A couple weeks ago, I was the recipient of a string of emails that are making the rounds—emails stemming from a lack of diversity in the panelists at this year’s National Arts Marketing Project (NAMP) Conference. These emails, which were, in order: An email from Roberto Bedoya, the executive director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, to Bob Lynch, head of Americans for the Arts, which produced NAMP (ultimately forwarded to a variety of other people by Roberto), An email from Bob Lynch to Justin Liang, program officer at the Heinz Foundation, Justin Liang’s response to Bob Lynch, which was sent to Bob and to the entire wider distribution list that Roberto’s immediate email eventually went to.
The summary of the emails, the actual text of which it’s not my place to directly share here, boils down to a very intelligent conversation about the lack of diversity represented in the panels at NAMP and the necessary role of Americans for the Arts (as a national leader) in fostering diversity. There’s a lot more, but what particularly caught me up is the very hard question of where the responsibility for a lack of diversity lives, and who can and cannot truly move the dial.
(From here on out, this is primarily text from an article I wrote for Theatre Bay Area magazine in 2010, hence the ever-so-slightly dated numbers and overall-more-polished-than-usual tone.)
The problem of diversity is neither unique to theatre nor rooted in theatre. The racioethnic mix that has existed in America since the 1600’s has been the source of incredibly vibrant traditions, exchanges and excitement but has also birthed chronic inequality, tension, violence and mistrust. The positive and negative implications for the arts are no different and no less profound.
To understand why there are so few audience members of color in our theatres, we have to understand why there are so few works by artists of color in our theatres, which in turn means we have to understand why there are so few artists and administrators of color in our offices, and why our boards look so homogenous, and why almost all of our major theatre companies are historically white-run and produce historically white work from a historically white canon. But to address any of those things, we need to push past all of it, pull away from the immediate inequities of our field and try and access the root. And for a lot of experts, that root is within an activity held in common by almost every child in this country: going to school.
According to a 2008 survey of arts participation by the National Endowment for the Arts (SPPA), since 1982, the number of young people who have had any arts education in school has fallen by between 30% and 50%, depending on the genre. The Reagan years ushered dramatic cuts in federal funding for the arts at all levels, including in education, and that slide has continued, at slower and faster paces, for the last thirty years. Here in California, the passage of Prop 13 in 1978, which stopped property taxes from increasing at their actual rate and denied social wellness programs including education and parks and recreation billions in revenue, yielded a quick withering of arts programs in schools as administrators suddenly searched for things to cut. Across America, but particularly in California, which now ranks very near the bottom on per capita education spending (and 50 out of 50 on per capita spending on the arts), an entire generation has grown up with almost no arts education at all.
“Thirty years ago, art was part of the regular curriculum,” says Sabrina Klein, cofounder of Teaching Artists Organized. “For decades, the arts had been considered fundamentals in the education of teachers to educate others—but when schools started having to prioritize, then these things suddenly became frills. Now, teachers aren’t even trained in the arts, and they were raised in a system that didn’t have it as part of the curriculum.”
This is especially dangerous, says Klein, because in today’s cash-strapped educational environment, “every teacher now is like a nonprofit fundraiser, trying to scrape together the money for the things they feel are important.”
According to the 2007 report An Unfinished Canvas, which looked at arts education in California, almost 90% of all K-12 schools in California fail to offer courses of study in music, visual arts, theatre and dance. Inadequate arts education of younger students leaves them unprepared for arts classes in upper grades, if and when they are offered. Not surprisingly, this shift has often occurred more quickly in less affluent school districts, which in turn, for a variety of reasons that eternally underpin the racial inequities in this country, often have higher than average ratios of non-whites to whites. Richard Kessler, the executive director of the Center for Arts Education, calls this the “arts education gap.” As he said in a post on ArtsJournal.com: “You will be hard pressed to find a private school that doesn’t provide an arts education to its students. Suburban schools do a much better job than urban schools, and as we know well, in urban districts, those schools with greater access to external resources, often resources raised by parents, do a better job than those without.”
In a country where, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2006 median household income for a white family was 158% that of a black family and 135% that of a Hispanic family, the fact that ubiquity (a relative term, in this case) of arts education is directly tied to affluence means that it’s de facto tied to race. And it has been for quite some time—some argue for the entire history of the United States.
Financial inequities across districts, which mean less money to pay teachers, get new books, renovate facilities, support mentoring and after school programs, etc, lead to lower test scores, college matriculation rates, aptitude and success in poorer districts across the board. Current test-based evaluative methods such as No Child Left Behind lead to strong pressure to improve test scores in other areas and, according to An Unfinished Canvas, are a top barrier to successful arts education. School officials often have too many fires to put out to devote money and time to arts and culture.
