Black Orchestral Network Lays Out Plan For Meaningful Progress On Orchestral Inclusivity And Equity

The Black Orchestral Network (BON), a newly formed organization comprised of Black members from more than forty orchestras, announced Monday, May 9, 2022, as a Day of Solidarity.

The campaign has received early support from Gateways Music Festival and Working IDEAL along with community support from the Black Music Action Coalition. BON lays out their goals in an open letter to American orchestra’s stakeholders and right out of the gate, they get your attention.

“We are a community of Black orchestral artists. We grew up enmeshed in classical music, in our homes and families, through the nation’s band and orchestra programs, conservatories and schools of music, and as anchors, creators, and leaders in American orchestras. We love and care about the American orchestral community: from its history and roots, to how it is felt and experienced, to its sustained success and vibrant role in American life.

We are deeply concerned because the American orchestral community is not well.

The letter continues by clearly defining what BON identifies as the priorities for necessary change.

“Inequity, exclusion, and segregation are deeply entrenched in American orchestras. Barriers to Black participation in the American orchestral community were historically sanctioned and systematized through formal policy. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the American Federation of Musicians and its local chapters extended full membership to Black musicians.

Significant barriers persist today. Current norms, structures, and processes within the American orchestral community far too often constrain the ability for Black musicians and audiences to fully participate and to feel welcome and included.”

If the systemic inequality weren’t a large enough problem to solve, BON goes the next step that other similar efforts have avoided. In the true spirit of you can’t manage what you don’t measure, they identify the reason progress remains elusive is a choice by those in leadership positions within boards, executive management, and even musicians’ unions.

“There is stunning and persistent underrepresentation of Black musicians in American orchestras…because the great majority of American orchestras are not individually transparent with racial and ethnic data on their artists, we do not know the percentage of Black orchestral artists in our orchestras today.”

The letter also calls out some of the well-known, but rarely talked about, loopholes within one of the better-known efforts designed to improve equity: screened auditions.

“The most frequently cited innovation to increasing diversity in recent years, auditioning behind a screen, has rarely been fully blind or equitable. In our experience orchestras can and do go around these protocols designed to ensure fair opportunity, dropping the screen before final selections, or skipping pre-selected candidates straight to the finals.”

The letter concludes with clearly stated calls to action, each focused on specific stakeholder groups.

  1. Orchestras: through their Boards, management, musicians, and music directors, to hire Black musicians and support opportunities for emerging Black artists.
  2. Funders, both institutional and individual, invest in the long-term viability of organizations already committed to Black orchestral artistry and think big about the possibilities for American orchestras in our changing culture and society.
  3. Unions, particularly the American Federation of Musicians and related conferences (ICSOM, ROPA), to stand in solidarity with Black members by honoring the values of fair workplaces and addressing barriers to fair and equitable audition and tenure practices.

They invite supporters to sign a petition calling for equitable change for Black orchestral musicians. In full disclosure, I signed the petition last week after combing over everything at their website and doing some due diligence.

In a 5/2/2022 press statement, BON highlighted plans to roll out a coordinated communications and advocacy plan that will:

  • amplify the needs and perspectives of Black musicians and pressure the industry to center the Black experience (“lifting our voices”),
  • host a series of virtual community conversations for various sectors of their community (“cultivating community”), and
  • produce a podcast titled “Black Music Seen” that features Black orchestral musicians in their own voice (“telling our story”).

In tomorrow’s article, we’ll take an even deeper dive into BON with a Q&A clarinetist Alexander Laing, BON’s spokesperson and one of their founding board members. Our exchange takes an even deeper dive into details about how the organization plans on measuring progress across stakeholder groups and more.

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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