The Ugly Truth about Arts Institutions Led by Women of Color

As the founder and executive artistic director for the Bishop Arts Theatre Center (BATC) in Dallas, Texas, I experience racism, sexism, and classism almost daily. It’s no secret that racial and gender disparity is a chronic problem for women in leadership at arts institutions in the United States, but for women of color, there is a severe, unconscious level of prejudice.

I’m so grateful for the 2016 study on women artistic and managing directors in the League of Resident Theatres (LORT), commissioned by American Conservatory Theater. It not only gave me the lexicon to talk intelligently about the issues I was experiencing, but, more importantly, it made me feel less like a martyr.

The study found zero women of color as executive directors in LORT, the largest professional theatre association in the United States, and only one woman of color as an artistic director. This is a dismal reality for women like me who are founders of their own theatre company, hoping to transition to jobs at LORT theatres in the future. The ugly truth, which was revealed in the study, is that "hidden behind a gender- and race-neutral job description is an expectation, grounded in a stereotype, of what a theatre leader needs to look like: white and male."

White men are the long-standing majority of those in top positions, which translates to who funders trust to provide financial resources, who the media decides to give a platform to, and who board members select to lead their organizations. Many female leaders experience deeply entrenched inequalities and are pushed away from economically viable opportunities; by and large, women of color are not looked upon as masterminds or artistic leaders in the field.

Last year I attended Theatre Communications Group’s (TCG) Fall Forum on Governance in New York City. While I knew white men were the dominant culture for artistic directors in the industry, the affinity group breakout sessions made it crystal clear—in the one made up of tenured founding artistic directors of twenty-plus years, I was the only woman of color. Throughout the forum, it was refreshing to learn that TCG was creating much-needed dialogue about issues never discussed before and asking bold questions about what leadership should look like in our field. But it was discouraging to hear many attendees lament that the same conversation has been happening for years. It’s apparent very little progress has been made.

In November 2016, just days after Donald Trump was elected, I attended the Facing Race conference in Atlanta. We had all arrived depleted, in a state of disbelief. Roxane Gay, best-selling author and recent Guggenheim Fellowship award recipient, outed white women who had voted for Trump. It was there many of us learned that, despite Trump having been caught on tape boasting about sexual assault, more than 53 percent of white women voted for him. Most attendees wondered how a sexual predator could have been elected as our commander-in-chief. It was an honest question that we all wanted answered.

At the end of the conference, we collectively agreed to forge ahead and tackle whatever problems would inevitably arise in the months to come. Our marching orders were to get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations—whether political, professional, or personal. For me, it meant to show up more authentically in my relationships and call out discrimination in any form, whether it’s a staff member who is not accustomed to being led by a woman of color or a colleague who throws rocks and hides their hands.

Hidden behind a race-neutral job description is an expectation, grounded in a stereotype, of what a theatre leader needs to look like: white and male.

The BATC has grown from a small community theatre to a multicultural, multidisciplinary resource center for the neighborhood. We offer a full season of theatre performances, jazz concerts, speaker series events, and year-round arts education programs. Property ownership has afforded us the autonomy to diversify our income and sustain our organization independent of government grants, but I was taken aback when a national funder declined a grant application citing disapproval of our multidisciplinary programming. Places like the Public Theatre and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts are lauded for the innovative use of their spaces. How is the BATC different? I couldn’t help but recall Janelle Monáe’s line in the movie Hidden Figures: “Every time we have a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line.”

performers all surround one performer standing on a block
Bishop Arts Theater Center's production of Black Nativity. Photo by Sergio Antonio Garcia. 

Nonprofits led by women of color are judged by unrealistic standards set by funders who fashion themselves as allies. On occasions, I’ve had the good fortune of recruiting and securing former trustees from regional theatre to join our board. Their expectation is always to raise the same level of funding as they had in other positions, but the reality is that small to mid-size theatre companies, like mine, and particularly theatres led by women of color, have very few million-dollar donors in their Rolodex compared to regional theatres. In addition, the allocation of funds from corporate and wealthy private-sector donors is hugely skewed. I have found that while a funder might grant the BATC a $5,000 gift, he will fund a larger institution at a disproportionately higher level. It is a deeply entrenched racial and (in my case) gender imbalance strategically designed to keep women of color away from economically viable resources and under the radar.

