Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Arts Management
An Exposé and Guide
Part I: Who’s in the Room?
Are you tired? Rundown? Listless? Do you constantly meet the diversity quota in meetings? Well, if you answered, “yes” to these questions, you are not alone. I too, suffer from only-one-syndrome. I too, am the person that everyone turns to when a question arises about “outreach” to people of color. And yes, I too, look around the room with the hope to lock eyes in secret solidarity with the other person of color who just might be there.
As a student, intern, and employee in the field of arts administration, the desire to change my answers to “no” has sparked my commitment to promoting systemic change in performing arts organizations through racial and ethnic diversity management and engagement. There is a lack of diversity, overall, in arts administration leadership positions. The higher up the position, the fewer people of color we see. I call this “The Trickle Down Defect.” Not only does the TDD exist in leadership hierarchy, it exists in terms of awareness of the field especially for people of color. Being able to see people of color visibly active in leadership positions is essential to show how the public is truly represented in every facet of arts organizations. Otherwise, it is hypocritical to claim arts organizations serve the public without people reflective of that public working within them. This, in turn, can tend to make target-marketing efforts seem insincere rather than welcoming. Providing greater access to, creating more opportunities for, and showcasing the viability of this field towards people of color needs to become a priority if people truly want to see a change.
As a culminating project for my CalArts MFA in Theatre Management, specializing in Producing, I created and conducted an independent study focused on racial and ethnic diversity in leadership positions within nonprofit performing arts organizations. I interviewed a variety of arts leaders experienced in theatrical production, public service, and performing arts administration on the West Coast. I wanted to garner a greater sense of the current perception of this topic in the community that nurtured me. I needed answers. Was this an important issue of discussion in the theatre community (and beyond) outside of my own yearning? Was there a reason that I could count on one hand the number of African-American females I knew of working in managerial positions at nonprofit performing arts organizations? Or was it just necessary for me to settle with the fact that I needed to hunt to find role models? I held more than twenty-five interviews with people of varying demographics involved in arts administration in mid- to large-sized organizations.
Another focus of my study was to discover materials and research that discussed the employment and trajectory of people of color in higher-level managerial positions at institutions concentrating on the performing arts. Due to my lack of success finding published sources that directly addressed or even mentioned this topic, I came to the conclusion that I should share my results and suggestions for action at-large here on HowlRound, thus providing a source for the next-gen arts leader of color or arts organization looking for ideas on how to address this issue.
In my interviews, I asked questions intended to delve deeper into an understanding of why people of color are not more visible in higher-level management positions (i.e., artistic, managing, executive directors) in performing arts organizations, and what actions can challenge the layers of complexity surrounding this subject.
There is a pipeline issue that seems to keep people of color from engaging in the field and growing in it. There are a very few networks and opportunities that are working to combat this, but more need to be put in place in order to have a greater impact. The arts are still seen as an elitist form of entertainment for people with greater means. There is some diversity onstage through the work of artists, but this does not translate to the people working behind the scenes or in administrative capacities. Demographics are inevitably changing, but working in the arts is not typically considered a viable career path by parents of young people of color, thus the potential next-gen may get discouraged before they even begin.
Generating a systemic shift towards understanding diversity management and engagement is key for field development. There is a fourth wall of discomfort that still needs to be broken down for conversations like these to even happen at the table. Along with most arts organizations, the theatre needs to start coming to terms with and addressing the following points to enhance the potential for organizational growth into the twenty-first ethnically and racially diverse century.
Committing to diversity in arts organizations is not about checking off a box, filling up a diversity quota, or reaching out to the few people of color that you know. It is about establishing an organizational commitment to diversity advancement.
Let’s talk it out. Through my conversations with arts leaders, administrators, educators, and artists of various ages, races, and ethnicities I was able to identify four areas of concern directly affecting the lack of diversity in arts leadership.
1) “My organization does try to reach out to people of color but they don’t apply.”
The effort shouldn’t be about reaching out but instead about welcoming in.
Invoking systemic change lies in ownership. Arts organizations need to recognize their growing responsibility to change dynamics in hiring practices, leadership development, organizational culture, and employee advancement. New voices are ready to be heard. Organizations have the chance to capitalize on change rather than seeing it as a risk. Committing to diversity in arts organizations is not about checking off a box, filling up a diversity quota, or reaching out to the few people of color that you know. It is about establishing an organizational commitment to diversity advancement. Adopting an organization-wide way of thinking that welcomes diverse experiences and backgrounds will only uplift the potential an organization has to thrive.
