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On Valuing Diversity, Managing Diversity, and the Difference

This is a condensed version of the introductory essay from a new report called The Arts Diversity Index that was commissioned by Theatre Bay Area with funds from the California Arts Council and the California Cultural Data Project. To download infographics, an executive summary or the full report, please go here.

Our lack of diversity stymies us with its very ubiquity. It is like a slippery something, wriggling about, tangled into an impossible knot, difficult to simply hold onto let alone make sense of, inarticulate, unwilling to tell you where to begin, what order to take, or how to make progress without losing hope.

Questions of diversity, or parity, or equity, are un-divorceable from questions of the state of our country, from three hundred years of history, from humiliating injustices for which we have no words. Questions of diversity are malleable, and can be twisted up into hulking things too complicated to feel solvable or pushed down into such a diminished state that we feel like having a single conversation about it allows us to check it off the list.

Simple conversations become instantaneously and infinitely complex, weighed down by baggage first packed by our many-times-great-grandparents, ported down through time: injustices of race, of gender, of age, of class. We are all more alike than we are different—all shimmering with strands of DNA through which we are massively identical and infinitesimally divergent—and yet we carry within ourselves fears and pains that periodically require that we partition ourselves and carry forward with the premise that we cannot, in fact, all get along.

And perhaps, so it goes, we have pried ourselves apart from each other so hard that we have made ourselves irrevocably different—oppressed and oppressor, powerful and powerless, stuck amidst dichotomies that reinforce themselves through structures we have made. Our day-to-day is ingrained with the uneven rhythms of centuries, which turn normal interactions into complex negotiations and accidental malapropisms that sneak up and are suddenly there in the room, surrounding us for so long that we stop seeing them there.

When your view of the world closely mirrors the dominant view of the world, it can become nearly impossible to see how narrow your view of the world is. In the United States, that dominant viewpoint can be consolidated into what is often referred to as “whiteness” or “white privilege.” The pervasive weight of a dominant worldview, the weight that goes beyond color, that also extends to politics, to income, to education, to social status, becomes apparent only when we attempt to pull against it. We carry forward in a mighty, invisible tide. Pulling against it, attempting to change direction, feels uncomfortable, dangerous even—obvious and clumsy.

The pervasive weight of a dominant worldview, the weight that goes beyond color, that also extends to politics, to income, to education, to social status, becomes apparent only when we attempt to pull against it.

It is in this difficult moment that the arts field finds itself now.

Among many findings, the Arts Diversity Index report, which I wrote and which was released by Theatre Bay Area, reveals an excruciating homogeneity in our audiences. On average, the twenty-five companies whose audiences were examined in this research serve patrons that are over 88% white in one of the most diverse regions in the country. They average 11 years older than the average age of the general population, over $40,000 richer, more male, more educated, and more liberal. They are a narrow slice of a large pie, this group we serve, and they are dwindling.


A graph with two columns comparing demographic statistics of those who go to the theatre versus those in the community who do not.


We know, of course, that we serve a whole lot of white people, just like we know we serve a whole lot of older people, a whole lot of very educated people, a whole lot of wealthy people. We all know that. And we value the diversity of the world because we are, by and large, socially liberal, egalitarian, bright-eyed and believing in the promise of our common bonds—which means, too, that we know the tension that exists between our larger community and the people we see in our seats. But knowing and repairing are different things. There is a difference between “valuing diversity” and “managing diversity.”

Valuing diversity is what you might expect—caring that diversity exists. In scientific literature, it is described as “an attitudinal construct encompassing a mind-set of openness to diversity among people.” As (mostly liberal, mostly open-minded) artists, we “value diversity.” Where the distinction comes is in this concept of “managing diversity,” which the same scientific research describes as “a behavioral construct encompassing actual strategies that a group or organization can undertake to capitalize on the diversity of its members” (Dougherty and Chelladurai 1999, p. 289). This means not just caring about it, but actually facilitating diversity and the various types of disruption, both positive and negative, that it can create.

We can both value diversity and resist it at the same time within our organizations, and that resistance can be entirely subconscious.

In the end, that resistance often emerges as a need to avoid potentially damaging short-term disruptions in the face of more abstracted long-term gain.

Arts organizations have a strange relationship with various groups to which they are generally beholden. The fear of losing those most loyal patrons—a fear which is not something to be taken lightly—is only one aspect. The dichotomy of a funding community and governance structure that, in many cases, simultaneously encourages innovation and risk while also rewarding stability and longevity can leave an organization unsure of which divergent path will lead to the most fruitful conclusion.

Most arts organizations do not maintain cultures of similarity out of an innate desire to hold back diversification. Instead, the leaders of those organizations either consciously or subconsciously understand the ramifications of moving from “valuing diversity” to “managing diversity,” and that those ramifications can be scary. The idea of risking a stable, if dwindling, base of support in favor of an unknown group of new, often less-advantaged, less-educated, more-mobile, more-multimodal people, means confronting a future that may be, at least in the short term, less stable than the present. The conscious effort required to attempt diversification—a prospect that can feel artificial and utilitarian, and at the same time deeply confrontational—is tiring, even more so for the fact that the benefits, if there are any, may not be reaped for a decade or more, while the discomfort begins as soon as you take the first step.

But let us start here: let us start with mission. A mission is a driving principle, not a shield. Unless your mission is “we make art for white, old, rich people,” the worry you feel at the thought of diversification isn’t mission-based, it’s bottom-line based. We must recognize both the legitimacy of that concern and the requirement that we deal with it rather than avoid it. 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 a totally legitimate mission to have, as long as it is consciously forged and followed.

