Institutional Racism in the Arts: The Need to Hire, Retain, and Promote People of Color

Illustration/photo credit: Nadia Bormotova

The lack of racial diversity in the arts sector is a deeper problem that requires examining the policies and practices that organizations enforce. A research report published in 2019 by Americans for the Arts finds that 82% of employees in the arts are White. Over the last decade, several arts organizations and local governments have made equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) declarations and established initiatives to increase the percentage of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) working in the arts. Progress is making small strides across the country, but EDI training and awareness within the walls of institutional racism cannot continue to coexist as the system is disproportionately benefiting one group of people.

Covid-19 has brought the arts industry to a devastating halt, forcing all events and gatherings to be canceled, employees have been laid off or furloughed, and most creative workers and artists will have no income this year. The arts will rebuild as it’s always proven to be resilient, but it won’t be business as usual. Not only do we have to rethink business models in the arts and create a more sustainable future for artists, but institutional racism is NOT something we have to go back to.

Below are some examples of how institutional racism exists in the arts that prevent BIPOC from being hired, retained, and promoted. Let’s start a discussion as a field, create solutions, and mobilize together to build a better future with equality in the arts.

Access to education is not equal.

The same Americans for the Arts survey reports that over 90% of employees in the arts have at least a four-year bachelor’s degree. The education disparity shows that Blacks, Latinx, and Asians are only receiving just over 30% of four-year bachelor’s degrees in a given year, so there is an immediate disadvantage when jobs in the arts require a 4-year degree. Ultimately, we need education reform to advance more BIPOC through college, but can the arts do anything now to have more equity in hiring? Yes, they can.

In 2015, when President Obama announced his America’s College Promise to make two years of community college free in the U.S., that should have prompted arts institutions to start thinking about their future and revise their educational requirements. With the inequality BIPOC face in the educational system including the burden of student loan debt, a tuition-free two-year degree can be a great alternative for a student. The goal for many of those students that participate in the free community college will still be to transfer to a 4-year university and receive a bachelor’s degree, but for those that chose to only complete a 2-year degree, they should not be penalized when seeking employment in the arts. Today, 17 states in the U.S. already have a program for free access to community college. Institutions currently hiring should support candidates with a 2-year college education. In fact, the arts sector should work in partnership with the community college system to create a track that leads to employment in the arts.

Also, how about we make EDI training and certification more of a requirement BEFORE someone occupies a position in the arts.

Forget nonprofit experience.

I know so many BIPOC that work in corporate entertainment that are actively seeking a career change and are applying to jobs at purpose-driven nonprofit organizations in the arts. They thought their corporate experiences in raising millions of dollars in sponsorships, developing award-winning marketing campaigns, and producing major events would be enticing to the nonprofit arts sector. Instead, they are met with resistance — not having nonprofit experience on their resume makes them unqualified for the job. Some continue to work their current full-time jobs, while also seeking volunteer opportunities with nonprofits hoping it will be different in their next job interview. As we have witnessed, BIPOC need to work twice as hard for the same opportunities. Meanwhile, many arts nonprofits struggle to raise money, lack innovation, and can’t figure out how to grow their audiences.

Can someone please explain what is it about this “nonprofit experience” that can’t be learned by a 15-year career professional? COVID-19 is making us rethink the arts economy, and we need to hire diverse people with different perspectives, and knowledge of different business models that can lead a new arts field with innovation.

Let us curate.

White people hold 75% of curatorial/artistic/choreography positions at arts organizations. Over the next 20 years, the White demographic will become a minority in the U.S. This is already a reality for our youth — at the start of 2020, Whites under 18 years of age are officially the minority demographic. If an arts organization believes their staff, programming, and audiences need to reflect the communities they represent, then it is essential to hire curators of color now and prepare the next generation of majority BIPOC to be ready for curatorial jobs in arts.

