Whites Only (or, WTF is the deal with diversity in the performing arts?)


Apparently there’s been some kind of heated conversation going on in the punditsphere about diversity in the arts. A post on ArtsJournal by Doug Borwick called “Considering Whiteness” seems to be latest iteration. Frankly, I’m not sure how much merit there is in examining “whiteness” at all – it seems like a kind of privileged posture. But I haven’t had time to catch up on all the backstory so I could be wrong. That being said, as Black History Month draws to a close, I’d like to toss out a few thoughts that have been kicking around the Culturebot offices for awhile in anticipation of  a longer, more thoughtful and fully investigated series of articles on this issue, funded by The Ford Foundation. (Just kidding about the Ford Foundation, it’s really Surdna) (Just kidding, we’re not getting funded by Surdna or anybody else. But we’d take the money if someone offered.)

Culturebot’s little “downtown” contemporary experimental theater world frequently laments its whiteness and a lot of the causes seem obvious – privileged access to elite educational institutions, easier access to capital through those networks of privilege, a sense of security by virtue of whiteness to spend 10 years not making money with the expectation that eventually you will. The cultural conditions and contexts of most “downtown” artists seem to predispose the sector towards a “white bias”. But while that may be true in part, it is hardly the whole story, and hardly an excuse.

A few months ago I went to what was probably one of the worst plays I’ve ever attended in my life, certainly the worst I’ve ever seen by a so-called professional theater. Not only was the show poorly written, directed and performed but it was spectacularly homophobic, sexist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic and racist. It also happened to be commissioned and produced by one of the first theaters devoted entirely to the development and presentation of work by African-American theater artists and artists of color. The company has been around for 40 years or so and continues to produce new work, if sporadically, despite a dwindling audience base and increasingly outdated politics and aesthetics. Fascinating anthropology, terrible art. From what I hear, this organization is repeatedly denied funding – the company thinks it is due to racism, everyone else says (in private) that it is because the work is consistently subpar. But then the question arises about cultural bias – are funders holding them to a eurocentric aesthetic standard without being sensitive to the cultural context? Or is that just white guilt talking? This is complicated and controversial stuff.

This got me wondering about how many black theaters are there nationally anyway? I started asking around and found out, anecdotally, there aren’t many – and that culturally-specific African-American theaters are in perpetual crisis. Frankly, until I got an email for DETROIT ’67 at The Public I couldn’t tell if Classical Theatre of Harlem and the National Black Theatre were still producing at all. From what I understand St. Paul, Minnesota’s Penumbra Theatre has gone bankrupt several times requiring major bailouts from funders just to stay in existence. What’s the deal? Culturally specific Asian-American, Hispanic-American and Other-American theaters thrive (relatively speaking) while Af-Am theaters languish. Is it because integration and race-blind casting have come so far in mainstream theater that there is no longer a perceived need for culturally specific Af-Am theaters? I highly doubt it. Is it because the African-American community doesn’t have a wide enough donor base or a history of arts philanthropy to provide access to resources? I don’t know and unfortunately I don’t know of anyone looking into it.

During Culturebot’s Long Table on The Politics of Cultural Production at the Under The Radar Festival, Clyde Valentin from the Hip-Hop Theater Festival made some really astute and challenging observations. In a discussion of process-based approaches to making theater he noted that artists working in the hip-hop vernacular are often very product 0riented, that’s the culture. It is about making  the song, the dance, the show and getting out there and, frankly, getting paid.

Just a few days ago Jason Zinoman wrote an article in the NY TIMES about how Upright Citizen’s Brigade has managed to grow so much partly because it doesn’t pay performers. One of the founders, Matt Besser, expressed surprise to discover that performers of color, moreso perhaps than white performers, are unwilling to work for free:

“One of the reasons you don’t see legions of black performers there,” Cyrus McQueen, an African-American improviser who studied at Upright Citizens Brigade, wrote in an e-mail, “is because I don’t know many minorities willing or able to work for nothing to get stage time.”