California’s arts education policy mandate provides for equal funding across schools, but as UCLA researcher Amy Shimshon-Santo points out, “‘Equal’ resources are being distributed across an educational map that is marred by historical inequities.” According to An Unfinished Canvas, in all four genres (music, dance, drama and visual art), “students attending high poverty schools have less access to arts institutions than their peers in more affluent communities.”
Why does this matter? Because arts participation, like second language acquisition, is much easier to learn and appropriate as a child. Engage 2020, a series of studies commissioned by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, found that adults who reported having mentors both inside and outside the family who introduced them to arts and culture when they were children were more than twice as culturally engaged as those who had no role models to teach them about the arts. (Incidentally, that same set of studies also found that, while 84% of respondents said it was important to introduce children to the arts at an early age, 61% also said that arts organizations “weren’t child friendly.”)
What’s heartbreaking is that, particularly for African American parents, arts consumption—especially the consumption of arts outside the normal spectrum of their lives—is perceived as vital to their children living in a “more tolerant, open society.” As one focus group respondent said, the arts “let [kids] know that the world is a bigger place than where they are.” But when they attend arts events, they often feel marginalized, underrepresented or maltreated.
According to the NEA, the problem may be even more complex. In their 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, the single variable that correlated most highly with arts participation was level of education completed. According to the report, “In 2008, 67 percent of people with graduate degrees attended at least one benchmark activity, compared with only 38 percent of people with some college education and 19 percent of people with only a high school diploma.” Nationally, about 1 in 4 students drop out of high school prior to completion – and of those who drop out, a disproportionate number are Hispanic or black, according to the U.S. Department of Education. High schools in poorer areas, not surprisingly, tended to have higher dropout rates, but unfortunately that’s not where the cycle stops. Of those who do manage to graduate high school and go on to college, higher than average percentages of Hispanic and black students fail to complete college, and an even smaller percentage pursue advanced degrees. In fact, the same Department of Education report shows that the percentage of a graduating high school class that will complete college can be predicted based solely on how diverse that class is: the more diverse, the fewer ultimate diplomas.
And (and here’s the important part in conjunction with this particular blogpost) the inequities in arts education that have yielded lower exposure to the arts for low income and non-white children over the past thirty years are not, unfortunately, only affecting eventual audience members. Such a chronic lack of access may also have decreased the pool of eventual trustees, administrators and artists. Matriculation rates, paired with a lack of background and formative experience in the arts, mean that a disproportionate number of the students who get degrees in, and pursue a career in, the live arts are white. According to the CGS/GRE Survey of Graduate Enrollment and Degrees, in 2008, whites made up a higher percentage of population getting advanced degrees in arts and humanities (79%) than in any other field.
According to results from a survey of 115 applicants to Round 2 of the NEA New Play Development Program in 2010, while the percentage of playwright applicants who held MFA’s was fairly similar across the board (48-50%, with the exception of Hispanic playwrights, of whom only about a 30% held an MFA), the actual number of playwrights from non-white ethnicities applying for the program was much lower, about 40%. Interestingly, that same survey showed that more African and Asian American lead producers held MFA’s than their white counterparts (45%, 75% and 35% respectively) – but again, when looking at the actual number of applicants, about three out of four producers were themselves white.
In 2009, 76% of the artsgoing audience in the Bay Area was white, according to the Bay Area Big List, a collaborative research and marketing tool that compounds attendance data for over 1.4 million patron visits to 151 arts organizations. Three percent of Big List patrons were black, 6% were Hispanic, 8% were Asian American.
Looking at the 2010 Season Preview issue of Theatre Bay Area, of the works produced in San Francisco in 2008-2009, about 80% were written by white people. The number of non-white leaders of theatre organizations in the Bay Area can be counted on two hands. Nationally, of the Round 2 applicants to the NEA New Play Development Program (until recently hosted by Arena Stage), 70% of the playwrights and 75% of the lead producers were white.
All of this seems pretty consistent, one set of whiteness essentially matching another set of whiteness—until you overlay the actual 2008 U.S. Census statistics for the Bay Area general population: 52% white, 6% black, 20% Hispanic and 18% Asian. And then we have a problem.
But it’s got to be a problem in context. Yes, we need to figure out ways to diversify our staffs, our boards and our audiences. But we need to be clear that the problem, while a shared responsibility of all, is not, in fact, a simple question of hiring committees “trying harder” or conference selection panels making a more concerted effort. Those things should absolutely happen. But they have to happen in a context—and that context needs to be shifted through advocacy, education, artistic connection, concerted group effort and (most frustratingly) time.
Photo: “Not Equal” by holeymoon on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.