In a major study to be undertaken this summer, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration is set to review the diversity of the boards, staffs and audiences of the city’s cultural organizations, such as museums, orchestras and dance troupes.
“If you’re living in a city like we are in New York — with 65 percent people of color right now — maybe we’re missing out on some of the talent if we don’t have diverse audiences, staffs and boards,” said New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl, whose department is to commission the study.
Finkelpearl said there are no good data on the racial, ethnic or gender makeup of New York cultural organizations and their audiences, and that the study, to be done by an outside vendor, would help make clear that diversity should be a priority for institutions when it comes to naming trustees or hiring employees.
Illustration: Tania Chou
“Over 90 percent of staffs at museums nationally are white,” Finkelpearl said.
However, Finkelpearl said the city had no intention of instituting quotas or determining future financial support for arts groups based on their success in achieving diversity. Only organizations that seek city financing are to be surveyed, and their participation is to be required.
The city’s consultant on the survey will provide the city only with data on overall trends, not the findings for particular institutions, he said.
“We’re not looking to be punitive,” Finkelpearl said. “We don’t want a moment when a list gets published that says ‘here are the least and most diverse organizations.’ The administration is committed to diversity as a general goal. We want to know by sector — what can we learn from how people develop audiences and staffs and boards, highlighting the positive, sharing best practices.”
The city’s initiative comes as the lack of racial diversity in culture has been widely noted, including Neil Patrick Harris’ recent reference to the whiteness of the Oscars. In addition, the University of California’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies just released its second Hollywood Diversity Report which found racial and gender imbalances in film and television.
The Department of Cultural Affairs announced its planned survey at a meeting in January at the Ford Foundation that was attended by about 230 representatives of arts groups. An additional 200 attended a second meeting last month at BRIC, a nonprofit arts and media organization in Brooklyn.
Arts executives who went to the meetings said they welcomed the city’s effort and did not view it with alarm.
“I came away inspired,” said Claudia Bonn, executive director of Wave Hill, a public garden and cultural center in the Bronx. “It’s something that you don’t think about all the time.”
New York Botanical Garden president and chief executive Gregory Long, who attended the session at the Ford Foundation, said: “It’s fine to stop and focus on it,” adding that “there weren’t a whole lot of people of color in the room.”
At the January event, Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, whose organization is to help fund the study, told attendees that “the arts cannot be the exclusive purview and playground of the privileged.”
“The problem is that diversity has been framed as giving up something,” Walker said in an interview, “when in fact diversity adds value to the organization.”
The survey, to be conducted by a private nonprofit not yet selected, is the second broad cultural initiative undertaken by De Blasio, whose profile as a supporter of the arts is still unclear. This year de Blasio used the promise of free benefits at city cultural organizations as an enticement for people to sign up for new municipal identification cards that are being given out to help unauthorized immigrants.
De Blasio has made diversity a cornerstone of his administration. Of his total agency heads, 18 percent are African-American; 14 percent are Latino; 14 percent are Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders; and more than half are women.
New York City Council majority leader and Cultural Affairs Committee chairman Jimmy Van Bramer said the survey would not be an “attempt to embarrass institutions.”
“What I would not want to happen is that cultural organizations are identified as bad operators here,” he said, “when everyone should be looking in the mirror at their own institutions.”
Still unclear is what the city will do with the survey results, which Finkelpearl said he expected back in the fall.
“We’re not going to take any action at all until we have some answers,” he said.
The Ford Foundation’s Walker said the mostly white makeup of many cultural organization boards is a symptom of a larger problem.
“This isn’t about racism or purposeful exclusion of people,” Walker said. “This is about sophisticated leaders of boards simply not knowing who to turn to for help, because when they look among their own friends, their business associates, their neighbors, they don’t see much diversity.”
With rare exceptions, few of the city’s largest cultural organizations have ever had more than a handful of non-white board members. The limited roster of black executives who are typically pursued for trusteeships include Citigroup Global Head of Corporate and Investment Banking Raymond McGuire, who is the chairman of the Studio Museum in Harlem and serves on the boards of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the New York Public Library, former New York City parks commissioner Gordon Davis, who is on the boards of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Public Theater and the library; and Walker, who sits on the boards of New York City Ballet and the High Line.
Each of the city’s two meetings featured a panel of speakers, including Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman; Andrew W. Mellon Foundation vice president Mariet Westermann; and Wildlife Conservation Society president Cristian Samper, whose organization runs the city’s zoos and aquarium.
Long said almost half of his workforce at the Botanical Garden is non-white.
“It’s something we think about quite a lot here because we’re in the Bronx,” he said, “where there are more people of color.”
Creative Time president and artistic director Anne Pasternak said that — based on census figures showing an increase in New York’s minority population — the public art group she heads has already been changing its hiring practices.
“Everything we do in the organization now is seen through the lens of equity,” she said. “If you want to have audiences for the arts in the city, where are they going to come from? It’s not only an issue of what feels good and what’s right. It’s an issue of survival.”
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