The Dream: Diversity in the Arts

Why, given so much social progress, have we failed to produce more leading arts organizations of color? I think there are two different answers.
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The recent opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. was a moment for all of us to ponder the progress we have made towards racial equality and the challenges that still lie ahead.

The arts world has made progress in the years since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated thanks in great measure to the African-American arts leaders who reacted to this tragedy with action. Arthur Mitchell, for example, was moved to create Dance Theatre of Harlem in the wake of the King assassination. Many other important American arts organizations had the same genesis.

Today there are a larger number of African-American, Latino and Asian-American arts organizations than ever before. This is a cause for celebration. Arts organizations of color are vital resources: they build new audiences, train diverse artists and provide laboratories for the creation of important works of art.

Yet only a handful of these organizations have achieved widespread fame and only the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has an annual budget exceeding $10 million. There are dozens and dozens of mainstream organizations with budgets of Ailey's size or far larger.

So why, given so much social progress, have we failed to produce more leading arts organizations of color? Why are so many black theater companies, dance companies and music ensembles in disarray? Why are there so few Latino and Asian arts groups with big budgets?

I think there are two different answers:

1. Arts organizations of color have not successfully built the individual donor bases that are a hallmark of stable and thriving arts organizations. These groups are still too dependent on foundation and government support, in part because of relatively weak boards (arts organizations of color tend to have boards that resemble community associations rather than fundraising boards) and in part because institutional givers have been so generous. This generosity has been a double-edged sword. Arts organizations of color have not had to build individual donor bases and have therefore not invested the time it takes to do so. Why work hard to raise $100 from a member when a foundation is giving $10,000? The problem is there are too few foundation and government agencies; as a result, arts organizations of color tend to hit a certain size and then stagnate.

2. Over the past 20 years, foundations and government agencies have encouraged mainstream, Eurocentric organizations to diversify their programming and their boards. They believed it was important for all arts organizations to reflect the diversity of their communities. As a result they unwittingly created major competitors to minority arts organizations. Virtually every major theater company, for example, has performed A Raisin in the Sun or a work by August Wilson. These high-visibility, low-risk productions take funding dollars and audiences from theaters of color. And many important people of color have joined the boards of the mainstream organizations rather than those of color.

We need to work more diligently to build the strength of our diverse arts organizations. If they do not thrive, our remarkable arts ecology will suffer.

We need to turn Reverend King's dream fully into a reality.

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