Mr. Besser sounded surprised about this point. “I never thought of it that way,” he said, though he conceded, “It’s true there are more African-American stand-ups.” But he argued that the Upright Citizens’ model ultimately lifts everyone.

“We pay our performers,” he said, “just not with money.”

Besser is referring to a kind of soft capital associated with prestige value rather than actual money. But for people who come from cultural contexts where actual money is hard to come by, that argument sounds pretty weak. Ultimately though, this is about class more than race, but in this case race and class are so intertwined as to be almost inextricable.

Later on in the Long Table, during a conversation on the ideal conditions for collaboration,  some artists talked about the need for trust. Clyde pointed out that with his artists the idea of walking into a room with someone they don’t know, without a determined outcome, can be unfamiliar and off-putting in and of itself. But the kind of trust that is implicit and assumed in that situation by artists with shared experiences of privilege is very likely unfamiliar to many hip-hop artists and can, in fact, be threatening. Artists from disadvantaged backgrounds or working in the hip-hop idiom may, in all likelihood, be coming from a place (both geographically, socially and psychologically) where blind trust is not an asset but a weakness. Unlearning that wariness is not only a significant undertaking but also demands a fundamental, ongoing change in their circumstances. Either that or they somehow must balance being trusting in the creative process with wariness in more hostile environs.

Clyde’s insights  put a spotlight on significant and frequently unacknowledged differences in the culture and conditions in which art is made and how that affects process, form and valuation. Returning then to the question about cultural bias – are curators, funders and institutions holding Af-Am artists and arts organizations to a eurocentric aesthetic standard without being sensitive to the cultural context? Is the white-dominated arts infrastructure being sensitive to these issues and addressing the underlying economic and social conditions that influence cultural production? Alternately, does “white guilt” play an insidious role in funding that leads to (I hate to use this phrase, given its origin, but…) the soft bigotry of low expectations?

For instance, everyone knows that NPN is pretty clearly divided between the bigger budget arts organizations focusing on contemporary work (and curated predominantly by straight middle aged white men) and more diverse, frequently lower-budget, institutions. The “of-privilege” institutions sit in an Art Burst showcase thinking “Do I really have to sit through another autobiographical identity politics solo show telling me things about poverty and racism that everyone in this room already agrees with and is working to solve?” while the more diverse organizations see the funding that goes to European and contemporary work and feel alienated by what appears to an unfair elitist, Eurocentric bias on the part of funders and institutions. “Why,” they ask “do these people insist on funding work that doesn’t speak to anybody else but themselves, certainly not me or my experience!?” And so everyone gets together and, with the best of intentions, sweeps the conflict under the rug. Year after year no-one seems to be able to have this conversation in public, no-one will initiate a real, if difficult, dialogue and the situation continues to deteriorate. Its a kind of war of attrition by well-meaning people with shared values and an overbearing fear of hurting people’s feelings by speaking truthfully.

At the same time that no-one will initiate actual dialogue among diverse arts organizations, “of-privilege” institutions worry about building a diverse audience base as part of their audience development and engagement strategies. All to often they implement initiatives that, more than anything, serve to reveal their cluelessness. They promote as “diverse”only the culturally specific work they feel comfortable with and fits their aesthetic presuppositions. They do “Spanish” or “Asian” or “African-American” adaptations of Western classics or poetry slams or other misguided, outdated endeavors without taking any time to look in the mirror. Regional theaters present August Wilson plays regularly as a gesture. I’ve been told that there are directors on the regional theater circuit who are considered August Wilson “experts” and whenever a theater wants to do one of his plays, they get hired. But let’s face it, August Wilson is basically Ibsen with Negroes instead of Norwegians, and these directors could just as well direct anything else in the canon. Do they get hired to do that? Or are they only deemed good enough for directing Wilson?

