New York City Plans to Study the Diversity of Its Cultural Groups

By Robin Pogrebin | March 13, 2015
  • Author: Robin Pogrebin
  • Journal: NY Times

In a major study to be undertaken this summer, the de Blasio administration will review the diversity of the boards, staffs and audiences of New York City 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 Tom Finkelpearl, the city’s commissioner of cultural affairs, whose department will commission the study.

Mr. Finkelpearl said there was 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,” Mr. Finkelpearl said.

But the commissioner 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 will be surveyed, and their participation will 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,” Mr. 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’s recent reference to the whiteness of the Oscars. In addition, the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, 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.”

Gregory Long, the president and chief executive of the New York Botanical Garden, who attended the session at the Ford Foundation, said: “It’s fine to stop and focus on it,” noting that “there weren’t a whole lot of people of color in the room.”

At the January event, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, which will 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,” Mr. Walker said in a recent 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 Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose profile as a supporter of the arts is still unclear. This year Mr. 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 undocumented immigrants.

Mr. 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.

Jimmy Van Bramer, the City Council’s majority leader and chairman of the Cultural Affairs Committee, 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 Mr. 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.

At the Ford Foundation, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 nonwhite board members. The limited roster of black executives who are typically pursued for trusteeships include Raymond J. McGuire, head of global banking at Citigroup, 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; Gordon J. Davis, a former New York City parks commissioner who is on the boards of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Public Theater and the library; and Mr. 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 Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum; Mariët Westermann, vice president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and Cristián Samper, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the city’s zoos and aquarium.

Mr. Long said almost half of his work force at the Botanical Garden is nonwhite. “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.”

Anne Pasternak, the president and artistic director of Creative Time, the public art group, said that — based on census figures showing an increase in New York’s minority population — her organization 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.”

SOURCE: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/04/arts/new-york-city-plans-to-study-the-diversity-of-its-cultural-groups.html?smid=tw-share

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