Beginning this year, New York City cultural organizations seeking funding from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs will need to report on their staff and board demographics, and describe how they are addressing equity and inclusion in their work. Meanwhile, in the grant cycle that begins two years from now, applicants to the Los Angeles County Arts Commission are required to submit board-approved diversity, equity, and inclusion plans as part of their proposal. And these are just the two largest cities in the United States. Organizations in the UK and Canada already face similar requirements for funding from Arts Council England and the Canada Council for the Arts respectively.
As longstanding concerns about cultural equity find voice in policy initiatives like these, administrators at organizations that celebrate European art forms, which are noticeably overrepresented among the biggest-budget nonprofit arts institutions in the United States, are snapping into action. Several years ago American Ballet Theatre, better known to some as the house of Misty, launched Project Plié, “a comprehensive initiative to increase racial and ethnic representation in ballet and to diversify America’s ballet companies.” Chamber Music America released a robust new statement of commitment to racial equity earlier this year. The 2016 League of American Orchestras conference was, for the first time, devoted entirely to the topic of diversity in the field. Hosted by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the choice to convene in a majority-black city and bring in Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson as a keynote speaker did not go unnoticed. Sessions focused on helping orchestras become more reflective of the country, including diversifying boards, audiences, and the players themselves.
In case you may be wondering about the reasons behind such a focus, consider that the proportion of African American and Latino musicians in U.S. orchestras is just 4%, a number that has barely budged since 2002. (The corresponding proportion of the United States population is almost 30%.) And it’s not just musicians. According to the same research, since 2006, the percentage of top executives of color in American orchestras has fluctuated between 5.2% and 1.6%, and the percentage of board members has consistently hovered under 8% people of color during the same period.
The consistency of these numbers over time is striking, given that there are more initiatives in place than ever before to diversify orchestras. The Sphinx Organization was founded in 1996 specifically to increase the percentage of black and Latino musicians in orchestras, and has since won prestigious awards and raised millions of dollars toward that mission. Forty years’ worth of foundation-funded fellowship programs for black and Latino musicians, with the number of such programs increasing dramatically in the past 15 years, have similarly failed to move the needle.
The issue goes far beyond orchestras. According to the most recent figures from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, audiences for classical music, ballet, opera, plays, and musicals are all at least 78% white. Depending on the art form, that figure is a full twelve to seventeen percentage points above the national proportion of white people–a gap that has actually widened since 2002.
Things could still change, of course. Perhaps more time or a different approach is all that’s needed for these diversity initiatives to succeed. But at this point, it’s time to start asking the question hanging over all of this: what is the endgame? What happens if, despite the sincerest of intentions and tireless efforts to integrate, most organizations rooted in European forms of artistic expression never achieve anything close to proportionate representation of the demographics of their communities? What then?
Createquity foresaw this tension in a piece published last year entitled “Making Sense of Cultural Equity.” The basic premise was that conversations about cultural equity (and any number of associated terms and topics) are informed by underlying visions of success that can be wildly divergent, but are rarely articulated explicitly. Based on our review of the literature and our own experiences in the field, we identified four archetypal models of cultural equity that together explain a surprisingly high proportion of the debates and dialogue that occur on the topic. The dilemma described above is at the center of a conflict between the Diversity vision of success (which wants to see fully integrated, large-budget “anchor” institutions providing benefit to entire communities) and the Redistribution vision (which holds that we should be shifting the balance of arts policy and philanthropic resources toward organizations and cultural traditions rooted in historically marginalized communities, including communities of color).
By any reasonable measure, “Making Sense of Cultural Equity” is one of the most successful pieces we’ve ever done. In addition to placing among our top ten most-viewed articles, we’ve been asked to present or write about it by organizations including Americans for the Arts, Grantmakers in the Arts, Independent Sector, Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, and Moore College of Art + Design. But despite the positive reception, I do think there’s one area where in retrospect we missed the mark. In the article, we stated that “[t]he one thing that everyone in the cultural equity conversation seems to agree on is that so-called ‘mainstream’ institutions–a community’s big-budget nonprofit symphonies, art museums, presenters, etc–are far too homogeneous.” That link above takes you to our notes page, where we elaborate on the definition of “mainstream”:
Language can be a source of great confusion in conversations about cultural equity, and many commonly-used terms are highly contested. In this article, we employ several key concepts that can benefit from further elaboration. Please consider the following definitions as you read:
Mainstream institutions: In the course of our reading, we came across the term “mainstream” institutions or organizations with some frequency. Although rarely defined explicitly, we infer that this term typically denotes nonprofit organizations that 1) were founded by white people; 2) do not have a focus on an art form or an audience connected with a specific community of color or other oppressed community; 3) receive funding from foundation and government sources; and 4) have some professional staff.