In my recent essay on The Politics of Cultural Production in Theater I briefly address the negative impacts of the over-professionalization of the field. As prohibitively expensive advanced degrees become increasingly de rigueur, the barriers to entry increase for a career in the arts or for access to institutional support as an artist. An unacknowledged class – and thus race – bias exists. I’ve never seen the statistics but I’d wager that minority representation in the philanthropic sector is also greatly lacking. If you work in a “white” organization whose funders are primarily “white” the odds of achieving any kind of actual diversity or authentically engaging diverse audiences dwindle proportionately. If you want diverse audiences engaging with your institution you need to be a diverse institution – and that means in leadership positions, not just admin and support. The sector is economically predisposing itself towards whiteness and then lamenting a lack of diversity.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Even in Culturebot’s little “contemporary” corner of the world there are artists who make a concerted effort to foster diversity in their work and in their audiences. You only have to look at artists like the visionary Ralph Lemon, Theaster Gates, Kalup Linzy and a host of other groundbreaking artists to see that cutting edge work is coming from an Af-Am perspective. Though it is worth noting this innovation is mostly positioned in visual art and dance, not theater. Non Af-Am artists are making efforts at diversity. From as far back as PULLMAN, WA Young Jean Lee has actively cultivated diverse representations in her work. The Shipment, Lear and Untitled Feminist Show all demonstrate simultaneous rigorous commitments to both diverse representation and contemporary aesthetic practice. Many of Richard Maxwell’s plays use truly race-blind casting and Alec Duffy’s ever-changing Hoi Polloi ensemble is intentionally comprised of a diverse group of artists, both “white” and “of color”, all of whom share a similar aesthetic outlook and artistic rigor.

Which is to say that contemporary performance and diversity are not mutually exclusive. There are people “of color” who are interested and well-versed in its ideas and practices and it is really a matter of all artists from all backgrounds working harder to reach beyond their immediate circles to find a wider group of collaborators from different backgrounds. Some institutions, like The Public, work really hard at it and do a great job, others are sorely behind in their efforts. But, going back to my theme of artists taking responsibility for their work – we can’t wait for institutions to create change, we have to make it happen on the ground, in our practice, right now, and model the world we want to inhabit. The shifting demographics in the U.S. suggest that this is going to happen anyway, so unless theater wants to become completely irrelevant, it better get with the program.

It is interesting that this representation problem seems to be much more a problem in theater than dance. The ranks of talented, successful and critically acclaimed choreographers includes numerous African-Americans from Alvin Ailey to Bill T. Jones to Kyle Abraham, Rashaun Mitchell and Trajal Harrell, to name a few. And the ranks of Af-Am women in dance is also notable, as evidenced by 651 Arts’ presentation of “FLY: Five First Ladies of Dance” and a number of younger choreographer such as Camille A. Brown. In this scenario, as my colleague Jeremy has pointed out, it is interesting to note that the most glaringly absent voice is that of the straight Af-Am male.

Semiotically and culturally, Af-Am women and gay men don’t represent a fearsome threat to white male power.  Straight Af-Am men do. They represent not only a threat to power, but, they symbolize work and labor. The rebellious slave of Django can be read both in racial terms and as representation of of slave rebellion as gory, retributive class war. Following this thinking I would contend that  cultural bias in aesthetic valuation is as much about class as race. Justin E.H. Smith just wrote a great essay in the NY TIMES called “The Enlightenment’s ‘Race’ Problem, and Ours“,  making an eloquent case for race as we know it being a relatively recent construct, one meant to defend slavery and enforce a complex system of oppression. He says:

It is American culture that is principally responsible for the perpetuation of the concept of race well after its loss of scientific respectability by the mid-20th century. Even the most well-meaning attempts to grapple with the persistence of inequality between “blacks” and “whites” in American society take it for granted at the outset that racial categories adequately capture the relevant differences under investigation (see, for example: Thomas B. Edsall’s recent column, “The Persistence of Racial Resentment“) . This may have something to do with the fact that the two broad cultural-historical groupings of people in this country, which we call “white” and “black” and which have been constituted through the complicated histories of slavery, immigration, assimilation, and exclusion, tend at their extremes to correlate with noticeably different phenotypic traits.