2) “I’m not really sure why we haven’t had people of color in leadership positions.”
Institutionalized racism! Yep, I said it. Let’s face it and move on.
Yes, it still exists in many places. Of course, it’s not OK. Yes, it may be taboo to bring it up, but it’s about time we just face the fact and fight it. Combating the lack of diversity in arts administration is important because a healthy organization should resemble the community it serves. Every day is an opportunity to shift the story. Through more community engagement, mentorship programs, and improved hiring practices, changes can be made in greater strides.
3) “I fear my own voice in this conversation.”
Your voice matters and silence speaks volumes.
A person of color automatically represents something when they walk into a room, whether they want to or not. For most, it is easier to connect with people you can relate to, so having others in the same space that share similar cultures, backgrounds, and experiences can cultivate a sense of community and a more cohesive work atmosphere.
4) “I’m not sure how to get young people of color interested in this field.”
Exposure is crucial! Arts education is the door waiting to be opened in order to help cultivate next-gen leaders of color.
Change starts with education. If we are not educated in what we are trying to affect then progress cannot be made. Arts education budget cuts mean that fewer students get to develop a passion for the arts, or follow that passion into arts administration. When organizations take on educational responsibilities, they must realize that many times their programming is shaping a student’s first experience with the arts. Not only do organizations need to understand their role in introducing the arts, but high schools, colleges, universities, and graduate programs need to know that they are the places where the role of the arts administrator can be revealed. Many career paths follow the road of the “accidental arts administrator.” Knowing early on that this is a field that exists can help to build awareness and interest among students.
Here are some of my recommendations to embrace racial and ethnic diversity in arts management.
For a person of color, a sort of duty comes with working at arts organizations. Whether you are comfortable 'representing' your culture/ethnicity or not, it is imperative to realize that others may rely on you to do so.
Part II: Open the Door!
Are you confused? Out of ideas? Still looking for answers? Do you constantly back away slowly or sit in silence when the topic of diversity comes up at your arts organization? Well, if you answered, “yes” to these questions, you must know that you are not alone. I too, suffer from what I like to call, “diversiteasia”—the tease of fully embracing diversity. I too, can relate to the plight that comes with talking about how to address it, where to begin, and why it’s necessary to care.
As a student, intern, and employee in the field of arts administration, I am committed to promoting systemic change in performing arts organizations through racial and ethnic diversity management and engagement. This guide is intended to offer tangible tips on ways in which arts administrators and organizations can actually begin broad-spectrum change towards embracing racial and ethnic diversity in arts management.
Action suggestions for arts organizations looking to diversify their executive management:
1) Connect with cultural community leaders in plain sight.
Culturally specific arts organizations exist to make sure the stories of that culture are being told. These types of organizations are typically led by people of color. This leads to a noticeable showing of people of color in higher leadership positions at these organizations specific to their culture or ethnicity. Arts organizations need to recognize that finding people of color with executive leadership skills may not be as difficult as it seems. They exist! Recruitment can start in communities of color. Some of the most impactful leaders are those already connected to the communities that larger arts organizations are hoping to reach.
2) Implement and integrate strategies that embrace diversity to strengthen organizational sustainability.
To thrive, organizations must facilitate diversity inclusion rather than diversity seclusion. One department cannot represent this commitment alone. All facets of an organization should be showcasing this outlook: from marketing through intentional outreach to audiences, programming, hiring, and leadership. It is critical to address this subject right now. Due to the shifting demographics of our society, diversity awareness must be encouraged so that as the world around us is evolving, we, as societal representatives of the arts, are evolving with it.
3) Incorporate diversity awareness into the organizational culture.
Providing cultural competency training as a part of staff retreats or communication-centered workshops through human resources development in arts organizations is something that can also shape a more unified culture based in our differences. For many, cultural awareness is something that is gleaned from familial traditions or life experiences. Gaining an understanding of community demographics and racial consciousness is not typically seen as a priority in terms of educating arts administrators. Allowing for this to become a priority in the workplace could provide a foundation for the organization as a whole to represent an inclusive and well-informed work environment.
4) Set concrete plans in place that provide room for advancement and opportunities to break the glass ceiling.
