Recently, Clayton Lord has been fomenting lots of discussion about race and audiences on his blog, New Beans. Diane Ragsdale has much to say in response, bringing in a recent Nina Simon post about the Irvine Foundation’s Exploring Engagement Fund (which has racial undertones but is not solely about diversifying audiences). Most recently, Barry Hessenius dove into the fray with this post from over the weekend.

There are so many threads to the discussion that it’s easy to get lost. But the core of it comes down to this: do arts organizations whose audience is mostly white have an inherent obligation to diversify their audiences? In his post, Clay writes the following:

[A]s I continue to evaluate data for this forthcoming paper on the diversity of Bay Area theatre, I have been struck strongly by the homogeneity of the cohort, particularly when it comes to race.  It should be said that among the 25 companies I am looking at there are no truly culturally-specific theatres (because they had insufficient information in the various data banks from which I pulled to take part), but it should also be said that these companies do represent a strong cross-section of the type of work, structures, and sizes that make up the majority of the nonprofit theatre system.  [….] There is basically no difference in the level of diversity among the theatres’ audiences across counties at all, even in the counties where the actual total populations are majority-minority….On average, these twenty-five companies have audiences that are over 80% white in one of the most diverse regions in the country.


A mission is a driving principle, not a shield….A mission should not allow a company to opt out of serving a wide array of people unless the mission is to only serve a narrow range of people–which is, to point it out, decidedly not the mission of any of the twenty-five organizations in the study.

The art we make is local.  It is place-based, which means it is community-based, whether we want it to be or not….Fundamentally, a graph like the one above, where our theatre culture is just a large white smear across a canvas of many different varying shades of beige, is wrong, and is exactly reflective of the endemic problems of our field.

I’ve heard and read a lot of similar rhetoric in the past, and there’s something about the way these discussions are often framed that bothers me. Recently in a comment to Clay’s post I was able to put my finger on it: the urgent call for “white” organizations to diversify audiences, and the provision of funding to help that process along, strikes me as weirdly paternalistic toward people of color. Here’s (most of) what I wrote:

Is it “wrong” for an individual theater to have a mostly white audience, if its mission is broad and its community diverse? You declare it to be so, in no uncertain terms. But I’m not so sure. I think we have to accept that certain genres and artistic traditions, for all sorts of reasons having to do with social history and notions of community identity, are going to resonate more for certain cultural groups than others. And since “educated white people in the United States” is a cultural group, albeit a privileged one, by nature there are going to be types of programming that appeal more to this audience than they do to others.

Sure, we could invest lots of energy and hand-wringing in trying to change patterns of cultural participation, but I question what that ultimately accomplishes. It seems to me it’s really just moving around preferences in some kind of shell game for no real purpose other than to sustain specific institutions like those 25 companies in Clay’s post.

The real question is whether people feel like they have opportunities to lead an expressive life at a level that feels appropriate and in contexts that are meaningful to them. Just diversifying a theater audience isn’t necessarily going to do that, especially if in doing so you’re reducing opportunities for that theater’s former audience.

We have to remember that institutions can’t change the composition of their audiences single-handedly. They can modify their programming and marketing strategies all they want, but at the end of the day, it’s still up to individual people of color to decide whether that institution is worth their time or not. If there exists a theater that is of, by, and for a particular nonwhite community, why wouldn’t we focus on building up that theater’s capacity and reach instead? To make the value judgment that the current picture of theater attendance is “wrong” inadvertently calls into question, I fear, the validity of the existing aesthetic choices and preferences of people of color.

I should note that I haven’t yet touched upon money. That’s where the moral dimension of diversity in the arts comes into play. Is it right that a theater mostly serving a white audience can raise $30 million for a capital campaign while a theater with a substantially nonwhite audience struggles to get a $10,000 grant? Well, that’s another story. But we have to remember that there are plenty of mostly-white-serving arts organizations in the “have not” category as well. I think it’s easier to change patterns of cultural subsidy than it is to change patterns of cultural participation. (Not that it’s easy to change either!) It’s great to see a mainstream institution’s audience reflect its community, but in order to ensure real equity, our discussion of this issue must be person-centric (what are the opportunities for an expressive life available to this person?) rather than institution-centric (why aren’t there more butts of color in these seats?).

That last line does a good job of getting at my discomfort with the carrot-and-stick approach to addressing diversity. I worry that strong funder incentives to racially diversify audiences inadvertently encourage institutions to value people of color for their skin rather than for what’s underneath, and reinforce visible markers of diversity (which, God knows, don’t need any reinforcement) at the expense of no less important measures of the same. Worse, in designating certain arts organizations as “white” and others as “diverse,” we completely dismiss and devalue the inevitably nonzero proportion of nonwhites who do patronize and enjoy these “white” institutions. In my more subversive moments, I sometimes wonder if some of the motivation behind the drive to diversify audiences for traditionally European art forms comes from a place of wanting to assimilate people of color so that we can all be one, big, happy family – on white people’s terms.