So when we talk about cultural bias in aesthetic valuation we’re really talking about how much a given artist has access to the education, training, cultural knowledge, means of production and social networks necessary to create work “equivalent” to artists from privilege. In America that tends to break down along racial lines but the truth is that ginning up racial conflict is part and parcel of obscuring vast economic disparities. It is easier to “see” race than class or economic status, it is easier to identify along a spectrum of sameness and difference based on appearance, especially in an aspirational society where one day you might be rich too.

So if we truly want cultural diversity in the performing arts in America, if we want an arts ecology that reflects the heterogeneity of our society, then we have to look at the economic realities of the arts,  how economics dictates the means of production and presentation, how it affects arts access for artists, audiences and administrators. This is live performing arts, not film, by definition it is a two-way transaction. Audience development strategies are insufficient at best..  We’re going to have to look long and hard at  which artists and institutions we support, how we support them and what we really want to achieve with that support. We need to have frank conversations about quality and expectations, about funding and support not just for institutions but for artists themselves. We’re going to look at how to get the arts out of the institutions and into communities in substantial, meaningful ways. We’re going to have to commit to educating today’s and tomorrow’s audiences and artists. And we’re going to have to buck up for the difficult, sophisticated conversations about the multiple publics we serve, apprise the assimilable and the unassimilable differences of cultures in juxtaposition, interrogate the dubious notion of “universality” and be willing to confront our own biases and prejudices so we can change.

It’s a heavy lift but we can either do it ourselves or let the tides of history do it for us. You decide.

10 thoughts on “Whites Only (or, WTF is the deal with diversity in the performing arts?)”

  1. Andy Horwitz says:

    So far this post has received some chatter on facebook and a few private emails but not much in public, really. One of the FB comments was from someone who said it made her want to holler and not in a good way and that she hoped someone more articulate than her would respond. I just wanted to say: me too!

    Since I wrote the piece I’ve been thinking a lot about other ways into the conversation and other conversations to have. I think about all the great black playwrights that are working right now like Tarell Alvin McCraney, Marcus Gardley, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Eisa Davis and Jackie Sibblies Drury, about ensembles like Progress Theatre and Universes and solo artists like Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Rha Goddess and Tamar-Kali and all the other work happening up at Harlem Stage and I started wondering what is the *real* conversation that needs to be had? It seems like a mistake to continue to conflate race, class and privilege – but is it?

    It is not that the thoughts I put up on the blog post are new to me or anybody else, it is that despite years of well-meaning conversation it doesn’t seem like we’re making significant progress in creating an equitable power structure and diverse representation among those who choose what gets funded and what gets shown. For that matter it is insane that Hilton Als seems to be the only prominent theater critic of color and that Talvin Wilks is one of the only dramaturg/critics of prominence.

    I would be thrilled to receive and happy to publish essays on the state of contemporary black dance, theater, visual art performance, etc.; manifestos, critical theory, whatever. I would welcome introductions to people writing critically about these issues from the black perspective and who can help frame these conversations in ways that are more insightful and constructive than mine.

    Nothing on Culturebot is ever meant as an end point or definitive declaration, it is always meant as a starting point, a provocation, an invitation to conversation.

  2. Clyde Valentin says:

    Andy, I think the lack of traction on this particular post is that NO ONE wants to go there. And while we’re being honest, looking specifically at downtown “culture” several generations of artists have a made a living being counter-culture. The other night at Taylor Mac’s Joe’s Pub performance he cracked about the amount of white people in his show and in his audience.

