What Inequality Looks Like and Where and When It Starts

"Not Equal" by holeymoon on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

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.

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  1. says

    Thoughtful post, Clay. In the next one, I wish you’d go on to unpack two phrases: “the arts” and “our theaters.”

    For the former, we know that kids of color have as much exposure to the unsubsidized arts as any other kids; indeed, when it comes to music, for instance, white kids tends to follow trends and consume music rooted in communities of color. They also have much opportunity for “informal arts” participation: dance, song, story embedded in everyday life. So when you wrote that 76% of the “artsgoing audience” was white, you repeated the common error of culling out the formal, subsidized arts from all the rest—commercial culture, informal arts, community arts, etc.—when part of the solution surely must be to enlarge the categories to reflect and recognize what’s actually happening, who’s actually taking part and how.

    I couldn’t agree more about the necessity for arts education, but the more it meets students halfway to their own voluntary cultural interests (and the less it prescribes the abandonment of those interests in favor of something deemed more worthy), the more effective it will be in engaging students.

    That leads me to that possessive pronoun. I think you meant “our” in the sense of “the theater community’s,” but the term casts a shadow, implying an ownership, an us/them dynamic, that is clearly part of the distortion. To the extent that higher education functions as a culling mechanism, qualifying graduates to be taken seriously in the context of an organizational culture in which an MFA signals worthiness for consideration, the story you’ve told can also be understood as a dominant “we” not be willing to work with “them” unless they adopt the same signifiers of value and secure the same credentials.

    There are many ways to understand this challenge. One path is to provide truly adequate resources to theaters grounded in communities of color (recognizing those are not likely to come primarily from high-income individual donors), so that there’s a peer dialogue and exchange in which everyone functions as equals. Another is for the majors to share the wealth, incubating satellite projects that connect to communities of color with a balance of relationship and autonomy—in effect, cultural bridges that build relationship by working on something together as peers. Whatever works will have to go deep: right now, there’s way too much of white companies seeking brown faces in a tired tokenism, where the opportunity is to show up and make the group look less white, rather than to learn and change together.

    Always, there is the imperative to interrogate the tacit assumptions that sometimes frame this challenge in self-defeating ways (as I wrote in relation to the cultural equity discussion now going on at GIA: http://arlenegoldbard.com/?p=1352). Thanks for tackling it.

    • says

      Thank you Arlene for your comment.

      I have been in the unique role of infusing arts educational peda/andragogies into other content topics (e.g. financial literacy, political astuteness, organizational structure) for the middle school to adults who work with youth audiences (in essence all ages) for over 15 years. I have done this work in a variety of settings from youth development to educational reform to intergenerational community theater. Throughout my experience I have been to many formal arts education and arts policy talks, workshops, conferences, etc.. Almost every time I attend, I am frustrated by the lack of understanding and incredibly narrow focus of what arts is, especially when related to the exposure to and expression of art in historically marginalized communities.

      As an example: In my experience, arts and culture was the absolute BEST way to engage families in educational reform work or learning about wellness factors. We rarely ran a community event without some sort of talent component, and the talent of the young people (the majority of whom were from incredibly diverse backgrounds) was outstanding. It was outstanding not just because the young person was taking risks and presenting his/her self to an audience, it was outstanding because the audience almost always responded positively.

      (There was this time a young woman went onstage and was nervous beyond nervous to sing her song. She was definitely not a singer. She was a karaoke-er. Before the talent show, we, the program directors/leaders, were debating whether we were going to let her perform. It was a middle school, and middle schoolers can be assholes. Yet we decided to because she want to. When she went up and sang her song, everyone cheered her on. She sang off-pitch, hiding behind her long, black hair. And as the song went on, her singing did not improve, but her performance did. It was an amazing moment.)

      While outstanding, these performances are definitely not as “skilled” as the symphony or the opera or the ballet. But that is why the audience relates so much to it. They can see their selves in the performance, art, media, whatever.

      Additionally, arts and exposure to different forms of art are being used in incredibly vital ways that are often overlooked. One project I worked on was with Mission SF Community Financial Center (now called Self Help CFU). I worked with the Youth Credit Union Program to use theatrical forms to role play and interrupt the divestment cycle of predatory pay-day-lenders in low-income communities of color. The curriculum was used to train adults and youth who worked with youth. Through the training we provided the curriculum/lesson plan to the adults so they could facilitate the lessons with young people in their programs. (And all of this was done through a youth development technical assistance and capacity building organization NOT through an arts education organization.)

