In the Vineyards of Diversity

VineyardIn July, Barry Hessenius posted an Interview with Aaron Dworkin, on Barry’s Blog. Mr. Dworkin is founder and President of the Sphinx Organization, “the leading national arts organization that focuses on youth development and diversity in classical music.” I was aware of Sphinx’s work in identifying and supporting young people of color who aspire to careers in the classical music world. The desire to make our orchestras (in particular) less uniformly white is a worthy one, but I’ve been concerned that if that’s the limit of the work toward diversity, there would be no significant impact on the relationship between communities of color and orchestras. Seeing people “like you” may be helpful, but it will not overcome the barrier that repertoire from foreign cultures represent. The quest for true diversity does not rest solely in the demographics of artists and staff. It demands consideration of the work presented and, of course, considerable work in relationship building–work that must be grounded in art that speaks to the relationship.

So, I was delighted to read Mr. Dworkin address this issue. Here is a passage from the latter part of the interview.

BARRY:  Why do you think audiences for the arts have been declining, or do you think that the audiences are actually growing, but that the way audiences now access the art has dramatically changed?

AARON:  Part of the answer to this question is offered above: audiences are participants.  If what is presented on stage is not reflective of myself and the experience that I consider “mine”, if my contact with the arts is non-existent to minimal, I am not likely to participate.  Less than 1% of repertoire performed by American orchestras is by composers of color: I think that statistic alone may shed light on the reasons behind dwindling participation.

The most significant point here is the question of whether any portion of the arts experience is reflective of the personal experience of the public we seek. That is the critical issue. Do we desire diversity enough to consider change in programming? Not wholesale rejection of the canon and certainly not any form of pandering, but change nonetheless. To be successful in diversifying we need to want it badly enough to do what it takes to achieve it.

I will hasten to add that work created by people of color does not automatically lead to interest on the part of communities of color. No individual represents an entire demographic. And, simply because they are part of it does not mean that their experience or interests are those of the rest. If, however, the work created addresses issues or the experience of those communities, then that will over time, foster positive relationships; and it is likelier (though by no means certain) that it will reflect them if the creator has shared those experiences.



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  1. says

    This is a long standing, fundamental issue but frankly it goes beyond participation of “other”, the audiences and work the works presented. Other, of color (or a term Justin Liang uses is ALANAH ), has to be seen/embraced, particularly by the SOB’s – and the funders of such – as needed, necessary, can’t do without.

    Until then, in the interim, we gotta keep nudgin’ …

  2. C. Barnett says

    What is more important than what is truly an inaccurately narrow definition of ‘diversity’ is merit and performing Music where technique is so mastered as to be employed to perform the expressions of the composer’s work.
    There are few areas of the arts that are as inherently representative of the real meaning of diversity than Classical Music. While Mr. Dworkin is to be commended for supporting and encouraging African American and Hispanic students with talent, his agenda is based on a lack of historical fact and present day realities. Negro composers,
    or Black composers , have been promoted and performed since the late Twenties. They were played on the basis of their quality and merit.
    Dworkin has put together an orchestra that is discriminating in its favoring of Black and Hispanic students. If he wants to ensure that kind of make-up of his orchestra, that is fine. However, neither he, nor the American League
    of Symphony Orchestras can force inferior musicians onto an extant orchestra given the realities of such an ensemble. Acceptance is based on blind auditions, the process of which the League is trying to eradicate in contract negotiations.
    These attacks on the advancements of the American Symphony Orchestras that serve to diminish the standards
    to enforce the false definition of diversity based on race and ethnic background of two groups is at worst dangerous and at best will ruin the inherent culture of an orchestra and its goals of performing the works of the greatest creative minds in human history. That is what an audience makes an effort to hear and see.
    It is what they pay their hard earned money to experience.It makes no difference what color, or nationality, the orchestra members are.

