Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural SphinxCon, a national conference focused on issues of diversity in the arts.
Founded by Aaron Dworkin’s Sphinx Organization and over a dozen national partners, the event featured speakers from across the country and beyond, each with a parcel of wisdom to offer. From successful artists and administrators to a Google exec, each was selected for his or her diversity-building prowess.
In my career as a grant writer, I have often found myself in the position of having to defend a nonprofit’s approach toward diversity (or lack thereof). Most foundations ask for demographic information in their application guidelines; some explicitly ask the applicant to detail a comprehensive strategy for improving diversity. For some of the organizations I’ve worked with, reaching diverse audiences is a true priority; for others, it is an afterthought that comes up a couple times a year, when applications are due.
In the context of the latter, the idea of diversity is completely dehumanized, reduced to numbers on a page. “Can we count John Doe as Asian? He has a Chinese grandmother, doesn’t he?” “We really need to find a black person to serve on our board. Asians are better than nothing, but the foundations really want to see African Americans.” Perhaps more than anything else, SphinxCon helped to put the humanity back into the dialogue around diversity in the arts — a dialogue that, paradoxically, often involves a group of white people talking about funding.
Truth about diversity in the fine arts
The most compelling parts of SphinxCon were the true stories of people who have cultivated intentionally inclusive artistic practices. Jim Hirsch of the Chicago Sinfonietta related the story of its founding artistic director, Paul Freeman, who was the first black conductor to appear at over 50 of the world’s great orchestra halls. Drawing on his experiences, Maestro Freeman established the Sinfonietta with a mission to remove participation barriers that limit artists of color. The Sinfonietta is now known as one of the most diverse ensembles in the world. Aaron Dworkin carries on his legacy with the Sphinx Organization, which provides rigorous training programs and performance opportunities to young black and Latino classical musicians.
In his opening address, Aaron Dworkin highlighted some staggering statistics about minorities in the field of orchestral music. One that really floored me was this:
Among works by North American composers performed each year, the percentage written by composers of color is statistically insignificant.
In calculating the percentage, North American Composers were specified, because of the dominance of European composers in classical music. Yet, even when limiting the pool this way, minority composers are so inadequately represented that the number of times their works are played each year may as well be “0” in the eyes of a statistician.
Over the course of the weekend, I heard many inspiring stories of minority dancers, singers, conductors and musicians who historically defied such odds and made names for themselves as successful fine artists. It feels good to hear stories like this, and to think about how far we’ve come since celebrated African American contralto Marian Anderson was denied permission to sing at Constitution Hall, or Janet Collins brokenheartedly refused a position with the Ballet Russe after being told she’d have to dance in white face.
But statistics like the one above remind us that we have a long way to go. African Americans still make up less than 3% of orchestral musicians in America; those who do enjoy successful careers are mistaken repeatedly for singers, as described by African American musicians Anthony McGill (clarinet, Metropolitan Opera) and Kelly Hall-Thompkins (violin, Mark O’Connor String Quartet) in an interview with WQXR New York’s Terrence McKnight. Ballerina Misty Copeland has recently risen to fame, not solely for her tremendous talent, but because she is the first African American soloist for the prestigious American Ballet Theatre in twenty years.
When the people on the stage mirror the people on the streets, audiences will come
The United States is changing, and demographers estimate that by mid-century, non-whites will make up the majority of our country’s population. Some researchers and scholars estimate that the change in demographic makeup will happen much sooner; recent census data shows that the majority of babies born today are children of color.
African Americans are not the only group underrepresented in the fine arts — Latinos, Native Americans, Arabs, South Asians, East Asians and many others are often left out of the picture. During SphinxCon, Maria López De León of the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture made a plea to those in the room: “When you see us as a community, you will embrace us. What is the fear?”
In ten or twenty years, the predominantly white organizations that are currently viewed as the quintessential authorities on their art forms may be making a similar plea. As more than one speaker emphasized this weekend, successful organizations are those that look, feel and sound like the communities they serve. Concert halls, opera houses and art galleries are particularly intimidating places when one doesn’t fit the mold. With lower ticket prices, more laid back dress codes and attempts to integrate social media into performances, that mold is slowly changing. But it does not seem to be keeping pace with America’s rapidly changing demographics, and as a result, some of those “quintessential” organizations are floundering.