      I know I am not the only one doing this kind of work. It is happening in a variety of settings, and mostly as a result of the need of the community.

      Does this translate into a diverse audience for the symphony or the opera or the ballet? Not at all, and I am not too concerned about these institutions losing audiences. Nor do I care to figure out how to help them increase diversity of their audience.

      The concerns raised in this post about the inequity of funding for arts education in public schools is a travesty. (It is also a travesty of our, USA’s, social programs (in general) which continue to be slashed year after year by policymakers who regard money and power over people.) It is both a structural revenue issue as well as a policy perspective issue. As you mentioned in your comment, increasing funding for the arts without a better policy that looks at how young people engage and interact with art (in its multiplicity) will continue entrench arts into “the arts”, which continues to create and promote an other.

      What is needed is funders who truly change the way in which they define and roll out their arts portfolios. And we all need to (in some ways) open up our scope and shift our perspectives to see what is out there.

      I went to the Beyond Dynamic Adaptability Conference in October. Josephine Ramirez, the program officer from Irvine, shared the audience participation continuum, unveiling it as if it was innovative and insightful. I leaned over to my colleague and whispered, “this is exactly the youth participation continuum in youth development” (from youth as vessels that need to be filled to youth as educators).

      Josephine then shared statistics (of which I am really bad at remembering) about the percentage of arts organizations that have budgets less than $25K. It was a very large percentage, and if my failing memory serves me correctly was close to 50%. She shared that more money needs to go to these small budget organizations who are making responsive arts in their communities. Then, my colleague leaned over to me and whispered, “you know Irvine won’t even invite a proposal from organizations that have budgets under $150k.”

      This is just one small example of the disconnects and lack of wider perspective that occur at the systemic/institutional level. There are many, many more (the audit of the CEG program of SFAC as another).

      A much larger shift IS occurring. We are seeing it as the Decolonize/Occupy movement in this iteration. And it is taking hold internationally. The question is, are the legacy organizations ready to do the work needed to actually engage diverse audiences? Or will they be tossed aside by an audience who doesn’t have any vested interest in seeing their success?

      • says

        The informal arts in the black community have also been destroyed. Our hip hop art…dance, graffiti, music. was all but destroyed by the mainstream that was selling the music and watered our message down to money and women. As well as the criminalization of our street graffiti art, and even the street dance and performance that now requires what….permits and who knows what???

  2. says


    The next time your NAMP peeps are looking for true diversity shoot me an email or something, I know a few well respected arts marketers of color (myself included I guess) that I could have sent your way.

    Mission Paradox

    • says

      Adam, thanks so much! I’ll reach out by email shortly – Alison French at AFTA is actively seeking to diversify the advisory committee for NAMP, and it sounds like talking to is a good step towards that. Thanks for reaching out!

  3. says

    A thoughtful post. But, like Arlene, I believe there are some inherent assumptions here that can be examined more closely. While I agree that reductions in arts education are *part *of the reason the field as a whole lacks diversity, it’s not clear that it is at it’s root. The financial inequities across school districts is appalling. However, the art that “thirty years ago was part of out curriculum” was not the art the comes from communities of color. It was, by and large, mainstream (i.e. white, canonical) art. Yet, in many of these communities there is street art and street performance to which its youth are exposed. Young people *may* be growing up with a lot of exposure to art(s), just not the art(s) to which you and I may have been exposed as youth.

    If we want the world to look at what’s on our stages, than the stages need to look like the world, in all of its diversity. It’s interesting that you reference the 2008 NEA study, which measured participation in terms of attendance at a “benchmark activity.” Those activities are primarily (but not exclusively) produced by larger arts organizations with predominantly white boards and artistic leadership. The NEA has since, as you know, changed the way they measure participation to include other forms of arts engagement, but these old measures are just that, old. Can we measure the exposure of young people in communities of color to other forms of creative/artistic expression, forms that must be considered equally valid to canonical forms if we are truly committed to diversifying the arts ecosystem?