    I sat there looking at the “new” Joe’s Pub thinking, “No more grassroots Hip-Hop shows here ever again.” With a ticket price, $7 – $15 dollar drinks and plates of food @$15 bucks and the require seat, a concerted effort was made to maximize revenue out of the lovely little room.

    I’m not mad at the business, or the hustle, I’m not. I’m just reinforcing that when you make certain choices make them as consciously as possible. I wonder if anyone that was part of the decision making process knew that the consequences of altering that room the way they did would lead to a certain cultural exclusion?

    Anyhow, in support of the conversation I share this page from TCG which has some useful tools about this subject:


  3. J. Holtham says:

    I’m one of the FB chatterers and I think, for a lot of artists of color, there’s a lot of fatigue around this stuff. A few years ago, we were all really engaged, there was a lot of blogging, places like Arena Stage hosted convenings, TCG had breakout sessions, all of this talk and discussion and in the end…a lot of us had to do it ourselves, anyway. This piece is well-written and the issues are salient and important, but the will to actually do anything about it seems to come from one side only: “our” side. So a lot of us have taken that energy and are doing it on our own: creating new companies, new festivals, generating new work.

    The economic realities of being a person of color, in particular a black person of color, are such that, yeah, art that can’t generate significant income is largely out of reach for most of us. But what’s going to change that? Things that are unlikely to happen, like massive public investment in art. The patronage system that fuels the arts will probably always be a hostile place for artists of color, since it depends on the whims and feelings of older white people. Again, what’s going to change that? Especially when for so many artists, it’s their bread-and-butter?

    If you want to know what’s happening in black theatre, separate from the “mainstream” institutions, this will be a good place to start: https://www.facebook.com/events/119943844854696/124274917754922/?notif_t=plan_mall_activity

    I said this on FB, but it bears repeating: I genuinely accept your plea for essays about black theatre, but the “I would welcome” part is a red flag for me. This is your blog, your forum. If you wanted to have an artist who worked with robots or used dance or had some other form of artistic advancement, you’d reach out and find them and invite them to write here. When it comes to diversity, too many leaders take a passive position: you “welcome,” you’d be “happy to have,” you’d “love to have,” etc., etc. That puts all of the onus on the artists to get your attention. New York is a vibrant, artistic, crowded city. Artists, writers, thinkers of color are all around you. If you want those voices in the mix, go find them. Bring them in. And bring them back. Don’t just ask them to weigh in on the state of black theatre and then usher them back out into the street. Ask Talvin what he thinks about Young Jean Lee or Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. Making a more balanced arts scene is work for all of us. Put in the work.

  4. Andy Horwitz says:

    Hi Clyde & J. , thanks for commenting!

    J. – Part of why I wrote the essay is exactly because of what you describe, that the will to do something has to go both ways and it has to be artist-led. What I was trying to convey (perhaps not clearly enough) is that the folks in the “white” theater world, particularly working outside institutions like Arena and TCG, need work harder. Sometimes it seems that the “white” “downtown” theater scene is having an equally vociferous conversation about lack of diverse representation on stage and in audiences as “of-color” artists, but it is happening behind closed doors in separate camps. My question or proposal is how to bring these groups together in conversation to develop an actual plan, not just sit around theorizing.

    To your point about “putting in the work” – I’ve been putting in the work at Culturebot for nearly ten years, for free, on top of demanding more-than-full-time day jobs. I feel like all I ever do is beg people to write for the site and send in contributions, essays, etc. and often the only response I get is a resounding silence. (Or a demurral from aspiring arts writers who lose interest when they realize I can’t pay them). You say that I “reach out and find them and invite them to write here” for others but not people of color which is simply untrue. I hardly reach out to anybody. Most of the writers who have contributed to this site just emailed me and asked to be involved.

    When people take initiative and reach out, we are always thrilled. Cassie Peterson wanted to offer a queer feminist critique of Untitled Feminist Show and has since contributed semi-regularly to the site. Hani Kahlil – who is not even an arts writer – reached out of the blue to submit his take on the opera “Sumeida’s Song” and its relationship the revolution in Egypt. We have a long history of publishing people who come to us with something to say.

