Diversity in Arts Participation: Current Overview and Efforts for Progress

“People may be said to resemble not the bricks of which a house is built, but the pieces of a picture puzzle, each differing in shape, but matching the rest, and thus bringing out the picture.”

– Felix Adler (1851-1933), professor of political and social ethics and founder of the American Ethical movement

“Diversity” by Wendy Butcher (Source)

Diversity is more than a buzzword. It’s more than a vague goal of corporate mission statements or topic for entertainment news pieces. Discussing diversity, inclusion, and equity is an important step in recognizing biases based on a variety of factors: age, religion, race, gender, and sexual orientation (note: this post will focus on racial equity). Despite the challenges of discussing diversity in the workplace and truly defining what it means, it remains a consistently relevant topic, particularly in the arts and arts education.


What does diversity in the arts look like today?

In Susan Raab’s article for Nonprofit Quarterly outlining how critical diversity is to the arts and arts education, she states that “there are fewer non-white artists and organizations in traditional areas of the arts, such as classical music.” This means that many students do not see themselves represented in traditional arts groups and performances; without role models they can identify with, they may feel discouraged to participate, in addition to possibly lacking resources or access.

This is further evidenced by Syracuse New Times’ report that “classical orchestras tend to be overwhelmingly white. According to a 2012 report by the League of American Orchestras, only 4.5 percent of orchestra musicians are black or Latino—hardly representative of the general population, which, according to the 2010 census, was 13.6 percent black and 16.3 percent Hispanic or Latino.”

This underrepresentation in classical music is part of larger inequalities in arts access. Grantmakers in the Arts is an organization that works to support arts and culture through philanthropic and governmental resources, and their board of directors decided to focus on racial equity in arts philanthropy in 2015. They released a statement that includes the following affirmations:

– All people, their culture, and their art contribute to the meaning and understanding of our humanity and should be honored and celebrated.

– Artists, their art, their process, and the organizations they create and support play a unique role in witnessing, demonstrating, and providing inspiration to resolve societal inequity and injustice.

– Sustained racialized public policies and institutional practices, both conscious and unconscious, have resulted in unequal access to education and resources for African, Latino(a), Asian, Arab, and Native American (ALAANA) communities and artists. This systemic unequal access to opportunity has resulted in generations of unjust and inequitable outcomes for ALAANA communities.

The key takeaway from this statement is that solutions need to focus on structural inequalities instead of just diversity to achieve success in equitable inclusion. We need to take a closer look at diversity in the arts, but we also need to look at why diversity in the arts has often been limited.


What problems arise when diversity isn’t focused on?

One conversation about diversity in the arts that has recently been garnering attention concerns the field of ballet. Gia Kourlas covered this topic for The New York Times and included statements from Rachel Moore, former executive director of American Ballet Theater. Kourlas wrote that “the problem of diversity in ballet is complex, and linked, in part, to economic issues that include the cost of training as well as a lack of role models. But why have companies done so little to change the status quo? Ms. Moore said that there had been a reluctance in the field to discuss it. ‘Even with my peers, people don’t want to talk about the statistics in their companies and in their schools because they’re afraid people are going to come down on them and they don’t want to be called a racist,’ she said. ‘It’s much more complicated than just that.’”

Kourlas also spoke with Rachel Hutsell, an apprentice at City Ballet, about the barriers faced by many young people who are interested in ballet. Hutsell expressed that “a lot of young girls are told that because of your color or because of your body shape that this isn’t a possibility. It’s like you don’t have access to the beauty that ballet is, and that’s not true. It’s a complete lie. You look at Michaela DePrince and Misty Copeland and so many other beautiful dancers, and they did it because they stopped believing that lie.”

Students from the School of American Ballet (Source)

What efforts for improvement are being made?

One example of an organization striving to effect change in arts education is Sphinx, a nonprofit run by Afa Sadykhly Dworkin and based in Detroit. Dworkin’s goal is to provide “a place of refuge and a place where [children] can feel confident, where they can have fun and have a break from their everyday challenges.”

Sphinx’s programs focus primarily on music, particularly classical, but efforts to support diversity in other fields are popping up as well. The George Lucas Family Foundation recently provided a $10 million endowment to the USC School of Cinematic Arts to support minority students. George Lucas noted that “Hispanic and African-American storytellers are underrepresented in the entertainment industry. It is Mellody’s and my privilege to provide this assistance to qualified students who want to contribute their unique experience and talent to telling their stories.”

Sphinx Virtuosi at Carnegie Hall (Source)

What effects will improving diversity in the arts have?

Better diversity in arts participation will mean that more students can see themselves represented in the arts, and improved access and resources will mean that more students can experience the benefits of arts education which have been earnestly studied and written about. These benefits have the power to extend beyond artistic development. Susan Raab summarized the impact of arts education with this assertion: “No longer are arts and culture something ‘extra’—they are an economic driver with an impact on our neighborhoods, our jobs, our employment, and, as always, our creativity.”



Sources and Further Reading:

Boehm, Mike. “Study sends ‘wake-up call’ about black and Latino arts groups’ meager funding.” Los Angeles Times. 12 October 2015. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-diversity-arts-study-devos-black-latino-groups-funding-20151009-story.html

Demby, Gene. “’Diversity’ Is Rightly Criticized As An Empty Buzzword. So How Can We Make It Work?” NPR: Code Switch. 5 November 2015. http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/11/05/453187130/diversity-is-rightly-criticized-as-an-empty-buzzword-so-how-can-we-make-it-work

“Diversity In The Arts: The Past, Present, and Future of African American and Latino Museums, Dance Companies, and Theater Companies.” DeVos Institute of Arts Management, University of Maryland. September 2015. https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/2455148/diversity-in-the-arts-the-past-present-and.pdf

Gilmour, Ryan. “George Lucas Family Foundation gift to support diversity at USC School of Cinematic Arts.” USC News. 27 October 2015. https://news.usc.edu/87963/george-lucas-foundations-10-million-gift-to-support-diversity-at-usc-school-of-cinematic-arts/

Holmes, Anna. “Has ‘Diversity’ Lost Its Meaning?” The New York Times. 27 October 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/01/magazine/has-diversity-lost-its-meaning.html?_r=0

Hope, Sarah. “Breaking Down Cultural Barriers in the Arts.” Syracuse New Times. 14 October 2015. http://www.syracusenewtimes.com/breaking-down-cultural-barriers-in-the-arts/

Kourlas, Gia. “Push for Diversity in Ballet Turns to Training the Next Generation.” The New York Times. 30 October 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/01/arts/dance/push-for-diversity-in-ballet-turns-to-training-the-next-generation.html

Raab, Susan. “Diversity is Critical to the Success of the Arts—and Arts Education is the Key.” Nonprofit Quarterly. 21 October 2015. https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2015/10/21/diversity-is-critical-to-the-success-of-the-arts-and-arts-education-is-the-key/