    • says

      Linda (and Arlene), great comments, and I generally agree with you, actually. The arts are myriad, and extend way beyond place-based art, historically-white art, pay-to-play art. And I’m really interested in understanding the long-term effects of participation in those types of art on people both in terms of their general well-being and their long-term interest in the arts either as consumers or participants (artists/admins). But–I think that ever-widening the definition of art, as true as an exercise as that may be (and necessary), needs to be done in a way that still allows us to accurately have the conversation about what’s happening in the fine arts, the place-based arts, the arts that people go to and pay to see. Arlene, I think this actually ties into your blog about the Irvine report, in a way, the perils of trying to shift too far away from a holistic view that continues to account for all types of art, and yet allows for accurate micro-pictures of different parts of that ecosystem over time. To the SPPA, Linda, yes, I agree it is flawed, and I’m anxious to see the work that Sunil and his staff have been doing to improve it, but i hope it goes beyond simply adding more variations in art forms. Because, while that allows us to claim larger percentages of non-white attendees, it doesn’t really help us understand the problems inherent in the sets of art within the larger whole in which most of us conduct ourselves. And particularly if the need is to increase the diversity inside those organizations, which was my main focus here, then we need to also decrease the diversity in the halls and the goodwill in communities of all persuasions for the place-based art of all types that exists (even while still celebrating the continued evolution of music, video, and other amazing art that can be consumed anywhere, by anyone, essentially for free). I’m not trying to be a snob, I’m just trying to focus in on a particular problem…

      • says

        I live in California. I am african american. in 1989-1990 I saw a violin for the first time in my life. I begged and begged my parents for a violin for my 12th birthday. She told me, “well, I wouldn’t have money for the lessons.” but, I was not to be deterred…I asked around at my school and made sure they had lessons. My mom moved heaven and earth to buy me a violin, and, unfortunately my birthday is in september, so when I finally got that violin…guess what? It was the new school year and sorry, there’s no more violin teacher. I became deaf a few months later…never heard my violin make a sound. Life’s a sonuvabitch, isn’t it??? And, once again, please refer to my earlier comment that whatever argument you are making for street art is a ridiculous argument as the government has effectively outlawed street art and street performance.

    • Harry Waters Jr says

      Greetings all – I am new to this procedure and wish to thank Sonja Kuftinec of the University of Minnesota and Stephanie Lein Walseth and especially Sarah Bellamy both from Penumbra Theatre for forwarding this interesting theatrical observation. As a fairly recent recipient of an MFA at the University of Wisconsin- Madison (hello Linda Essig!) I am quite involved with both the academic art community and the local arts scene. Working specifically in community-based theater creation and promotion, I find that the inclusion of audiences of color is quite skewed toward the mind set of BUTTS in SEATS. Not really the best way for institutions to address this somewhat troubling statistic. The additional question is whether or not the “arts” (and we are defining this rather broadly as the mainstream, white/Eurocentric moneyed experience) are truly concerned about including communities that surround the real estate that they have acquired. Their substantial survival is not dependent on the rising or falling in attendance or critique of Native, Asian, Latino or Black audiences. The academic panels and their substantive peers have little to no interest in having their dissertations connect to those “performances in alternative sites” although they appreciate how it complements their research. Please do not assume that I do not respect and admire the research, the desire to challenge the aesthetic of patriarchy or the acknowledgement of these disparities. The immersion into the changes are quite difficult and observing that there are a number of personalities that wish things were different is important. The change is about a cultural awareness on BOTH sides, within and without the communities of color – regardless of the local arts offerings or the mainstream options. Cultural communities are their own audiences. These are celebrated and saluted, AND/BUT the other well-financed institutions are welcome to find a new way. Let the governments and civic leaders realize the results of their triviializing of art and arts power can and does weaken the very fabric of the country – at least this one – with results that may be surprising to us all within this century.

  4. Larissa FastHorse says

    May I note that even in a blog about diversity, there is a lack of diversity. You never mention Native American statistics, even though there are a good number of us in and out of theatre. In fact, I was awarded the NEA 2010 Distinguished New Play Development Grant for a specifically Native project by myself, a Native playwright. Just saying, a little clarity within our ranks will help all of us to properly educate the greater field. = )

    • says

      Larissa, a good point, well-taken. I should say that in the NEA statistics, sample sizes are problematic for both Native American and Asian populations to the point that they generally arent separated out, which is absolutely frustrating, and which it’s my understanding they are addressing in the next SPPA (and in some subsequent reporting on the SPPA results that may have actually come out already). But you’re right, Native American representation is important to understand and recognize in these equations.

      • Larissa FastHorse says

        Glad to hear about the update in reporting results. Our category is small, but obviously proof of existence has to be there for people to recognize the need for change. Thanks!


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