Diversity in City’s Arts Groups Requires Accountability, Critics Say

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It was born of high hopes: a program for cultural institutions that receive New York City funding and operate on New York City land.

Under the plan, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to hold august institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Carnegie Hall accountable for hiring more members of historically marginalized and underrepresented groups and for making their boards of directors and other leadership ranks more inclusive.

“This will be a factor in funding decisions by the city going forward,” Mr. de Blasio said. “We do this because we believe in fairness.”

But the Department of Cultural Affairs did not set numerical goals for what constituted progress, nor did it require that institutions provide baseline demographic statistics about their staffs. So while the program is heralded as one of the first municipally driven efforts to create diversity in cultural organizations, and it did increase funding for smaller, neighborhood arts groups, its ability to accomplish real change, and measure it, is being questioned.

Is this museum or that dance company actually doing better at hiring Black and Latino staff members? Without the numbers, for the city, it’s still more of a question than an answer and it’s a question that lingers even as some museum staffs, fueled by anger over the killings of Black people like George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, have pushed past the city’s efforts and are demanding an accelerated pace of change and accountability from institutions.

“We have to move from tokenism to transformation,” Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, which funded the research for the cultural plan, said. “The token one or two Black or Latinx people on a board is no longer acceptable or acknowledged as progress.”

The cultural plan, known as CreateNYC, was announced at a July 2017 news conference with a large dais at which the city distributed a 180-page report on the issue.

“The completion of the first cultural plan for New York City is a profound and historic achievement,” Jimmy Van Bramer, the chairman of the City Council’s cultural affairs committee who helped spearhead legislation to create the plan, said.

Mayor de Blasio indicated at the news conference that he intended to tie funding to the diversity improvements made by the 33 organizations, though he did not specify how the city would penalize those that failed to show progress. “We’re saying this matters,” he said. “It is one of the things that needs to be considered.”

It was a bold, if vague, caution. Many of the institutions that the city finances are run by boards of directors filled with Wall Street, real estate and corporate titans, the same people who typically finance New York City political campaigns.

But the parameters of the problem had been laid bare a year earlier, when the results of a survey of city-funded nonprofit cultural organizations showed that nearly two-thirds of their employees were white in a municipality where two-thirds of the residents were people of color.

“We wanted organizations to do what made the most sense for them and to do it in the way they thought they were most likely to make progress,” Mr. Finkelpearl said.

For one thing, he said, as a matter of law, the city could not legally set quotas.

“You can’t say to an institution, ‘The next 10 people you hire must be people of color,’” he said. “But what you can say — and what’s in these plans — is, ‘Here are the steps we’re going to take to have a diverse applicant pool.’”

Mr. Van Bramer said that, the mayor’s comments notwithstanding, the plan’s architects never decided whether funding would be tied to organizations’ progress. “That’s always been fairly nebulous,” he said. “There’s really no way to enforce it.”

All of which worries the people who had hoped the plan would do more than just point the way to a more virtuous future.

Elena Ketelsen González, a senior fellow of public programs and community engagement at MoMA PS1 who has been a consultant on issues of equity and language access, said it was difficult to see how the plan would work without a firm enforcement mechanism.

“I worry that institutions need a monetary impetus to follow through,” she said.

For now, the metric used to review the institutions’ progress is simply to evaluate the plans they have set forth for meeting their diversity goals. The program asked them to set measurable — though not specifically numerical — one-, three- and six-year goals in the plans submitted last year.

Many contain broad commitments. The Met museum pledged to increase the “overall diversity” of its board. One of Lincoln Center’s goals is to “expand the scope” of its intern applicant pool.

“I call those wishes, not plans,” Michael M. Kaiser, the chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, said. “I think that unfortunately characterizes most planning at cultural institutions. It’s just not detailed enough and specific enough,” he said, looking back on the New York City program. “Those kinds of goals are so general that they don’t lead to too much change.”

Only 13 of the 33 plans disclose any details of the makeup of their staff or boards. Diversity is also often employed as an umbrella term, without institutions’ specifying whether their goals relate to race, ethnicity, gender identity or inequalities in other areas.

Gonzalo Casals, the city’s cultural affairs commissioner since March, said the plans were never intended to check boxes. “It’s not about saying ‘60 percent of my staff are people of color or come from a marginalized group,’” he said. “These are very long-term plans that will form the decisions organizations make through the years.”

A few institutions did articulate specific targets: The American Museum of Natural History, for example, met its first-year goal of increasing the number of people of color on its board to at least 20 percent. It reached 21 percent last year, compared with 12 percent in 2014.

The Public Theater said its full-time staff would be no more than 50 percent white by 2023 — a goal it met this year. Other commitments are more couched. The Bronx Museum of the Arts said it was committed to short- and long-term “gradual salary changes that are feasible and doable.”

“There’s been a fundamental shift and awakening at the highest levels of these institutions that they need to change,” he said. “But that pressure is coming from stakeholders, artists and employees and constituents of museums.”

Laura Raicovich, the former director of the Queens Museum who is now the interim director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, said that despite the city’s best efforts, she doubted that boards would ever be truly diverse as long as organizations relied on board members to finance major portions of their annual budgets.

“Until we can create a system of public funding in the United States that helps support cultural spaces, we aren’t going to achieve the balance that keeps them just as accountable to the general public as to their donors,” she said.

Still, experts said the New York City plan had succeeded in financing the work of smaller arts organizations, many of them outside Manhattan, and many of them staffed by people of color.

The increase was meaningful for the Bronx River Art Center, where a majority of employees are people of color, Gail Nathan, the executive director, said. “We definitely got a big bump-up from the city,” she said. “We push onward with lots of diversity and commitment, and that’s being recognized.”

Ms. González, the diversity consultant, said the program was a start. “The cultural plan allowed a lot of people to get their foot in the door,” she said.

Pushing the larger institutions to greater inclusivity is a tougher task, but one aided by the internal pressures unleashed in recent months.

Ms. González said it is no longer enough to hire people of color. “It’s one thing to bring in diverse interns, fellows and junior staff to run your social media campaign or infomercials,” she said. “It’s another to actually listen to and value those voices.”

But for many organizations, the most pressing challenge now is the most basic of all: survival. From March through early May, more than 15,000 employees were laid off or furloughed from the city’s cultural institutions because of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a report the department commissioned.

Mr. Van Bramer said, “Frankly, how places can keep their doors open is dominating just about every call.”

Staff reductions can have a significant impact on diversity numbers, in part because many layoffs strike the lower ranks of employees, which typically include higher concentrations of people of color.

Mr. Walker said if the city wants the institutions to make good on their diversity plans, it must follow through by watching how these departures affect the organizations’ demographics.

“People of color are often the most recently hired,” he said. “And if it’s simply a matter of ‘last hired, first fired,’ that will undermine diversity in a post-pandemic world.”

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