This language did not escape the sharp eyes of Justin Laing, at the time a senior program officer at the Heinz Endowments in Pittsburgh who had also been a key spark behind Grantmakers in the Arts’s racial equity initiative. On Twitter, Justin shared a number of comments on the article, including the following:
Middle & upper class white America is “a stream” not the “mainstream” of America. Referring to this group as “main” is 2 overrepresent. 5/9
— Justin Laing (@jdlaing) September 1, 2016
Just as referring to ALAANA arts orgs as “specific” is a marginalization or underrepresentation and perpetuates a #WesternCanon center (6/9)
— Justin Laing (@jdlaing) September 1, 2016
As it turns out, we did have extensive internal discussions about the problems with the term “mainstream” as we were preparing the piece, but we ended up using it anyway, largely because it seemed fairly well established in the literature and we were trying to be careful to use the language from our readings rather than invent our own. But Justin’s feedback, and subsequent conversations that I have had with him and others on these topics, have convinced me that we should do more to interrogate the way this term is used.
In the research literature, the term “mainstream” is often contrasted with the language “culturally-specific” (a term that we did avoid), and it is this combination that provokes the fiercest resistance from cultural equity advocates. The logic on researchers’ part is that “culturally-specific” organizations explicitly target a specific demographic population, whereas “mainstream” organizations target everyone. On its face, this seems perfectly reasonable. In practice, though, the dynamic is asymmetric. Organizations celebrating European art forms tend to have been founded earlier than organizations that primarily serve communities of color and benefited from the structural advantages enjoyed by white culture at the time (and since), enabling them to capture much of the sector’s wealth. And yet virtually none of these institutions identify as “culturally-specific,” despite what the statistics shared at the beginning of this article might suggest. Indeed, aficionados of these art forms often wax poetically about their universal appeal, pointing proudly to the way that classical music, for example, has become a national symbol of pride in Venezuela through the famous El Sistema program, the way that it has spread like wildfire in East Asia, and the extensive outreach and education initiatives many American orchestras have undertaken in low-income, black and brown communities. But many cultural equity advocates see orchestral music as unabashedly and irredeemably white: it originated in Europe, the vast majority of composers presented (even by Latin American and Asian orchestras) are European or European-descended, and most of the people who enjoy it are of European origin. To them, when we talk about culturally-specific organizations, that includes symphony orchestras–and ballets, and operas, and encyclopedic art museums. And it’s not at all obvious to them why certain culturally-specific organizations should continue to receive such a disproportionate share of public and philanthropic support compared to other culturally-specific organizations. In fact, they think it’s pretty obvious that the balance is out of whack.
Now, some readers might blanch at the application of so stark a label as “white” to organizations like orchestras, especially at a time when they are trying so hard to attract more diverse audiences and workforces. And truth be told, I share some of these reservations. While I’m generally skeptical of claims to universality, I struggle deeply with the way that essentializing art forms by race, and the organizations that practice those art forms, seemingly erases the people of color who do participate in and have fallen in love with European-derived traditions. According to the NEA’s figures, more than a million African Americans saw a classical music concert at some point in 2012; nearly 600,000 Latinos took in a ballet performance; and the list goes on. That’s a lot of people. Do opera singers of color agree that opera will always be a white art form? Whose place is it to judge whether someone’s choice of profession might be (as I have seen suggested by some) a manifestation of internalized racial inferiority?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, and can’t speak for people of color working in these traditions. That said, even if we stop short of labeling Shakespeare theaters and the like “white,” it seems obvious that they are, and will likely remain for some time, at the very least “white-ish.” In the end, we can’t force people to love Beethoven, Balanchine, Botticelli, Brecht, or anything else, no matter how much educating, exposing, coaxing, and pleading we do. And in today’s United States, it is increasingly art forms that did not originate in Europe that are getting the love: as of this year, the most popular genre of music to listen to is hip-hop. (From that link: “Classical music was in last place with just 1 percent of all music consumption in the year-to-date.”)
