The Impact of “The ‘D’ Word” in Arts Leadership

This post is the first in a three-part Blogging Fellows series on equity, diversity, and inclusion. Read the full series.

Leaders of arts and culture organizations must make a demonstrated commitment if the field is to prioritize the inclusion of a wide range of identities and experiences on its boards and administrative teams.

On the heels of the National Innovation Summit for Arts & Culture, where the final “fishbowl” discussion ignited a discourse on race and inclusion, the topics of equity, diversity, and inclusion have become prevalent in recent online conversations within the arts community. Since participating in Theatre Communications Group’s Fall Forum (#TCGFF) Twitter conversation and a recent HowlRound Weekly Howl on diversity and equity, one question has been on my mind: does the lack of diversity among arts leadership indicate our own failings? What approaches should arts leaders and organizations consider to achieve diverse arts leadership?

An uncomfortable truth

As an artist and arts leader of color, it is uncomfortable for me to admit that I have yet to interview for a job and see another person of color on the other side of the table. If you are a qualified arts leader of color, knowing that the audience and staff of a theatre company looks nothing like you or your diverse population of friends could potentially ostracize you from joining an institution. While I have been fortunate to interact with a great number of boards of trustees, the setting of a board meeting is not often representative of a wide range of identities or experiences. That is not to say I have ever felt significant tension when attending any of these meetings, but I am of the opinion that there is an astounding amount of comfort with the way things are.

Leadership must open up the conversation and make a commitment

In the future, the leaders of innovative arts institutions must be able to connect with communities that represent a range of race, class, age, sexuality, and disability identities and experiences. If we are to make the arts more inclusive, organizational leaders must commit to opening up the conversation about diversity and constructively address it with members of a community, staff and board. In order to do this, these leaders must acknowledge that both participation in the arts – and the opportunity to shape what that participation looks like from an administrative role – should not be cultural privileges for the few.

Future staff and boards of arts organizations

As I tweeted in one of my online discourses, no theatre can be its best self without actively formulating a long-term solution to making the arts more inclusive – a solution that should encourage staff and boards to be inclusive, as well. In order to connect with a diverse range of communities and individuals, arts organizations’ boards must be equipped to represent and consider the experiences of those communities – and if they aren’t already connected to those individuals, they should be encouraged to meet some new people. Boards need to be socially and institutionally aware enough to recognize that diversity, like term limits, should be a necessary function for optimal productivity in supporting our cultural arts institutions to the best of their ability.

Addressing how diversity positively impacts your mission and public perception as an institution is a conversation that field leaders must act upon in hiring practices and board cultivation. The possibilities for prioritizing diversity should be a conversation that arts institutions share with one another and implement regularly as a best practice. Someday, I want to be part of an arts and culture field where offices, boardrooms, and gala attendees of organizations reflect the world we live in. But will this ever be a priority?

Kelvin Dinkins, Jr. is a Creative Producer-Artist-Manager currently completing an MFA in Theatre Management & Producing at Columbia University and has a BA in English/Theatre from Princeton University. He has a background in non-profit theatre management and development with an interest in promoting the innovative development of cultural arts institutions and supporting communities that are artistically underserved or in need of a creative renaissance. Kelvin is currently the Communications and Development Manager for The Civilians, the New York-based center for investigative theatre boldly exploring the intersections of theater and society. Follow him on Twitter at @KBD217.

  • This is something that I think is contributing to the success of the synagogue I belong to when it comes to making strides in anti-racist organizing. There is a real commitment to supporting the leadership of people of color and challenging implicit assumptions behind what makes a good leader and how an organization shows support.

    It also helps that a significant number of the synagogue’s leadership took the Undoing Racism workshop with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, so we had a shared vocabulary, a shared knowledge base, and shared principles to draw from.

    • Francesca McKenzie

      I highly recommend the Undoing Racism workshop! Such a transformational (and difficult) experience but something everyone should go through, especially an arts organization committed to equity and diversity.

  • Alexandra Siclait

    It’s truly unfortunate when the message is the dominant culture’s values are the “right” values. As a very smart cultural diplomacy specialist and professional mentor told me yesterday, “So called ‘diversity’ initiatives in the arts are often little more than tokenism designed to make the dominant culture feel better. True diversity is much too threatening so ‘minorities’ are relegated to ‘special ethnic months’ or worse, their culture patronized as being just like ‘real arts.'”

    I still have hope, though. Organizations like Wolf Trap are trying, authentically and sincerely, I believe.

    This is right from its website. See below.

    Wolf Trap Diversity Initiative

    As an organization that values its commitment to diversity and the power of the arts to change society, Wolf Trap is deeply committed to widening access of its acclaimed Internship Program. Students of all minority ethnicities (including those with cultural/ethnic backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in the arts management field) and students who qualify for needs-based support at their college or university (who might not otherwise be able to participate due to the cost of housing and transportation) may select to apply to the Internship Program under the Diversity Initiatives. In addition to the experiences all Wolf Trap interns enjoy, students accepted to receive support under these programs will be awarded a transportation and housing stipend to offset these expenses.

    Students of a minority ethnicity who desire to apply to the Internship Program and wish to be considered for a Multicultural Diversity Initiative award should indicate this choice on the Internship application cover form. Students selecting to apply for consideration under an Economic Diversity Initiative award should select this choice on the application cover form and submit proof of Federal Work Study (FWS) Financial Aid eligibility. This can be in the form of an email or written documentation from an administrative office at the student’s college or university. Receiving a Diversity Initiative award is not guaranteed as there are a limited number of awards available each summer season.

    To apply, please follow the general application instructions and specify in your cover letter your desire to participate in the Multicultural Diversity Initiative or Economic Diversity Initiative.