In 2015, our theatre was invited along with five other organizations by the Embrey Family Foundation (EFF) to participate in an RSF Social Finance Shared Gifting Circle. EFF is a small family foundation in Dallas that supports groundbreaking socially conscious projects centered around racial and gender inequalities. The gifting circle was a revolutionary grant-making process where six selected nonprofits distributed $60,000 in funds among each other. Each organization was guaranteed a minimum of $2,000.

Although this was a new approach to grant making for our organization, I learned the concept has been around for over a decade. RSF’s model of shared gifting gives full decision-making authority to a group of grantees who evaluate each other’s proposals and make funding decisions together with transparency. Here’s how it works: The funder decides how much the participating organizations will share and distribute. A meeting date is established and each group is asked to submit a proposal for operating support or an upcoming project, which is reviewed by the participants prior to the meeting. On the meeting date, participants share personal stories and organizational biographies. There is an open discussion about each proposal and each representative determines how much to grant the other nonprofits. The process is designed to be simple and logical from an economic perspective and socially constructive from a community-building perspective. In an innovative and unusual twist on traditional grant making, participants are both grant recipients and grantors to each other.  

Our organization walked away with a $10,000 grant that year—not a bad day’s work, right? But what was even more empowering was that I was able to gift thousands of dollars to a different arts group led by another woman of color—and she did the same for my organization in return. We had been in the trenches together, doing great work under the radar for a long time, and it gave us both a personal sense of satisfaction to reward the other’s organization. In 2016, I had the pleasure of co-facilitating a shared gifting circle for EFF that was made up of all women. And this month, I’m the lead facilitator for 2018 cohort, which will mostly include women of color artistic leaders.

The shared gifting circles are cathartic in many ways for minority female artistic leaders. We learn that until we talk to each other and affirm that our experiences are the same, we can’t fully support each other. Oftentimes we are pitted against each other, but with shared gifting competition becomes collaboration.

Nonprofits led by women of color are judged by unrealistic standards set by funders who fashion themselves as allies.

Hillary Clinton’s book What Happened should be required reading for any young woman interested in a leadership position in any field. The chapter on sisterhood had me bearing witness, out loud, like a congregant at a tent revival down a country road in rural Georgia. In it, Clinton recounts a conversation with Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook: “The more successful a man is, the more people like him. With women, it’s the exact opposite. The more professionally successful we are, the less people like us.” Women leaders, particularly women of color, suffer implacable hostility.

I am a member of a professional women’s group in Dallas called It’s Lonely at the Top, which is made up of executive directors in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. I’m the only woman in theatre and only one of two women of color in the group, and I’ve found that while I share many similar concerns as the other women, my experiences as a leader are unique. Women of color struggle with disparities in funding, media attention, and recognition compared to our white male and female counterparts. Implicit bias is layered and complex, and, while it might be subtle to others, women of color know when we are being discriminated against. I’ve experienced first-hand being pushed to the margins in ways that should have been crippling.

There is a cadre of impressive young theatre practitioners, many of whom are women of color, being trained to be leaders in the field. At TCG’s Fall Forum last year, I was impressed with panelist members from artEquity, a dynamic organization that seeks to build practical and analytical skills necessary to address diversity and inclusion issues at an interpersonal, group, and organizational level. One of the most salient points made was that there must be a major paradigm shift in the industry if these young innovators would even consider leading arts institutions—currently, they are reticent because they feel there is not enough meaningful effort being made to dismantle systemic racism. Moreover, these young people want to see more than lip service. No one wants to be set up for failure. The industry has been talking about dismantling racism and systems of oppression for fifty years, but the reality is that change is slow. Female artistic leaders must be given leeway to experiment and fail and explore again without public shame. There must be the same financial investment in women of color as there have been in our white male counterparts.

Unconscious bias is layered, and when left unchecked it rears its ugly head in subtle ways that is oblivious to most people. White supremacy maintains its power in liberal advocates who are touted as progressives but who unconsciously discriminate against minorities and women of color on a daily basis. But I have always been an incorrigible optimist; it is a mindset that has helped me overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and left detractors befuddled. Indeed, a new day is on the horizon, and I am joining the legions of women and men to help usher it in.