In “Making Sense of Cultural Equity,” we defined mainstream institutions, in part, as “…founded by white people.” But it may be more helpful to consider mainstream institutions and Eurocentric institutions as two different things. Professional orchestras, ballet companies, and operas not only have a mandate to serve a broad audience, but must do so via a particular art form. Many other large-budget nonprofit organizations–performing arts centers, festivals, and some museums, to name a few–are not necessarily so constrained. It’s somewhat easier to imagine this latter group of institutions transforming in ways that authentically serve an entire community, service that would in fact justify disproportionate subsidy from a local arts agency or an impact-minded philanthropist. Separating our concepts of “mainstream” and “white” could allow us to treat European art forms as just one of many types of cultural expression within a mix of organizations and communities, instead of privileging them as the historical default. Just as importantly, that distinction would make it easier to justify allowing some organizations to continue maintaining a largely white identity when that is the most authentic expression of their mission. The problem arises only when such organizations seek and receive disproportionate philanthropic resources on the pretense of serving or speaking for an entire community that’s much more diverse than they are.
Were the field to adopt this new understanding, an unavoidable question would face every organization celebrating European cultural heritage in the midst of a substantial nonwhite population: is our foremost loyalty to our art form or our local community? In answering, boards and executives would need to realize that true commitment to the latter could mean dramatic changes, changes that would make their organizations unrecognizable to the individuals who founded them. Yet reaffirming a primary commitment to an art form with clear ethnic roots–which, I want to emphasize here, is an equally valid choice under this paradigm–would be a signal to the world that the organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts can only reach so far. And yes, that may make it untenable to go after large sums of money from foundations and government agencies on the premise of being a local “anchor institution.”
Unity in Diversity?
Ultimately, this discussion highlights the importance of clarifying what we really mean by cultural equity, and what we want for our communities and our sector. In “Making Sense of Cultural Equity,” we noted the tension between integration and cultural ownership as one of the central fault lines separating the Diversity vision from other definitions of cultural equity:
Echoing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream that “one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” the Diversity vision is in love with the idea of people coming together to understand and celebrate their differences. Yet for some activists, the expectation to share and share alike implied by this utopian, color-blind harmony ignores oppressed groups’ right to meaningful control of resources, traditions, and spaces that they can call their own. The Prosperity, Redistribution and especially Self-Determination visions all incorporate elements of ownership based on common heritage and identity, with no explicit obligation to be inclusive toward other cultures within those contexts.
If we adopt a cultural policy that stereotypes organizations practicing European art forms as hopelessly foreign to anyone who doesn’t share ethnic roots with their founders, we leave behind millions of people of color who want to engage with those art forms and make them a part of their lives. But if we are so committed to providing African Americans and Latinos with opportunities to participate in classical music that we write those expectations into law, does that imply a corresponding expectation that organizations practicing traditions like mariachi and Butoh will likewise reach beyond their immediate communities? As a society, how much do we want our cultural policy to emphasize affirming identity vs. broadening horizons?
Again, I don’t know where that balance should be. But I feel certain that we ignore the question at our peril. Every diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative that fails to grapple with the inherent tensions living within those words risks birthing strategies that sound wonderful on their own terms but work at cross purposes in combination. Until we rise to the challenge of understanding and articulating our goals at the system level, we’re going to keep running into the same issues, and having the same arguments, over and over again.
This piece was adapted and expanded from material originally cut from “Making Sense of Cultural Equity,” by Clara Inès Schuhmacher, Katie Ingersoll, Fari Nzinga, and Ian David Moss, as well as from a keynote speech I delivered to the Orchestras Canada conference in May 2017. I’m grateful to Clara, Katie, and Fari along with many others for helping to shape my thinking on this topic, and to Justin Laing for challenging me to dig deeper. Justin and I will be presenting a session exploring these issues in further depth at this year’s Grantmakers in the Arts conference.