Others, however, have the right idea. Rather than cling to the eerily eugenic idea of preserving the “purity” of classical art forms, they create programs and works that authentically involve artists of color, and speak to the heritages of our country’s growing non-white populations. A model example highlighted at SphinxCon was the commissioning partnership between the opera companies of Detroit, Cincinnati and Philadelphia that resulted in Margaret Garner, an opera based on the heartbreaking story of a fugitive slave in pre-Civil War America. With a libretto by Toni Morrison and a racially diverse creative team, Margaret Garner set records for opera attendance in Cincinnati, sold out in Philadelphia, and played to unusually large and diverse crowds in Detroit.
Similarly, Rackham Symphony Choir presents an annual production called Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah each year at the Detroit Opera House. This energetic and uplifting piece is a modern-day take on Handel’s baroque-era masterpiece, The Messiah. Blurring the lines between jazz, gospel, pop and classical music, it has returned due to popular demand since its premiere in 2001. With world-renowned African American soloists, a Filipina-American conductor, and an orchestra comprised of classical musicians and Detroit’s finest jazz talent, Too Hot To Handel is one of the most authentic artistic representations of a community that I have seen. Everyone can find something to love, and each year diverse audience members sing, dance and cheer together. In a city that still reels from its history of racial mistrust, violence and segregation, the joyful spirit of the event contributes to the process of racial healing in its own small, but significant, way.
The elusive “how” of building diversity
As stated by almost every speaker at SphinxCon, there is no easy or obvious path to improving diversity in the arts. All we can do is stay humble and openminded, and learn from our successes and mistakes. But how can we learn from them if we don’t share them?
This was one of the questions that gave rise to SphinxCon, and the conversation sparked by the event represents an unprecedented learning opportunity for all of us.
Presenters spoke to the importance of multicultural programming, collaborations, and leadership. Some organizations have been successful at achieving the first two, but not the third. Periodically highlighting the work of an artist of color does not automatically transform an organization’s demographic makeup. Experience suggests that minority artists and leaders are precursors to audience diversity; yet there is no definitive strategy for improving minority representation in the upper echelons of arts organizations.
Aaron Dworkin raised the thought-provoking idea of formalizing diversity policies, both within single organizations and across the sector. In support of this idea, he spoke of the National Football League’s Rooney Rule, which requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior management jobs. Established in 2003, the Rooney Rule requires nothing more than an interview with one minority candidate for each pertinent position. Violators of the rule are subject to hefty fines.
Since the Rooney Rule was put in place, the percentage of high-level positions held by people of color in the NFL has jumped from a mere 6% up to 22%, in a matter of less than ten years. In contrast, noted Dworkin, the number of minority orchestra administrators increased by less than one percent, constituting less than 2% of those in the field today.
Could a policy like the Rooney Rule be effective in the arts?
It wouldn’t be as easy to track, in the absence of a governing authority to oversee compliance. Nevertheless, the possibilities are intriguing. What if arts organizations publicly pledged to try such a policy for a period of time, even just on the honor system? Board members could take responsibility for compliance, and organizations could use a buddy system to monitor progress and support each other in developing more inclusive hiring practices. There would, of course, be the inevitable kinks; but if the results were even a quarter as impressive as the NFL’s, the sector would be a much more inclusive one.
We could call such a policy the “Dworkin Rule.” Given Aaron Dworkin’s beloved status, I don’t think anyone who was in the room this past weekend would dare violate it! To me, this was one of the most unique, out-of-the-box ideas raised at SphinxCon. It is no wonder that it came out of the conference’s innovative namesake organization.
Thank you, Sphinx!
This weekend in Detroit, I heard dozens of ideas and opinions. Snippets of speeches and video clips continue to whirl around in my head. As I slowly process them, deciding which ones to carry with me and which to leave behind, I am glad that I heard them all. As Monica O’Connell of the Center for Black Music Research said in her presentation: “A conference of this type and scope is long overdue.”
During his closing statements, Aaron Dworkin had us each send ourselves an email or text message, containing only the word “ACT.” This was to remind to us, after we travelled home and settled back into our routines, of everything we learned at SphinxCon. He urged us to ask ourselves, again and again: “Am I being silent about something that matters?”
I think these are words worth revisiting — ideally, every day.