Offer or encourage opportunities for employees to engage in leadership development activities, conferences, and/or courses. Current leaders must be the first to adopt and show that diversity inclusion needs to become a normal part of organizational culture. It’s the trickle-down effect. If leadership demonstrates diversity inclusion as a priority the rest of the organization will follow. Pairing current leaders with emerging leaders can also allow for education on both sides. Internal organizational mentorship programs can boost the confidence and facilitate the emergence of leaders of color. Types of internal mentorship programs can range from having lunch once a month for six months with an organizational leader where you discuss current trends in your respective fields, to shadowing a day-in-the-life or a week-in-the-life (over an extended period) of a current leader.
Action encouragements for the arts administrator of color:
1) Become comfortable with your responsibility—realize your role.
For a person of color, a sort of duty comes with working at arts organizations. Whether you are comfortable “representing” your culture/ethnicity or not, it is imperative to realize that others may rely on you to do so. That being said, you define your role and can shape it however you choose.
2) Take pride in yourself.
“Representing” should not feel like something you have to do but it can be something you want to do. Expose the joy of the arts to those who relate to you and those who don’t through your work. You may inspire people of color to work in this field. The more that we, as a united diverse society, come together to showcase our value in the at-large arts conversation, the more amplified the voices of leaders of color can become, ultimately allowing more diverse stories to be heard and understood. This will help in uncovering the arts and the field of arts administration to people of color. Your voice matters.
Action recommendations for the white ally arts administrator:
1) Become comfortable with your responsibility—realize your role.
Help cultivate organizational sensitivity and diversity awareness. If systemic change is something you hope will happen, you cannot sit back and wait for it to happen. People of color do not speak for their entire race. It is up to the organization to find ways to connect with communities of color to build bridges allowing them to communicate effectively and authentically. People of color can help to build those bridges but cannot be expected to solely shape them. Your voice matters.
2) Become a white ally.
Do not fear your voice in this conversation because you are a part of it whether you realize it or not. Silence speaks volumes, so get comfortable with the uncomfortable. It is important to listen, learn, and retain but even more so than those actions, you must speak. Sometimes you may say the wrong thing but don’t give up. Take some time to reflect, then ask for clarification which gives you an opportunity to become a part of the conversation rather than an awkward bystander. Then in rooms where there may be no person of color to “represent” or if there is one who may just be tired of “representing,” you’ll have an educated perspective that you can share. If we don’t communicate from both ends of the spectrum, no change will come about. Becoming a white ally is not something you will receive a gold star for; it is an awareness of your own privilege, a pledge you keep with yourself of the unspoken solidarity that you can work to bring to the surface at your organization.
Action propositions for arts organizations looking to foster next-gen leaders of color:
1) Serve the communities that make up our society and move more towards telling the stories of the people whose support you want.
Adopt actual social service initiatives. Organizations should shy away from an exclusive approach and move more towards a “for the people and (inspired) by the people” methodology. It’s about inviting people in that may not even know they want to engage with the arts. It is about putting forth the effort to evolve the understanding within many communities of color that this is not a selective, superior, or restrictive activity that plays into oppression.
2) Create visible awareness—exercise the see-it-to-believe-it mechanism.
Go to career days, mentor, let younger students shadow workdays with you, and explain what you really do more often to more people. Own your role as an arts administrator and be proud of it. Through visibility we can begin to promote the viability of this field and how it is possible to have a career as an arts administrator. Parents greatly influence students of color towards choosing stable and respectable careers. As a field, we need to establish to the greater public that the skills needed to be a successful arts administrator are not frivolous or less than those of other professions. Offer to do seminars at colleges in communications and fine arts. Many programs do not offer classes in arts administration, so we can’t expect to cultivate emerging leaders if they do not have a base knowledge of what we do. Have our future leaders find out about our field directly from us rather than haphazardly falling into this profession.
3) Enhance educational engagement and cultivate leadership development opportunities.
It is essential to not only recruit people of color for job opportunities, but it’s even more important to nurture their growth and encourage them to be ambitious for career advancement. In arts administration there are two avenues in which people learn: work experiences and educational programs. More mentorship programs through individuals or organizations need to be established. Educational opportunities need to recruit beyond listing on websites. People of color will not go to your program website if they have no idea your type of program exists. Higher education is expensive and scholarships will need to become available for people interested in this field. Reach out to the undergraduates hunting for job opportunities and get them started in entry-level positions.
There is no question that our landscape is changing and organizations need to commit. Change is hard but when your community calls out for it, it’s time to listen. Leadership has to begin somewhere. When more people of color are hired, more stories have the opportunity to be told allowing more perspectives of life to be represented. Isn’t art meant to be a reflection of life? Thank you to all my interviewees and those who guided me along my journey.