    • says

      I am on the road and not able to fully respond here. However, your comment “neither he, nor the American League of Symphony Orchestras can force inferior musicians onto an extant orchestra given the realities of such an ensemble.” is a bit hard to fathom. Neither Mr. Dworkin nor anyone else has suggested such a thing. Mr. Dworkin’s work, to my knowledge, is designed to support the development of musicians of color in an industry where their access to training or even role models to raise the possibility of music careers is sorely limited.

      And your point has almost nothing to do with the central premise of my blog post-if organizations are serious about pursuing diversity, what changes are they willing to make?

  3. Michael WIlkerson says

    We fail to examine the unconscious barriers to access — assumptions of dress, audience behavior, ticket pricing, language (visual and verbal) used in marketing, and so much more, beyond the content of what’s presented. Diversity is meaningless unless the arts organization is willing to embrace it to the point that the organization itself changes, which is well beyond what most majority culture staff and board incumbents are (naturally) willing to do. Well meaning gestures by the majority are often rightly interpreted as tokenism by the very targets of our efforts. We’ve created a big mess, and we can clean it up, but only if we want to make bigger changes than are usually contemplated. Good topic to raise.

    • says

      Yep. To be successful in working toward diversity, real change is going to be necessary on the part of many, if not most, arts organizations. No amount of window dressing will overcome culturally specific legacies.

      Thanks for weighing in, Mike.

      • Tired of Trends says

        I am curious to know just what you mean by “diversity” and “real change.” It seems to me that these are vague terms just bandied about, with no clear definition of exactly what is envisioned.

        For example, is your goal to have an orchestra comprised of brunettes, redheads, and blondes matching the proportions existing the world at large? Or perhaps diversity could be measured instead by matching the proportions of people who are first-generation vs. second- and third-generation college educated? Or how about gender? What about city of origin? Or nationality? Or religion? How about bank account holdings? Family size? Married or not? Or political party affiliation? Some of these would have a significant impact on an organization, and others less so, and the impact would be different in each case. I would maintain that nearly none of them are relevent to the final product: the playing and appreciation of classical music.

        Please tell us what exactly is the criterea for your definition of “diversity”. Is is simply skin tone? Do people of mixed race count? And how exactly is it meaningful, or helpful to the culture at large, to impose these proportions on orchestras or other staffings? Would you do the same for sports teams, and if not, why not?

        Does the “real change” you advocate involve transforming institutions into something new and different? If so, please tell us exactly what you would change, exactly what the result will look like, and what are the great benefits we will end up with. Could you in fact be unintentionally advocating destruction of something people with different insight would like to preserve? Would “new and different” be simply homogenizing what is distinctive to match a lowest common denomenator, simply turning it into what already exists in popular culture and the mass marketplace?

        It seems a bit unfair and I would suggest even reckless to be calling for change without providing a clear and specific roadmap that shows where you expect others to be going, and what will be found when they get there.

        Please tell us in concrete terms what you envision.

        • says

          I barely know where to begin. And in the future with a comment like this, I may not. There does not seem to be much value in addressing anonymous responses.
          If honest dialogue were your aim, you’d not employ a straw man like “an orchestra comprised of brunettes, redheads, and blondes matching the proportions existing the world at large.” That trivializes real cultural interests/background of any to whom the mainstream arts establishment’s focus on European-based art of the upper class does not immediately speak.
          But while the moral argument is a compelling one to me, the practical one may be just as important. The arts enterprise is expensive and will only become moreso. Traditional means of funding and sales cannot keep pace and the population of the U.S. is becoming more, forgive me, diverse. Institutional sustainability (if nothing else) demands change.

  4. says

    If diversity in programing is the goal of our arts institutions should the DuSable Museum of African American History change it’s programing to include more white oriented exhibitions? Would, under this ideology, the Lithuanian Museum of Art need to starting having exhibitions of Hopi Indian art? I think not. What we need is more diversity in the kinds of art institutions we have.