Beyond Diversity

Beyond Diversity

One of the most important things to happen in the arts world in the last couple of decades has been the focus on “Diversity” — the need for traditionally white arts organizations to recognize and welcome cultural contributions of non-white communities into their fold. This is a very important first step for white institutions and audiences, but it does little for artists of color, and even less for audiences of color.

How can that be? Doesn’t The Guthrie draw in new audiences by producing James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner? Aren’t young African-American singers inspired to pursue their passion by hearing Ladysmith Black Mombazo at the Ordway?

Well Good for Me.

Taking nothing away from these wonderful artistic experiences themselves, but the answer is no. These and so many other examples of “Cultural Diversity” in our “great institutions of art” are accompanied by panels and discussions and thoughtful writing about the importance of these works, but I would suggest that the purpose of all of that activity is for the benefit and edification of the majority audience.

I love Ladysmith Black Mombazo, have heard them in concert 3 or 4 times, including the iconic 1986 Paul Simon Graceland tour that also featured Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. It continues to be one of the highlights of my life. I took it upon myself to learn all about apartheid and South Africa because of the music, even raised my voice in protest. To this day, I listen to that record at least once every month or two, and have collected records by all of the other artists as well. Good for me! I get a nice pat on the back for being open to new artistic experiences, and learning more about the circumstances that brought the art into being.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but I would argue that kind of cultural diversity programming is a kind of colonialism, exoticism, or imperialism. Its intention is to “open the world” to an institution’s audience, allow us to applaud or even be challenged by artists that are new to us, but then go back to our homes feeling like we’ve accomplished something by expanding our sights. As I said above, though, that’s only a first step.

As I was writing this piece, an article called “Not Good Enough” came across my news feed.

Do yourself a favor, read it then come back here and finish my piece. It’s another version of what I am trying to say, and it took my breath away in a couple of places.

I really did write most of my piece before seeing hers, honest!

Next Steps

If the institution’s main goal is to introduce its traditional (read “white”) audiences to something new, then it continues to live within an exotic framework. Institutions must think differently if they truly want to serve artists and audiences of color. Not to say that audiences of color wouldn’t appreciate LBM or The Amen Corner, but the reasons for presenting those works and artists don’t put new audiences’ concerns first.

This is not something that is a good, liberal-minded thing to do either. This is truly an existential threat for arts organizations (and not in the No Exit meaning of the word). Demographics is destiny, and the demographic shifts we are seeing in the country and here in the state are not going to reverse themselves. So the 90% white (and white-haired) arts audiences of today will be replaced. The question is by what.

It’s Not Enough

The diverse programming we’re used to seeing is by no means enough to engage audiences of the new demographic. It is not enough to throw the doors open and say “All are welcome,” if nothing beyond the doors is actually welcoming to patrons who are unfamiliar with what goes on inside. The art forms that we present in these institutions—orchestral music, theater, dance, literature—have been defined and canonized from a Western/European perspective, and what is “good” is largely determined in comparison to the criticism and philosophy of centuries of Western/European society.

Opening up the arts to the new demographic is about recognizing that “good art” must come within its own context, and that it may not neatly fall within the constructs of current institutions. To survive and thrive in this century and beyond, arts organizations and the culture that has been built up around them need to move beyond “Cultural Diversity” and even beyond “Inclusion.” They have to turn to Listening, to Empowerment, and to Service.

My training is as a dramaturg (OK, how much more culturally determined a career is that??). I worked with playwrights who were honing their work, and the most important thing I could do was to listen to what they were saying they wanted to achieve before opening my mouth—even to ask a question. I learned early on that even a perfectly reasonable question asked at the wrong moment in the creative process can turn things in directions the artist would not have gone on their own. It’s the Schrödinger’s Cat effect—the act of observation changes it fundamentally. By listening, I was not imposing my vision of what their work should be, but empowering them to articulate what that vision was in ways that helped them let their work become more fully itself.

Ultimately, I believe that it is through this kind of service to artists that the path forward will be made. By serving artists first, I believe the new audiences will come—not just the white audiences looking for a dose of the exotic, but truly diverse audiences looking to have their lives, experiences and expressive selves included in the cultural conversation.

New News

Again, as I write this, the Guthrie Theater has just announced the hiring of Joseph Haj as its new Artistic Director. This is a wonderful choice that moves in the direction that I’m talking about. I’ll leave you with a quote from an interview he gave to HowlRound a couple of years ago:

So much of my work has been to make the walls porous, to make horizontal what had been a vertical relationship, and to become a meaningful part of the cultural life in the region. Too often, our theaters behave as though we are the master, the taste-makers. I really sought to re-calibrate that thinking, positioning us as the servant in our relationship to community, not the master. We’re not seeking to be prescriptive or pandering; we’re seeking to be relevant. Our first charge, among many, is to be important to our local community. – See more at: HowlRound

 Congratulations Mr. Haj! May your appointment help to push the entire field forward!

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