Diversity in Arts Leadership and Arts Management with the DeVos Institute

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.

Don’t Let Earmarks Return in D.C.

In 2009, the District of Columbia spent over $14 million on the arts. $5.4 million of that was in earmarks.

Earmarking is when a policymaker, outside of any actual policy process, dedicates (“earmarks”) public funds to something just because. Earmarks are an inefficient and quixotic way to achieve policy goals, and one could easily argue, represent an abuse of the public pocketbook. A resolution by the Trustees of Maryland Citizens for the Arts, Maryland’s arts advocacy organization, notes, “it is damaging to the integrity and fairness of [the] grant making process when the State Arts Council’s process is circumvented and operating grants are identified for specific organizations in the state budget,” and “any type of politicization of the grant award process will become self-perpetuating and grow if not strictly prohibited.”

Earmarks were eliminated in D.C. in 2010, and the policy climate had been improving for it. But Lettermarking, a first cousin of Earmarking, is trying for a comeback. Here is actual text of section six from a recent bill to support the arts in D.C.:

(6) The amount of $100,000 shall be awarded in fiscal year 2014, and the amount of $25,000 in each of fiscal years 2015 and 2016 as a competitive grant to a commercial music venue of historic and cultural significance in the District that features jazz performances in the District which are open to the public. The grantee must meet the following criteria: (a) Be a nonprofit organization with 501(c)(3) status or a for-profit corporation with primary residence and operations in the District for at least 45 years prior to the application deadline; (b) Hold a Certificate of Good Standing with the District of Columbia; (c) For the last five consecutive calendar years prior to the application deadline have hosted a minimum of 100 live jazz musical performances open to the public in the District in each year; (d) Demonstrate the highest level of artistic excellence; (e) Demonstrate an urgent need for improvements to the size and condition of its performance space, and spaces dedicated to supporting performance spaces; (f) Have an operating budget of less than $50 million; and (g) Be supported by its neighbors and neighborhood.

In case you’re confused, what that list of caveats (a) through (g) accomplishes is to allow support for a neighborhood jazz bar through a “competitive grant.” Obviously, (a) through (g) is so tightly defined that only one business can possibly fit the grant guidelines.

Government grant guidelines are not a joke. They define the policy expectation supported by the expenditure of our tax dollars. They should be thoughtfully designed to ensure efficient use of public funds. No matter the beneficiary, these kind of grant guidelines make a mockery of the competitive grant process.

Part of the problem is that no business can afford NOT to try and get an earmark if they’re being given out. This is the real world. As the current Apple tax hearing demonstrates, smart businesses take every advantage they can.

Earmarking and Lettermarking deny the city the pressure necessary to thoughtfully develop policy solutions, and they need to not be allowed to return.

Original Publication Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-bettmann/dont-let-earmarks-return-_b_3323125.html

Anna Halprin, Lance Armstrong, and the Night Moves Court Case

There was an interesting court case recently (“Night Moves vs the State of New York“) in which a Strip Club owner sued the government, arguing that his patrons should not have to pay sales tax on their entry fees, and lap dances. The merit of the case related to a statute that waives sales tax for professional live entertainment, including dance performance. Dancers in strip clubs are professionals, and what are we, puritans?

The line between porn and modern dance actually launched the career of renowned choreographer Anna Halprin, who was famously arrested in 1965 after performing her work “Parades and Changes” (which involves everyday movements, including undressing.) But even within the avant-garde dance community, it is offensive to compare exotic dance to professional modern dance.

Paper Scene, Parades and Changes, Choreography by Anna Halprin

The values embedded in stripping and the values embedded in non-profit dance are entirely different. If one tries to twin them, to pretend that they are of the same family, it degrades non-profit dance and threatens its survival. Making the case for government support (arts funding) and government subsidy (the non-profit tax deduction) is a challenge in the current political environment. Sexuality continues to be a lightning rod for controversy, and even considering extending the non-profit tax deduction to exotic dance makes the deduction’s defense more difficult.

We shouldn’t waive the sales tax for exotic dance because professional modern dance is good, not because exotic dance is bad. It’s not uncommon for people to try to twin concepts together, and the problem in this situation and others isn’t so much the approval of the one, but the pollution of the other.

Lance Armstrong recently went on Oprah to apologize for his theft of seven Tour de France titles, and subsequently fraudulently soliciting over $470 million dollars in donations to his foundation. Armstrong has a number of apologists, including his biographer the Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, who recently penned a column explaining all of the reasons why she’s not angry with him. As with the Strip Club court case, Lance Armstrong is another one of those cases where people are trying to wrap reasonable arguments around an inexcusable proposition.  Lance Armstrong’s success was predicated on a narrative that was a lie, constructed around an athletic success that was a sham. His deception is all the more terrible because of the tremendous honorable effort he marshaled using his fraud. What now?

There are real heroes out there that we never knew because we were paying attention to Lance. The Livestrong Foundation raised over $470 million dollars between 1997 and 2011, and someone who wasn’t lying should have had a chance to solicit those donations, but Lance Armstrong’s championship wake swamped and prevented that. His fraud as an athlete underwrote every check written to Livestrong. A similar non-profit fraud was perpetrated by the founder of the Central Asia Institute, and exposed in 2011 by both Sixty Minutes and John Krakauer (Three Cups of Deceit.) If we accept Lance Armstrong’s apology, the message it sends is that the ends justify the means.

In his famous Supreme Court opinion on obscenity, Justice Potter Stewart, who was being asked to define the difference between art photography and pornography admitted simply, “perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” Stripping and concert dance are not twins, and success and fraud are not twins either. Sometimes we over-complicate our judgments, and as Justice Stewart might agree, we risk sending a terrible message to youth when we do.