Sat, Mar 07, 2015 - Page 9 News List

New York plans to study diversity of its cultural organizations

In a bid to attract non-white participation in its arts scene, New York is to assess the makeup of its audiences, staffs and agencies

By Robin Pogrebin  /  NY Times News Service, New York

Illustration: Tania Chou

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.

“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.”

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