But this is all speculation on my part; I can only tell one side of the story. In fact, one thing that I have a hard time ignoring is that virtually all of the recent discussion about race, audiences, and funding in this particular corner of the blogosphere is happening among well-meaning white liberals who just can’t help themselves from occupying public space with their opinions (myself included). (When I dared to point this out on Twitter, the ensuing defensiveness was kind of hilarious.) Luckily, it just so happens that we’re less than a week out from SphinxCon, the inaugural convening on diversity in the performing arts organized by the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based group that aims to develop young black and Latino interest and talent in classical music. Judging from the speaker list, it looks like the organizers have done a great job of ensuring a truly diverse mix of voices at the table for what will no doubt be some stimulating conversations. (If there’s any forum in which racial diversity matters, it’s conversations about racial diversity!) I unfortunately can’t attend, but I’d love to feature some first-person perspectives from the event on Createquity. So if you’re going to be there and feel like sharing, please go ahead and submit one paragraph about your experiences, takeaways, new insights, remaining questions, etc., via the contact page. I will compile submissions received by February 22 and present them here, preserving anonymity on request – assuming I get enough of them.

[Update: Clay responds to my post.]

  • Roberto Bedoya


    Thanks for this post. Yes… to your observation that the dialogue so far has been among white folks. I appreciate that you pointed it out, which prompts the complex investigation of learning how whiteness works in the cultural sector as a dominate ideology that shapes cultural validation systems – something that I think about often and write about occasionally

    I can’t be at the Sphinx Conference as well but I look forward to hearing how it went. More later


    • Thanks, Roberto. FYI for others reading this, Roberto published an essay called “The Color Line and US Cultural Policy” in 2011. It’s available here.

  • Michael Smith

    It is an interesting topic. It is amazing how gingerly people step into discussions about race.

    I have to think that am early exposure to theater for diverse groups of children would instill a life-long love of the arts. Sadly, so many recent projects are intentionally unsuitable as family entertainment.

    On the other hand, I can think of multiple examples of theater for Latino audiences and by Latino artists in New York City (Intar, Pregones, and Repertorio Español to name a few).

  • I sometimes wonder if some of the motivation behind the drive to diversify audiences for traditionally European art forms comes from a place of wanting to assimilate people of color so that we can all be one, big, happy family – on white people’s terms.

    That’s usually how I feel, rightly or wrongly. Interestingly, I don’t see as much about the issue of diversity from the artistic production side as I do from the audience side. And this is at many levels including arts education. Not that traditional European art institutions need to start doing Kabuki, playing Mugham Opera, or Bharatnatyam–they’re simply not designed for these kinds of artistic productions.

  • Ian,

    Thanks for this post. We are excited to see the rich exchange of ideas about our Arts strategy and welcome the feedback and even criticism. Our CEO, Jim Canales, just posted a blog about what all the blog posts — Museum 2.0, Jumper, Barry’s Blog, and other places — about our Arts strategy. You can check out Jim’s comments about what this means for transparency in philanthropy here:

    Daniel Silverman
    The James Irvine Foundation

  • Pingback: “I’m having trouble with the idea that art is universal lately” | Mae Mai()

  • Janis

    “Weirdly paternalistic” to me comes across as “wants to have minority friends as political arm candy.” It’s a blunt way of putting it, but it does seem to me that a lot of the discussion seems backed by a desire to attract ethnic minority audience members to “validate” one as a good progressive or something.

    But I’ve always been split in two when I go to Western classical music events, where the music itself feels homey and comfortable and right to me as an Italian-American yet the working-class part of me feels unwelcome in the audience.

  • This is a persistent problem in museums that have throughout their histories catered to a single racial or ethnic group, which later seek to “diversify” their audience. The numbers game that we museum professionals are compelled to adhere to institutionalizes this way of thinking. We are not acculturated to look beyond the superficiality of the number of ” butts in the seats” because funders and boards rarely value the lives of the people they want in the seats: these are not quantitative metrics. If museums begin to care about the lives of people of color, underserved populations and the LGBTQ community, for instance, it leads us to advocacy and activism. These are difficult and fraught roles for many board and funders to take on. But, if we are to be relevant and useful in the 21st century and beyond we must be open our curation, programming, interpretation and conceptions of our sites to non-museum professionals. We must share what was once hoarded because pandora’s box is already open. Speaking as an African American male that is.

