Artists and their art are as diverse as our communities, but arts administrators are not. After reviewing the Local Arts Agencies Salaries 2013 research report, one thing jumped out at me: The arts administration field has a diversity problem. It’s not shocking to me that the salaries of arts administrators are not commensurate with their skills, education, experience, and responsibility (I have friends working at a utility company as coordinators who make more than Art EDs) but the demographics, although somewhat expected, are disconcerting. Ninety-two percent of the report’s respondents who identified as Executive Directors or CEOs are white. Eighty-six percent of the overall respondents are white.
The American for the Arts national convention gave me a lot to ponder about race and demographics, particularly Manuel Pastor’s presentation and the numerous conversations I had with my fellow Emerging Leaders on the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy report Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change.
Growing up in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles, a working poor Latino neighborhood, I did not know any white people (aside from those on television) until I started college. Even in college, I never felt like a “minority” because there were always plenty of people with backgrounds similar to my own. It wasn’t until I began working in the arts field that the label “minority” seemed appropriate for me. In the subsequent years at many of the arts meetings, conferences, and events, I was the only Latino attending. I found it very strange. In Los Angeles, where whites make up only 27% of the population, they made up the vast majority of the local arts administration field. I came to understand that when the cultural diversity of a community is not reflected in the individuals attempting to serve the community, the very act of communicating becomes a barrier, which limits the knowledge of needs, wants, and opportunities.
The reality that those charged with providing services to the arts are not reflective of those making the arts contributes to limited first-hand knowledge and understanding, and ultimately the unequal distribution of grant dollars. As the Fusing Arts report found, large organizations which focus primarily on Western European art forms make up about two percent of arts nonprofits yet receive more than half of awarded grant dollars. I believe it simply because granters fund what they know, understand, and have long been established.
As a Mexican-American, I can never be expected to speak for all Mexicans, let alone Latinos. But what I can do is literally speak the language, and begin to help bridge any divide that exists because I have a basic understanding of my community. In my mind the goal of diversity is not mere tokenism or a quota but rather greater understanding and connection among various groups. The arts are about connection and help us create meaning out of our world; without individuals who come from all of our diverse communities, many great art forms will remain in cultural silos. With increased diversity in the arts administration field, a greater understanding of what motivates these communities will be achieved and new monies will come into new communities following the increased knowledge and understanding. In order to continue to stay relevant to the culture, the arts field must become a reflection of the American population with its continued demographic shifts. I am not here to say that only Mexicans can connect with a Mexican community and support Mexican art, but rather that serving the Mexican community requires Local Arts Agencies to hire a local guide.
Ultimately what diversity builds are bridges to all of our communities. Let’s learn about and support the great art from every culture. The Mexican community will benefit with Louis Armstrong and the white community from Mariachi Vargas. Everyone will benefit when these two worlds collide and we get new music influenced by jazz and mariachi.
I know that the arts field has been struggling with this issue for a long time and has worked consciously to address it. The Emerging Leaders Networks have good diverse representation and serve as a pipeline for individuals to enter the field. But with more Masters of Arts Management programs comes the further professionalization of the field making the accidental arts administrator increasingly uncommon. If the pool of new arts administrators will increasingly come from graduate programs, then diversity will remain an issue because of the low numbers of “minorities” receiving the overall bachelor’s degrees in the U.S: Hispanics 8.8%, Blacks 10.3%, and Whites 72.9% (http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=72). The arts field can counter the systemic issues making that a reality with greater outreach to high school students who have a passion for the arts. We can’t just focus on college because unfortunately, they too don’t reflect the diversity of our communities.
Overt racism may no longer be socially accepted (e.g. the Paula Deen affair) but institutionalized racism continues to plague America. The lack of diversity in arts administration is in part a result of deep-rooted systemic factors. Many of our children face unequal opportunities in education and access to culture. The arts have a role in social justice work, most obviously in ensuring a complete education that includes the arts for all students. Diversity audits in organizations can result in increased awareness of the need for diversity. But I believe that a greater effort to identify young high school artists and arts lovers from diverse communities to provide them with mentorship, internship, and networking opportunities can begin to correct the diversity problem. Identify the passion, show what is possible, and help them get into college. That, along with getting artists in every classroom, should be the charge of the entire arts field.