When It Comes To Diversity, Are We Just Churning Butter With A Toothpick?

I keep meaning to find time to write something on the topic of diversity and representation in response to an article on that subject by Anthony Tommasini in the 7/16/2020 edition of the New York Times.

In a nutshell, Tommasini attempts to support the conclusion that diversity on-stage can be improved if orchestras abandon screened auditions. It fails to stick a landing thanks in large part because screened auditions don’t have much, if any, influence on existing racial imbalance.

Just when I was ready to start writing something, Jeremy Reynolds authored his own response which was published in the 7/25/2020 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Compared to Tommasini’s article, Reynolds’ approaches the topic from a broader perspective and that content sent me back into thinking mode.

Both articles examine the notion of diversity hiring and at varying degrees, and while Reynold’s does not offer an option, Tommasini and some of the professionals interviewed in both pieces aren’t overly supportive of the idea.

On a positive note, they do focus on current efforts to tweak the system, such as programs like the National Alliance for Audition Support. Indeed, it is an excellent initiative, but it’s akin to churning butter with a toothpick if the goal is meaningful change.

What was most disheartening in the NYT and Post-Gazette posts was how quickly the notion of compliance driven diversity hiring was dismissed. Voices inside both articles offer a variety of viewpoints, not the least of which are misplaced concepts that it somehow creates a lesser standard to evaluate candidates or there aren’t enough candidates to fill positions.

As it turns out, we examined this very point in an article from 2018

Currently, if an orchestra holds an audition and fails to identify a suitable candidate, it’s a no-win result. The next step is to hold another audition. There are numerous instances where this process cycles for years before a candidate wins the audition.

Consequently, why would any orchestra stakeholder expect to use lower artistic standards when hiring minority musicians is a mystery. Yet that assumption is one of the most common responses I encounter.

Orchestras can still hold blind auditions and use the same artistic benchmarks. In short, absolutely nothing about the existing audition process would need to be modified to accommodate inclusion-based hiring.

If the prospect of taking five or more years to fill several vacancies is unpalatable, then that’s a terrific reason to take a more active role in helping to increase the numbers of high-quality minority candidates.

Simply put, compliance driven diversity hiring compels what the system currently lacks: meaningful involvement.

If the belief that qualified applicants are in short supply, current stakeholders will find a way to enact proactive change across every segment of the process that produces aspiring professional musicians.

If you don’t buy into the notion that quality minority applicants are maxed out, current efforts compliance driven diversity hiring will certainly maximize efforts from the National Alliance for Audition Support and simultaneously weed out any unconscious bias.

In the end, tossing out screened auditions won’t have much, if any, impact on improving representation and diversity. Audition support is an excellent initiative, but it is still attempting to catch up by going slower.

The good news is we don’t need to reinterpret the wheel. Other creative fields are already engaged in efforts to improve representation, like Inclusion Riders in the motion picture industry. If this field hopes to see meaningful change, it needs to look beyond long standing “no, because” attitudes.

To that end, these two articles continue to serve as a far better reply on this topic than attempting to find a new way to say the same thing.

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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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