    The fact is that I just don’t have time, as much as I wish I did, to go out and find guest authors or seek out the new voices in arts writing and cultivate them as contributors, regardless of color, gender, orientation, nationality, etc. As for asking Talvin – I feel like he is at a point in his career where the last thing he has time to do is contribute to Culturebot. I’m sure he’s got enough on his plate and I’ve never wanted to impose on him, but I will certainly reach out to him. That being said, I really want to know who the new voices and ideas are. I’m doing the work of keeping this site alive and running, for free, for almost a decade, as a platform that is open to all comers. But I can’t also – at least as long as this is an unpaid project – go out and seek writers. And actually when I started thinking about tackling this topic I sent an inquiry to The New York Association of Black Journalists looking for writers and never heard back.

    My attention is really easy to get. E-mail me.

    And Clyde – thanks for chiming in and tweeting! I am always grateful for your insight and experience. To your point about Joe’s Pub, I get it. I love The Public, I love PS122, I support them growing and getting some income and whatever but I too wonder if the people doing the planning think about the impact their choices will have. I *do* think it is primarily about class and money and serving those people who will bring in the most revenue – the racial piece is collateral damage. That’s why I think, more than ever, artists who are making work outside the institutions need to get together across race, gender, orientation and all that and start talking about class, economics and taking control of the means of production.

    Clyde & J. – Just some context. When I was first starting out as an administrator (after being an artist for many years) I had the privilege of working for Mark Russell who I still consider a role model and mentor. He is a great example of someone who would put Progress Theatre in the same season as Richard Maxwell, avant garde dance Eastern Europe in the same season as Niles Ford (RIP) and expect the audiences to go with it, to see how this work is different and the same, various expressions of shared impulses.

    Which is to say, I’ve seen what this *can* look like and am trying to figure out how we can get there in an artist-driven, grassroots, non-institutional way.

  5. Clyde Valentin says:

    Andy – I second you on my respect for Mark. He gave us the keys to PS122, we made mistakes, had lots of fun, supported our peers on its stages and in the seats and learned along the way.

    Hasn’t happened like that since, because its a wild-ass way to do things in today’s climate.

    Andy, I agree with you. What would it look like if TDS and HHTF fucked around in the Bushwick Starr and made something? And we sold 16 ounce PBRs and Colt 45s to make some money or anybody collaborated with anybody just because their was a theme or subject of mutual interest…

    I only really wanted to comment on Mark (and how he did things at PS122), but looking back to that day during the long table it felt like folks wanted to have that conversation about mixing it up, wanting to learn, asks questions. Genuine curiosity. I wonder….

  6. J. Holtham says:

    I put this on FB, so this is sort of a cross-post: listen, we’re talking about theatre, we’re talking about arts. Most of the leadership is working with not enough resources, not enough support, not enough anything. I don’t mean to be flip about that, or to make assumptions about how you work. More accurately, what I meant is that “I would welcome” thing reads to me (and I think other artists of color) as a kind of red flag. Creating and maintaining diversity, in a culture that is rife with structural and institutional racism, it takes hard work and dedication to make it happen and keep it up. In your post, you’re lamenting the lack of diversity, but the passive position of many arts leaders is a big part of the reason. And from the other side, it puts the burden on the artists of color to do the heavy lifting. Again, I know that’s not your job. But if you’re going to ask what’s going on with diversity in the arts, that’s part of the conversation. When leaders in the arts say they want and value diversity, but follow it up with “but you have to come to me and let me know you want to be included,” it makes artists not feel actually welcome. It’s a frustrating cycle, for everyone, I think.