With BIPOC in curatorial positions, an arts organization will improve their ability to create bridges across different communities and audiences. I think about how long it took hip hop music to break into larger performing arts institutions. The genre is nearly 50-years old and some institutions only started programming hip hop a decade ago, to stay relevant with audiences that were gravitating away from their high-brow traditional programs. Think about it, that’s several decades of BIPOC hip hop artists not having space on these stages. Now, there is a demand in the arts for collaborations with artists like Childish Gambino, DJ sets from Questlove, RZA live scoring kung fu films, and Lin-Manuel Miranda Broadway shows.

Access to funding is not fair.

Funding from foundations and individual donors makes up almost half of the annual revenue for the nonprofit cultural sector, and it’s mostly going to organizations preserving Western European high culture. A report in 2017 shows that 925 cultural organizations with an annual budget of more than $5 million, which only makes up 2% of the field, are receiving nearly 60% of cultural philanthropy. These are symphonies, opera companies, regional theaters, art museums, ballet companies, and other large institutions that have predominantly White and upper-income audiences.

Time and time again I hear from small BIPOC-led arts organizations that they compete with larger institutions for funding to support outreach programs in underserved communities of color. The problem is when the larger institution writes into their grant that they intend to fulfill the outreach program by partnering with small organizations from those communities, not realizing that they’re actually competing for the same funds. The larger institution wins the grant, then hires the small organization for their cultural labor, tapping into their thought-leadership and networks to their full benefit.

These funds should be awarded directly to the smaller BIPOC arts organizations that are fully capable of fulfilling the requirements of the grant. Most times, they already have an ongoing program in those communities and would have been able to apply these funds towards their operational and staffing costs to keep people employed. Instead, the opportunity turns into a small project-based payday. For the larger institution, this community partnership was most likely their idea of diversity and inclusion, not realizing they may be causing more harm than support.

We need allies and protection.

I was once the artistic director of a nonprofit performing arts concert series in the Los Angeles area. Our entire staff resigned and found new jobs after the racist remarks and practices our new Executive Director, a White woman, enforced stating that our programming needed to be more “white bread.” Mind you, the community we programmed for was 70% immigrant Latino and primarily Spanish-speaking, and vulnerable to gentrification. The staff reported the problems to the Board of Directors and community leaders numerous times only to be met with silence. Not a single board member or community leader reached out to me after resigning, and the issue was swept under the rug. Six months later, one of our former college interns landed his next job as a journalist at the LA Weekly. He raised his concerns and observations to his editor, which led to an article that put a spotlight on the organization over this racism.

It’s incredible to me that an intern had more courage to speak up than any board member or community leader. We need board members and community leaders to be allies. It’s a collective responsibility to uphold the EDI values that arts organizations are claiming to have. Your silence is racism.

Don’t be threatened by us.

If the arts truly supports EDI, that means we seriously need to increase the percentage of new jobs and promotions that go to BIPOC. Is everyone ok with that?

I recently came across an article about a virtual town hall that the career networking company LinkedIn hosted for its employees to address the social unrest sparked by the police killing of George Floyd. With employees able to post comments anonymously, here is some of what was said:

“As a non-minority, all this talk makes me feel like I am supposed to feel guilty of my skin color. I feel like I should let someone less qualified fill my position. Is that ok? It appears that I am a prisoner of my birth. This is not what Martin Luther King Jr. would have wanted for anyone.”

As someone who has spoken on several panels on topics such as ‘marketing to Latinx communities’, I have found that the audiences attending these panels are mostly White. When I share that the best long term solution for their organization is to hire someone that reflects the community you are trying to reach, I get lots of head nods, but I feel it’s a point not taken seriously. If you just look at the demographics of the field, those head nods are not turning into change.

The change also needs to come from outside the institutions — they cannot exist without artists or audiences. If you’re an arts patron attending an event at your local performing arts center, speak up if you don’t see diversity on stage or in the audience around you. Rally your community to demand more than an EDI statement, but also for their strategic plan and timeline, and for ongoing updates on how they are making progress.



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