  • Thanks for posting, Ian.
    As far as opportunities for an expressive life, I would say…

    1. That money is not “another story”… resources are a part of the story. The National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy put out a great report called “Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change”… that challenges funders primarily concerned with preserving the Western European cannon to also recognize and support other cannons outside the European tradition. This is especially important for non-profit organizations… who are literally beholden to communities.

    2. If the art we make is local, if it is place-based, then their should be diversity not only in the audiences but in the company’s organizational leadership and circles of influence. There has to be a value around diversity/cultural competency from the top. Otherwise it will always be an “initiative” or “program” that can be scrapped when the budget gets tight.

    Diversity is such a buzz word and addresses many factors (religion, ability, socio-economic status, gender…). I appreciate that you were clear that you meant PoC (people of color).

    And the last thing I will say is that its easy to tell someone, “well if you don’t like it, go to that company and tell them”. But if you haven’t seen that company produce anything on stage or in print that is reflective of your experience (as a person of color, woman, dis-abled/able person, queer, etc…) and that is important to you, it’s easier to become a patron at a place where you see yourself. And that’s part of the murky cycle.

    • I appreciate your comments, Jess. Re: #1, I don’t think anyone’s suggesting that funders shouldn’t recognize and support canons outside the European tradition. The question is whether they should be looking to established/mainstream/large-budget institutions whose audiences have traditionally been mostly white for that recognition and support, or instead to organizations that have been promoting those non-European canons from the beginning and which already have a strong connection with audiences of color. Of course it doesn’t have to be an either/or question, but presumably there should be an emphasis somewhere.

      I agree that resources are a part of the story, but if funders continue to give large amounts to support to institutions perceived as “white” to diversify their audiences, and it doesn’t work, then they won’t have done much to address the issues of either resource distribution or diversity. Time will tell, I guess. So this gets to your #2 – what does it mean to diversify an organization? To me, it doesn’t really mean that much to, say, hire a person of color to be the executive director of a mainstream institution, if that person’s not actually bringing any new ideas or agenda about bringing in different audiences or broadening the programming mandate. And by a similar token, I think it’s possible (though not easy) for a white person to move effectively towards those goals. Ultimately an institution’s identity is as much about the “what” as the “who,” and while a visible commitment to diversity at the top undoubtedly matters, I don’t think we can assume that by changing the who we will also change the what.

      • Amanda Damewood

        One problem I see in these initiatives is that often the problem is seen as superficial–an issue of marketing or a problem solved by a one-off event or a ‘special program’. I wholeheartedly agree with you Ian, that the problem isn’t appealing to these people to join the happy family, to accommodate these people within what we are already doing, but rather to legitimate what these other people enjoy as culture.

        For instance, the Oakland Museum of California has been hosting a maker program this winter with various artists who make scraper bikes and hybrid toy creatures. The program is accessible because features people from the relevant communities AS artists. I am not affiliated with the museum so I don’t know how successful it has been, but I know that when I visited at an evening event, the young people and people of color were admiring the work appreciatively while the older, whiter members of the audience asked lots of questions and didn’t seem to really appreciate what was on display. I don’t want to advocate for marginalising white people of a certain age, but by having this display in a place where they already felt empowered, they came and asked questions while the other audience members enjoyed seeing examples of popular culture already familiar to them. When people accept that not having a monoculture doesn’t mean having no culture, we can really move ahead in this area.

  • Thanks for this article.

    As a Latino, I know that the concept of theater as entertainment is generally unheard of to most “people of color” that I know. When the programming is culturally relevant to a Latino audience, it is is possible to have a great turn out. I have yet to see, though, many of these people attend the following “non-Latino” production — at least at the one venue to which I’m referring.


  • Pingback: Diversity, Equality, Bus Lanes, and Arts | Creative Infrastructure()

  • My friend Elizabeth Wachtel asked me to read this post and chime into the discussion. I am really feeling this quote:

    “I sometimes wonder if some of the motivation behind the drive to diversify audiences for traditionally European art forms comes from a place of wanting to assimilate people of color so that we can all be one, big, happy family – on white people’s terms.”

    We need to remember that American theater is a historically racist institution. Jim Crow was a theatrical character and Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the most popular play in American history. It is not enough for contemporary theaters to “diversify” their audiences, they need to also address racism in all it’s forms. I live in New Orleans where many performance artists and companies have taken on this charge. I’ve seen work here that addresses immigration policy, school reform and the legacy of slavery in ways that far surpass anything I’ve ever seen in an institutional theater. It’s no surprise that they’re not raking in the big bucks from funders, but they are addressing a multiracial audiences in powerful ways.