The New Director of Stanford’s Institute For Diversity In The Arts On How Art Breeds Social Change

The New Director of Stanford’s Institute For Diversity In The Arts On How Art Breeds Social Change

A-lan Holt’s job is to help young people understand the immense power of art. In her new role as the Director of Stanford’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts (IDA), she helps train undergraduates in how to use art as a tool for organizing and for bringing about social change.

“For us, the arts are not just about how do you create a beautiful picture or how do you put on a moving performance,” she says. “They’re about how you test and take the temperature of a space, community, and environment, and how you work with that temperature to be able to create healthier cultures, healthier environments, and healthier situations for communities.”

According to Holt, IDA is the only organization housed within an institute of higher education that is focused exclusively on training diverse students in the arts and art leadership. In its current form, IDA was established in 2000, but its roots date back to 1969, when a group of students formed the Committee on Black Performing Arts.

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“Activists at that time understood that to enact change you have to work at a cultural level,” Holt says, “that policy is often the last manifestation of change and that culture is a place where change happens quickest.”

As such, it is Holt’s mission to ensure that the next generation of arts leaders is made up of a diverse group of voices. “Questions of equity and diversity are deeply part of all industries and deeply part of the arts,” she says.

While we tend to think of the arts as a more welcoming space, she says that in reality there is massive inequality. “It’s a very liberal space in theory, but it is also steeped in a lot of traditional exclusionary practices reflected in what art is able to be presented as, but also in the leadership that makes up the art world.”

Diversity in the arts, Holt says, should be thought of as cultural equity. “Everyone should have equal access to being able to express the fullness and trueness of their culture, their identities, who they come from, and where they want to go. When we narrow that window, we are pushing an agenda that seeks to homogenize and seeks to invalidate anyone who doesn’t fit into that.”

IDA works with about 300 students per week, in addition to working with visiting artists and other community members who engage with the organization. They do all of this with a staff of three. As such, IDA’s sustainability is a large focus for Holt. The question, she says, is how to engage more people while at the same time providing ample support for everyone who walks through the doors.

It is also a constant battle to prove that the arts deserve as much funding as any other concentration. “Every discipline is subsidized,” Holt says, “and we don’t think about, for example, the sciences as being a heavily subsidized area of study. When you put that same language into art, it feels more like a handout versus a true sourcing of resources and development.”

That being said, Holt says she has noticed significant growth in Stanford’s artist community since she, herself was a student there from 2007-2011. “Students have very much embraced not only the identity of being an artist, but also the viability of being an artist as a career.”

Holt hopes that in her role, she can encourage more young people to participate in the arts. “Especially low-income, first generation students,” she says. “How do we better create an ecosystem that can support their movement professionally?”

She plans to continue growing ways for IDA to support emerging artists, as well as ways it can support students after they graduate.

“There’s lots of work to do,” she says, “But I’m very excited about it.”