The Key To Diversity Is Ownership

Over the last few weeks, there’s been an ongoing examination and discussion here at Adaptistration about some attitudes which are becoming all too common among the board membership and administrators in the orchestra industry; mainly the lack of diversity at the board level and the seemingly willful neglect of cultivating an ethnically diverse patron base.

Adaptistration reader and musician Jerome Harris recently sought out ideas from his fellow 1973 Harvard alumni regarding methods for orchestra outreach to minority groups. He received a number of excellent responses, one of which came from Anthony Cromwell Hill, a filmmaker and writer who lives on Martha’s Vineyard.  He keeps his hand in on mainland America as vice president of the board of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and has served as vice president of the Boston Lyric Opera.

If you’re a current orchestra board member or manager I strongly encourage you to take the time to read Anthony’s following comments, it’s more than worth your time (italicizing is the result of editorial liberty taken by me and were not included in Anthony’s original message I merely consider these passages to be key points in Anthony’s message and they are not intended to change the author’s intended meaning).

With respect both to building a racially diverse audience and establishing a diverse board, one must begin, I think, by recognizing two things.  First, they are decidedly distinct, if related, goals that can be achieved independently.  Second, though achieving one goal does not guarantee achieving the other, achieving either requires two of the following three things– a serious commitment on the part of the organization’s leadership, a true willingness to share “ownership” of the organization with members of the groups who are being recruited, and a good deal of real effort and imagination.

Boston has a decidedly mixed record in this area.  In the positive column, I would rate highly the collaboration between black parents and the BSO in the development of Project STEP, which has encouraged scores of young Afro-Americans to become serious students of stringed instruments in classical settings.  Another positive was the hiring of Isaiah Jackson as conductor of the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra.  Having an Afro-American as the maestro of the city’s second leading orchestra has been symbolically significant.

Moving to opera, I would note that Sarah Caldwell’s late and, in some ways, much lamented Opera Company of Boston was distinguished both by the prominence it gave to a number of black artists, Shirley Verrit, most conspicuously, and to the involvement of Afro-Americans as members of its board.  In the latter regard, OCB was years, if not decades ahead of the BSO, which still remains rather retrograde in placing blacks on either its board of directors or board of overseers.
I joined the board of the BLO 20 years ago, when the company was struggling to get out from under a $400K debt.  I was brought on board by an invitation from the family’s lawyer, who understood that I could offer a bit of at least two of the “3 W’s” non-profit boards seek from their members; wealth, wit and wisdom.  That lawyer, Brad Cook, also knew that I had a passion for musical theater that included but was not restricted to opera.

During the years I served on the BLO’s board, rising to become its vice-president, the company enjoyed a remarkable turnaround.  It not only got out of debt but ascended in stature to its current place as one of the country’s leading regional opera companies.  I was pleased to play a part in charting that renaissance, especially with respect to marketing and promotion.  Among the policies I encouraged was audience building efforts based on partnerships with a variety of community organizations.

These partnerships yielded grants to support programs such as enabling these community organizations to have their constituents attend BLO dress rehearsals at no cost and with free transportation to and from Boston’s theater district.  As a consequence, little old ladies from North Cambridge, black as well as white, were able to see matinee rehearsals of “Tosca,” and be home for dinner, singing praises of the performance of the Afro-American tenor who had played Cavaradosi and the Puerto-Rican born bass whose performance as Scarpia had chilled them to the bone.

It can be argued how much such outreach efforts really changed the composition of the BLO’s mainstage audience that season or even in the next five, but efforts such as these surely helped reposition the company, giving it a new cachet within the city’s cultural organizations.  This leads me to my key point with respect to increasing minority representation on the boards of institutions such as symphonies and opera companies.  Such companies need to develop a degree of cachet before they can hope to attract minority board members of any consequence.

Minority professionals, much like their white counterparts, are drawn to serve on the boards of cultural institutions in many cases for much the same reasons as are many whites: they see it as an opportunity to promote themselves by doing good in the right company.  By the time I left the vice-presidency of the BLO, it had surpassed the ballet as the cultural institution in this town that held that particular cachet and thus had the mojo to attract various minority trustees from the corporate world in particular as well as the upper reaches of government.

I would suggest that they would be better advised to network directly in their communities through the rosters of prominent local corporations, elected and appointed government officials, and leaders of eminent Afro-American civic, social and cultural groups.  The fruit is there for the picking, if only one is willing to extend a hand.

That said, extending a hand will involve more than simply raising an arm.  One will need also to be prepared to make the case that one’s organization is looking for more than the window-dressing of “a spook to stand by the door,” to invoke the image of that famous novel from the Sixties.  Rather, cultural organizations need be prepared to give “ownership” to minority communities in their programming and administration.

Significantly, in recent years, the BLO has retreated from some of the advances that were accomplished during and immediately after I was associated with the company.  As the BLO’s ambitions and budget rose, so did its dependence on a handful of large donors–all of whom happened to be white–and the doctrine of they who pay the piper call the tune, came to the fore, to the detriment of the company in a number of respects.  The Boston Ballet has recovered from the trials of its worst years, but has not been able to recover the mojo of its best.  Neither company seems to me to be as attractive as they were to black board members or Afro-American audiences, and both, apparently don’t count this as a great loss.

I won’t offer any of my own interpretations on Anthony’s remarks other than the key element of “ownership” he points out is already and issue orchestras struggle with. Learning to sincerely share the elements that comprise ownership among the many constituents of an orchestra is something that will have to start from the inside out.

What are your thoughts about this issue?  Are you a board member or manager who has and/or is struggling with these problems?  What does Anthony’s message say to you?  Expand the discussion by sharing your thoughts and observations and send in an email.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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