  7. David Marcus says:

    A few weeks back I wrote a post asserting that big non profit arts organizations will never be able to diversify because the big non profit arts organization is essentially a white construct in and of itself. It is funded by white people, to white people, for white people, as reported by HuffPo last year. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/10/arts-funding-report_n_1003065.html It never ceases to amaze me that the massively successful Urban Theater Circuit (formerly known as the Chitlin Circuit) is constantly left out of these conversations. Long before he made TV and movies Tyler Perry made extremely successful theater in a very for profit way, and it made a lot of profit. If the Public wants to attracts black audience why doesn’t it do one of these plays? Perry was smart, he realized it was better to appeal directly to a niche audience whose ticket purchases would fund the plays than it was to hope that the (mainly white) elites in the granting class would pick him to represent his race in the “big serious houses”. Even the recent AAPAC report on diversity in theater noted that minority actors were more likely to be cast in commercial productions. In commercial theater the only color that matters is green. Anyway, here is my post, with a few other reasons why I don’t think NFPs can diversify. http://www.spotlightright.blogspot.com/2013/02/why-non-profit-theater-will-never.html

  8. Andy Horwitz says:

    Hi David, thanks for commenting!

    I will read your essay for the complete version, and will probably have a more thoughtful response after that. But by suggesting that nonprofit theaters start presenting Tyler Perry – or commercially successful Chitlin’ circuit plays like his – you raise some interesting points that merit further exploration, more than can possibly be addressed here. The things that come to mind immediately are:

    1. Aesthetic Quality and Valuation
    2. Non-Profit vs. For-Profit (mission-driven vs. profit-driven)
    3. Diversity in Arts Philanthropy

    I think most people, regardless of color, would say that Tyler Perry’s plays, while wildly popular amongst their target demographic, are not terribly good plays. I can only presume from having seen a few of Tyler Perry’s Madea movies that the stage plays are of similar tone and quality. To my mind they are reminiscent of any number of broadly comic stage to film (or TV) franchises based on culturally specific stereotypes like My Big Fat Greek Wedding (started as a solo show in Los Angeles) or Brighton Beach Memoirs (Broadway play turned film).

    As you indicate, this work is blatantly commercial, geared towards the widest possible audience with a similarly broad sense of humor, familiar and predictable plots and, almost inevitably, happy endings. This work offers comfortingly familiar presentations of culturally specific self-images, trafficking in stereotypes that are acceptable when coming from a member of the culture, often offensive when coming from an outsider.

    I don’t think that any serious non-profit theater of significant artistic profile would present any work like that, regardless of its culture of origin. That being said, there are many non-profit theaters that do, which brings us to the next point.

    Theoretically non-profit theaters are mission driven, committed to developing work without an eye towards commercial profitability. This is supposed to insulate them from the pressures of the marketplace and allow them to take creative risks by supporting new work and productions that may not have wide audiences or commercial appeal. Many people, including Diane Ragsdale in her recent monograph “In The Intersection”, have written about how large institutions, particularly regional theaters, have experienced significant mission drift, to the point where it is often impossible to tell the difference between non-profit and commercial theater.

    Still, the principle of creating a forum for non-commercial work is legitimate and the importance of supporting diversity in that environment cannot be understated. While the premise behind “audience diversification” in all-white, Eurocentric institutions may be flawed and misguided, the solution is not to walk away or become more commercial, but to hold non-profits accountable for staying on-mission and interrogating the assumptions and practices of the philanthropic sector.

    Flawed as they are, non-profits are the only platform currently available for developing and presenting work that isn’t meant to sell you a product. It may be true that people of color find more work in the commercial sector than non-profit, but I would suggest that everybody finds more work in the commercial sector than in the non-profit sector. It’s a numbers game – there are many more jobs to be had in television and film than on the stage. In fact the economics of stage and screen are so different as to be incomparable. Still, just ask Spike Lee, John Singleton or even Tyler Perry, minority representation in commercial entertainment is still embarrassingly lacking. Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle came out in 1987 and though the popular image of the 80’s street pimp has given way to urban gangsters, much of Townsend’s satire still rings true.

