I freelanced this piece on assignment from DanceUSA thanks to their editor (and mine) Lisa Traiger.
The arts is a field represented by stars and a March 2015 DeVos Institute event at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland College Park brought together six major luminaries. Arthur Mitchell (founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem), Tina Ramirez (founder of Ballet Hispanico), Carmen de Lavallade (dancer, choreographer and actress), Lou Bellamy (founder of Penumbra Theater), Miriam Colon (founder of Puerto Rican Travelling Company), and Rita Moreno (stage and screen actress) shared the stage and a conversation under the umbrella “Diversity in the Arts: Legends of the Field.” The purpose of the event was to celebrate the panelists and provide a platform to discuss how their cultures informed their careers. Ford Foundation president Darren Walker moderated the discussion and noted: “How fitting that our first symposia brings together pioneers who brought down the barriers in the arts.”
The “Legends of the Field” discussion was the first in a series of diversity symposia the DeVos Institute of Arts Management will be convening. These DeVos Institute symposia on diversity resonated with the observances of the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The march became a watershed in the Civil Rights movement that in some ways enabled the careers enjoyed by the panelists. Walker noted that while diversity in the arts have come a long way since Selma and 1965, our continued focus on diversity in the field remains necessary to expand the boundaries of inclusiveness.
George Balanchine to Arthur Mitchell: “You’ll Always Be in the Middle”
The leaders celebrated in this DeVos Institute event were among the first generation of non-white arts leaders. Arthur Mitchell, the first African American male principal dancer in the New York City Ballet, recalled that he was in a taxi on the way to the airport to perform in Brazil when he heard that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and killed. He decided then that he needed to bring ballet back to his neighborhood, Harlem, and went on to found the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), just a year after Dr. King’s assassination. Mitchell recalled that George Balanchine, who served on the DTH board, told him, “You’ll always be in the middle. Black people will be upset, because you’re not doing their dance, and white people will be angry because you’re getting in on their territory.”
Looking back on their careers, several panelists discussed ways their ethnicity made career development more difficult. Rita Moreno, famous for being one of only 12 performers to have won the “EGOT” quartet of major entertainment awards –– an Emmy, a Golden Globe, an Oscar, and a Tony –– moved to Hollywood at age 16, signed to a “starlet” contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer. But Moreno described spending her early career cast over and over in the role of the “dusky maiden” or “native girl” – usually a scantily clad individual of questionable moral character. Moreno recalled one movie, shot in Mexico, in which her character was murdered by being thrown over a cliff into the ocean. The director wanted a shot of the lifeless body floating in the water, but the ocean was filled with stinging jellyfish. Moreno tried to float “lifeless” as the director wanted, but the painful stinging kept causing her to jerk. The director screamed at her to stay still, and Moreno recalled feeling that the director was not actually seeing her, but was treating her like the characters she was always cast to play – a woman less valuable than her white counterparts.
Miriam Colon and Tina Ramirez each articulated that part of their urge to create Latino companies was to show what the Hispanic community could really do, which Darren Walker noted was necessary because systematic exclusion existed, which kept many Latino and Hispanic voices from pursuing arts careers. Lou Bellamy, known for producing (and in some instances directing) the original productions of August Wilson’s plays, revealed that when he started it seemed like all that was necessary was to bring diverse stories forward, but now that mission feels insufficient.
Carmen de Lavallade and Arthur Mitchell noted their continuing commitment to reaching out to youngsters of all races, national origins, and abilities. In a world that continues to exclude many students in a multitude of ways, de Lavallade said the arts can help young people realize that they are worth a great deal and that they, too, can do great things.
Looking Past the Top (To the Middle)
Even an anecdotal survey of the arts management field demonstrates that administrative and artistic leadership is not demographically representative of the communities served (in both for-profit and non-profit entertainment.) Current conversations about diversity in the arts are looking beyond top positions and lead roles to overall employment numbers. Within major arts institutions, in many communities, minorities are under-represented not only on stage but also as a percentage of total employees.
A recently launched initiative by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs is scanning for granular detail on the issue of diversifying the ranks of arts administration workers in that city. An article about the initiative in The Wall Street Journal notes, “Whites make up nearly 80 percent of the workforce at U.S. museums, according to an analysis of 2009 census data by the American Alliance of Museums. But in New York City, non-Hispanic whites account for just one-third of the total population.” The article quotes New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl, “For the long-term vitality and relevancy of cultural institutions, it makes sense to have the staffs reflect that …. The intent is not to point fingers or have administrators replace their current workforce, it’s about finding ways going forward to talk about how it could be more inclusive.”
Since the march at Selma, the arts field has followed the public in embracing multicultural companies and stars. Still, in cities and communities across the country, including New York and Washington, D.C., the arts industry as a collective employer is far less diverse than the populations it serves. Writing about an initiative underway in the Greater Washington D.C. area, Abe Flores, a education director for Americans for the Arts, wrote, “This is the effect of poverty, inequality, disenfranchisement, oppression, distrust, and the legacy of racism.”
When Arthur Mitchell recounted Balanchine’s statement about how Mitchell would be regarded in his own community and by the ballet establishment, he also recalled that Balanchine was tremendously forward thinking in many respects. In the mid-1960s Balanchine didn’t think twice about casting Mitchell, an African-American man, to partner a white woman ballerina in major pas de deux. Mitchell and other panelists acknowledged that conversations about diversity in the arts continue to be complicated by the competitiveness of the non-profit and entertainment fields, as well as social and cultural expectations related to ethnicity. When one panelist noted that funding for her work was unstable, Carmen de Lavallade chimed in that funding is unstable for all non-profits.
Balancing the Scales
The DeVos Institute “Diversity in the Arts: Legends of the Field” panel provided an opportunity to celebrate some of the real progress on racial inclusion made in the arts in the past half century, and the artistic accomplishments that followed from it. Now, inclusiveness is concerned with institutional diversity as much as institutional leadership. Black girls and boys can become ballet dancers, and Hispanic girls and boys can become movie stars, and more of them should, just like Mitchell and Moreno. But equally important, if not more so, in creating an arts field that truly looks like America is the challenge to provide opportunities for black, Hispanic and other children to become grant writers, program managers, curators, critics, and stage hands. When we do, then our arts will truly reflect our American ideals. Initiatives like those led by Michael Kaiser, chairman of the DeVos Institute, and Darren Walker, president at the Ford Foundation, are critical for that to occur.