nonetheless.

Moffatt believes that cultural organizations are uniquely positioned to help raise awareness. That is, because art arises from many cultures.

She said arts and culture groups should provide a welcome environment for visitors of all abilities, backgrounds and experiences.

As with Jacob's Pillow, inclusivity is built into the museum's mission, training and culture.

"For the Norman Rockwell Museum, it's key to the artwork and the mission. We try to live these concepts every day," Moffatt said.

A rich history

Tatge says the pursuit of racial justice runs deep at the Pillow. The center's land in Becket was once a stop on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves making their way to Canada.

And Jacob's Pillow's founder, Ted Shawn, believed in "the broadest possible definition of dance," cutting across all cultures of the world, Tatge said. Early Pillow artists researched dances abroad and brought them back to the U.S., including African-based performances and dancers.

Shawn was an early supporter of Alvin Ailey, Donald McKayle, Pearl Primus and other black modern dance icons, according to Jacob's Pillow spokesperson Nicole Tomasofsky.

"Just last week, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Their very first performance was at Jacob's Pillow in 1970, soon after their founding. They came at Shawn's invitation because he felt the work that they were doing was so important," Tomasofsky said in an email to The Eagle.

Jacob's Pillow's connection to African American history is well-documented. It is a site on the African American Heritage Trail.

Tatge acknowledged that some would call bringing African dance to the center "cultural appropriation," while others might call it appreciation, she said. Either way, Jacob's Pillow will take responsibility for its history, Tatge said.

"Any institution that wants to build from today into the future has to know its history and own its past," Tatge said.

Noah Hoffenberg can be reached at nhoffenberg@berkshireeagle.com, or at 413-496-6236.


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