The art we make is local. It is place-based, which means it is community-based, whether we want it to be or not. Each organization’s definition of its “community” can be—should be—vastly different, but ultimately it must be defined, and we must ensure that our field overall is serving the population in aggregate, even if we each are not. Fundamentally, findings like those in The Arts Diversity Index, which reveal a Bay Area theatre culture that is largely white, wealthy, aged and liberal in a community that is orders of magnitude more varied than that, indicate deeply rooted problems of our field.

We need to understand the motives of our reticence, the legitimate fears inherent in thinking about what must be done, the legitimate destabilization that might occur, the discomfort we are going to feel. In the case of theatre, we are only as impactful as the people who we can convince to watch us. Theatre without an audience is just a crazy person talking in a room, impotent and misunderstood. If something we do drives them away, what are we left with?

Since 1982, national attendance of theatre has declined from 30.5% of the total population to 26.1% of the population according to the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.

Loyalty and the participation of an audience drive everything at a theatre. These traits, in the end, are primarily informed by questions of the art’s relevance to the personal experience of the patron. It is in this area of relevance that the conversation around diversity comes home to roost.

Since 1982, national attendance of theatre has declined from 30.5% of the total population to 26.1% of the population according to the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. In that same approximate time period (1980 to 2010), both the general United States population and the particular populations of the San Francisco Bay Area have shifted dramatically. Bay Area populations have gone from being 70% white to 42% white and the Bay Area, as the rest of the state of California, has become a “majority-minority” community. The average household income in the Bay Area has increased by nearly $20,000. There are more young people, more single people and more Republicans than there were. Overall, the Bay Area has become more colorful, more economically stratified and more age stratified—all at a rate faster than most of the rest of the nation.

This means that the pressure to diversify has existed for quite a while. Foundations, trustees, patrons and, in some cases, employees at Bay Area theatre organizations have long implicitly or explicitly pressured organizations about the diversification of their board, their staff, their audiences.

The mantra, which is often more of a directive, is simple and non-specific: “Become more diverse.” It, generally speaking, is narrowly about race and ethnicity, almost never about age, gender or class. It assumes a blanket solution regardless of particulars of mission, size or geography, and is spoken without regard for some of the more practical outcomes of following such a directive. This is not the type of conversation that we should be having.

The findings of The Arts Diversity Index indicate that, in order to make a conversation about diversity meaningful and actionable, we must, as a field, engage in a conversation that is:

  • Informed by data.
  • Backed by research from both inside and outside the arts field.
  • Bounded by standardized benchmarks and goals.
  • Inclusive of the idiosyncrasies of each organization while also understanding that those idiosyncrasies do not constitute an exit from the conversation.
  • Understanding of the short-, mid- and long-term potential consequences, positive and negative, of an arts organization or an arts community trying to truly expand the diversity of their leadership, staff, art, artists and audiences.

The research in The Arts Diversity Index is a pilot with a single clear goal: to set forth a concept of how the arts field might encapsulate the current state of a certain organization’s diversities into a standardized set of scores, comparable to both other organizations and the larger population being served. In so doing, we can both give shape to the unshaped issues we face and provide individualized benchmarking and strategic guidance to make headway against the heavy wind, to change, and to offer a small step towards our continued viability as a field.

The arts, in their finest moments, heal the welts of difference. They are the expression of our experience translated through the lens of our most human impulses, played out for others to consume and grapple with and take home, to be reminded in a day or a year or a decade about that moment when something became suddenly and momentarily clear. They reflect, offend and woo, sing and scream, and we tell ourselves that some art can speak to people, if only we can put it in front of their eyes.

If we continue to believe that that is the case, we need to take the time to understand with more nuance the reality of our current homogeneous situation, the very real consequences of both staying the course and forging a new path, and the particular idiosyncrasies of each organization, each individual, each piece of art that have made diversification a constant desire and a rare accomplishment.

For more information about The Arts Diversity Index or to read a press release, executive summary, or infographics of some of the core findings, please go here and click on the Research tab.

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This is a beautifully thought-through piece, clarifying and helpful. Being phobic of statistics and scientific analyses, I almost didn't read it. I am so glad I overcame my fear and plunged in! You found a way to combine the science with a most humane articulation of the dilemma of diversity. I do, however, feel it is important not to dismiss the now-aging theatre-goers who would have little reason to attend if they did not have an abiding love for the art of live theatre. In my experience they are open to more adventurous programming. And I am grateful to anyone who still attends the theatre!! It's the risk-adverse leadership at theatres who are responsible for the content, I have heard them argue that audiences stay away when they present 'risky' content, but it is their job to build new audiences. And I have reason to believe it is their boards and sponsors they fear more than their audiences. The theatre-going population you describe are the generation, after all, who were part of the revolutions that brought the great social changes to our culture. That they are predominatly white, elderly and rich (enough to buy tickets, at least) does not fully describe their humanity. Radically lowering ticket prices and dedication to outreach would go along way to diversifying content and audiences. This might require a new generation of leadership, willing to forgo institutional priviledges and security. The present generation of leaders, by the way, seem to be much less adventurous than the generation before them. Those senior audiences you mention started going to the theatre at a time when theatre really meant something to the culture. I hope they will still be here to take part when and if it does again!

Thank you for this articulate and thoughtful essay. I love the forthright approach to naming the intention of reaching which audience(s) and being deliberate and candid about it.

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