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.]