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Thank you for sharing your story and resources for WOC in leadership positions at Arts Institutions. I look forward to reading some of the resources you referenced.BTW..my arts organization is based in Fort Worth, TX. As a new ED myself, I hope that we will have an opportunity to connect one day!

Thank you for sharing. Working at an arts organization of color as a white person has expanded my own field of vision; our experience is very similar to what you describe. Thanks to the women of color leaders here who have been open and frank about their personal experiences with me, I can now see racism daily in how the organization is treated externally. That vision has also expanded my personal perspective where I can see the daily public and personal racism that impacts people of color. It's not fair, but more and more white people are starting to see it. I think long-term change in equitable treatment is still far away, but I'm optimistic it will happen.

I really enjoyed reading this article about Women of Color in leadership positions. I'm the Artistic Director for a Native Theater and Film organization here in Albuquerque, NM called "Two Worlds" and I've always found that being a Navajo Women in a leadership position has its tough days. This article is exactly what I needed to reassure my passion of being a leader without any hesitation. I know this job isn't easy, but its exactly who I am and exactly where I need to be for my culture, community, and for my company!

Thank you so much for this article, Teresa!!! I stand with you in solidarity! As a woman of color, I felt and heard your entire article as if it were my own experience. I have read Hillary's book and I, too, was heartened by the chapter on sisterhood! Bless you and I affirm your leadership and your ability to stay present and optimistic despite the challenges! ML Ishii

Well done, Teresa. I will share broadly and keep lifting up these ugly truths in my work. Thank you for posting.

Great article. I had the unique opportunity and privilege of being a white man working for an institution of color in Harlem and rose from assistant to director of programming over my 28 years at Harlem Stage. Long story as to why I ended up there and what my journey then was, but what was and is important about it for me is that almost all my mentors in that endeavor were powerful women of color, from my predecessor to the several other women who ran similar organizations, or were leaders in other ways in the field. I hold them up with the highest regard. Because of them and the work I did, I cannot approach anything I do without looking through the lens of inclusion and I take few prisoners as I move in the world of the arts, other efforts and my personal life. My best to you in this work and your advocacy.

Thank you for acknowledging and paying homage to the women of color who mentored you Brad. A few months ago Martha Richards made me aware of an organization called Women of Color in the Arts, yet when I attend many conventions, I'm among a handful of WOC in the room. We have been systemically pushed to the margins and are not welcomed in spaces where we can make a difference. I appreciate your comment.

Hello Teresa,

I enjoyed reading this piece so much, and I am even more encouraged and determined to make my way through the philanthropic world to support art leaders like you. As an emerging philanthropy practitioner of color who wants to support art leaders such as yourself, I am finding it incredibly difficult to even find a mentor who will lend their time. Practitioners of color who I admire and are thought leaders are incredibly inaccessible. This disappoints me. And I do often wonder as you said if "Women leaders, particularly women of color, suffer [so much] implacable hostility" that they become so incredibly exhausted, that they are not in an emotional place to lend guidance, time, and fellowship for future grantmakers coming behind them. While I know of many leading POC philanthropy practitioner at renown foundations, I can't say I've ever had a chance to even be in their company to just authentically listen and learn from them. When I do reach out via email, I rarely if ever get a response in return. I'm not sure if it's a generational challenge, life getting in the way, a clique that I am not a part of or just a misguided perception. What I could also discover is that behind closed doors, they too could feel alone and unsupported. I do wish that philanthropy leaders didn't alway feel "pitted against each other," as you stated when talking about artists and could also participate in "shared [knowledge] gifting." Now this post has become a testimonial. LOL. Oops. Were you able to connect with the founders of WOCA? If not, I'd be happy to connect you. I know them from my APAP Leadership Fellowship program. If you are interested, feel free to DM me on Twitter @maraboubel and we can take it from there.

Fantastic article Teresa! I remember being so inspired by you in the fall forum affinity group meeting. Thank you for writing and sharing this- I look forward to sharing it with my board and colleagues. I hope to see you again at future TCG’s.