    For argument’s sake, let’s say that there is merit to trying to redeem the non-profit system, that still brings us to the situation of diversity in arts philanthropy. Not who works in foundations but who starts them and runs them. As you accurately point out, “the big non profit arts organization is essentially a white construct in and of itself. It is funded by white people, to white people, for white people.” My hunch is that it is because white people have historically had all the money and power that the philanthropic sector – which is all about reallocating “excess” capital – is mostly white. Foundations generate capital in many ways, but the fundamental mechanism is endowments comprised of sophisticated financial instruments and diverse investment portfolios. These endowments yield profits (some of which are capital gains) and, by law, they must disburse (I believe) 5% of their income through grant making.

    Here’s my question: who are the major African-American philanthropists or foundations and of them, who funds the arts? I’m not trying to be disingenuous or flip, this is a real – and important – question. I don’t know but I would speculate that large-scale philanthropy as we think of it in broad terms (big foundations giving major gifts, not individual charitable giving) in the African-American community is relatively recent. Who are the major donors, what are their priorities and how do you put arts on the table? The “Gift Economy” is as complex and opaque as the market economy and beholden to the same interests in the corporate and financial sectors. One strategy for diversity in the arts – or more support for artists of color – might be about cultivating donors within the community. I don’t know if anyone is researching or pursuing this, but it seems like it is worth investigating.

    Just a few thoughts on a big, big topic.

  9. André says:

    Apart from the problems the author mentions in the article, theatre has certain formal hurdles which make class distinctions among practitioners and audiences increasingly intractable, and prevent the kind of “diverse theatre” described from arising in the first place.

    There’s the time issue: not everyone has the flexibility to see theatre at 8:00 PM, which means only those with disposable evenings can attend the theatre. Movies, fine art and music can be enjoyed with much greater ease by those whose schedules are determined by their economics. As theatre depends on participation in the traditions and rituals of the medium to build a romantic desire in young practitioners, this negatively affects disadvantaged children.

    There’s the school issue: public schools have less and less money to spend on theatre programs, which typically occur after school and require students to ask their parents to pick them up (instead of taking the free school bus). This privileges people who attend private schools, wealthier public schools and independent extracurricular programs.

    There’s the college issue: college students from low-income backgrounds are less likely to choose majors or school activities that exact an opportunity cost on their ability to earn a living after graduation. That means, even at the same school, the wealthier students are the ones participating in theatre.

    There’s the modernist issue: as the author states, progressive arts institutions are committed to formally adventurous productions which employ strategies rooted in Brecht, Artaud, Grotowski, etc. These plays are not easy to step into from the perspective of the uninitiated. This purposeful alienation may produce a more “savvy” audience, but it also makes the theatre community more insular and impenetrable. This bolsters pre-existing divisions and makes the class problem worse.

    There’s the geographical issue: theatre practitioners don’t have as many opportunities outside of New York/Chicago. For wealthy young people, that just means you have to move to a new city where you don’t know anyone and start from scratch (with the benefit of financial assistance from family and the knowledge that you can move home when it doesn’t work out). Regional theatres, as the author noted in the previous article, aren’t nearly as adventurous, meaning they mostly produce work that has already been vetted in New York or Chicago. Again, this privileges those prospective theatre-makers with means and less exposure to risk.

    Because these impedements are economical, they amplify existing economic disparities in demographics and therefore content. Seeking out “unheard voices” only works when the content is already there to be discovered. The institutional economic issues in place prevent that content from developing very often. Theatre, even underground experimental theatre, is a first-rate luxury commodity. It will only be produced under extremely favorable conditions.

  10. Jonathan says:

    Preach, J. Holtham. Preach.

    I love when you say, “When leaders in the arts say they want and value diversity, but follow it up with “but you have to come to me and let me know you want to be included,” it makes artists not feel actually welcome.”

    That is so on the money!

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