Doing More About Diversity in America's Orchestras

TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY MARIANO ROLANDO Argentinian-born conductor Daniel Barenboim directs the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY MARIANO ROLANDO Argentinian-born conductor Daniel Barenboim directs the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 on January 31, 2013 at Carnegie Hall in New York. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

I have been reflecting on diversity and orchestras lately, prompted by some work we are doing at the League of American Orchestras and my recent participation in SphinxCon 2013 in Detroit, which examined diversity, inclusion and equity in the arts. Many of you are likely familiar with Aaron Dworkin, the gifted violinist, founder and executive director of the sponsoring non-profit Sphinx Organization. Aaron is one of the important voices in our field today and a colleague who serves as a board member of the League. In a concentrated and cut-to-the-chase fashion, the conference focused on a broad range of current issues, lessons learned, and best practices aimed at transforming the arts in a truly meaningful and measurable way.

At the League, we are determined to play a positive and meaningful role in creating a more diverse, more inclusive industry and environment for our art form. And I believe there is growing realization among orchestras that the diversity agenda is a central element of every strategic plan, and one that takes into account local and regional differences.

Orchestras have a lot of work to do -- and I'll get to that in a minute. But we should not lose perspective when it comes to noting their many accomplishments. For example, there was a time, not too long ago, when orchestra musicians were all men. Now 45 percent of musicians and 15 percent of conductors are women, according to League surveys of member orchestras. Orchestras in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Detroit, and Pittsburgh, among others, have made deep and longstanding investments in developing young African American and Latino musicians, and the Sphinx Organization has partnered with many more to develop supportive pathways to promising careers.

There are numerous initiatives that underscore orchestras' enhanced level of engagement with a wider range of community members in cities and towns throughout America. In fact, more than 60 percent of the concerts given by American orchestras today are focused on education and community engagement. This is three times the amount of activity in those areas as there was 20 years ago. And 15 American orchestras have launched educational and social justice programs for disadvantaged children modeled after Venezuela's remarkably successful "El Sistema." The model combines intensive instrumental and ensemble training with other support ranging from academic assistance to healthy meals, developing human as well as musical potential.

The next time orchestras are taken to task for being too European, too Caucasian, and too male-dominated, one might reference the new and growing generation of music directors who bring an inclusive sensibility and dimension to artistic leadership.

You may know of some in this sampling: Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and principal conductor of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra; Mei-Ann Chen, music director of the Memphis Symphony and the Chicago Sinfonietta; Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Giancarlo Guerrero, music director of the Nashville Symphony, and principalest conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra Miami Residency; Michael Morgan, music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony and the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra, and artistic director of Festival Opera in Walnut Creek, California.

What is most significant about this generation is that they are personally championing performers and composers of diverse backgrounds, and leading programs and partnerships that engage diverse and often vulnerable populations. Their personal involvement automatically pulls this work into the core focus of their orchestras, elevating its priority within the organization.

But what is the way forward for orchestras, which have wrestled with diversity for so long? Looking for answers, the League board turned to Bo Young Lee, Global Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Marsh, Inc. The first step, she said, is to recognize that people of different cultures and backgrounds can derive different meanings from the same experience or action and that cultural norms and biases are unconsciously transmitted in every organization. Acknowledging and reflecting on those is the beginning of building cross-cultural competency, which is an essential skill set for people in a diverse society. Experience has shown that without these skills, well-intentioned diversity efforts often flounder.

The League believes that this work should begin with boards, because they set policy. There needs to be a genuine commitment from the board to work toward more inclusive policies and practices, and to engage leadership that follows suit. The League board has made that commitment and has begun a conversation with orchestras that includes new resources and access to leading experts. Yes, we have a long way to go, but this is a new time. A time when all orchestras should view Aaron Dworkin's vision as a call to action:

The arts are the way in which we express ourselves, and the lives we live, to those both close and afar. And, in a day and age when the divisions between us only seem to be growing more distinct, and many make it their business to enhance and embolden those differences, the arts stand as a powerful unifying force that binds us.

Let's get to work.