Friday, August 1, 2014

Who's missing from diversity arts dialogue

Bill Destler, RIT president
A few days ago, I volunteered at an intriguing symposium discussing diversity in the arts in Rochester, NY. My friend Rachel's 21st Century Arts organized this event. I had no role except running a wireless mike to audience members during Q&A sessions, and snapping a few photos.
Essie Calhoun-McDavid, retired Vice President, Kodak

Kevin McDonald, Associate Provost,
Division of Diversity, RIT
I've worked in diversity, higher education, community affairs, and public relations for some time. Every so often, I found ways to bring two or more of these areas together. The arts need more diversity, and the companies and individuals who fund these organizations can help bring more diverse artists into the picture.

With these modest qualifications, I made a few observations:

  • While many executives from arts organizations (museums, dance companies, art galleries, theatres, etc) attended the symposium, just two individuals with corporate giving expertise took part. One, a foundation president, was an audience member; the other is retired from her corporate role. The absence of business executives who help fund arts programs was apparent.

  • All attendees agreed that new pathways to financing arts organizations must be trailblazed. Missing from this conversation? Elected leaders. Why do they matter? Because even if they can't tap taxpayer dollars for arts initiatives, they can bring together arts organizations and corporate partners. No elected officials took part in this symposium.
  • Colleges and universities have a role to play in growing diversity in the arts. I applaud Bill Destler, president of Rochester Institute of Technology, and RIT Associate Provost and Diversity Officer Kevin McDonald for hosting the symposium, as well as delivering opening remarks. Other colleges in the region (and there are many) weren't represented.
My take-away? You can advocate and brainstorm ways to increase diverse representation in the performing arts, fine arts, and museums. But enacting meaningful reform calls for the participation of genuine influencers who can bring actual funding to the dialogue.

We need visible buy-in from business leaders and government. If they can't bring cash, they can help connect arts organizations with potential funders in their circles of acquaintances.

Sidebar: Rochester (NY)'s mayor is touting the town as a "City of the Arts." That's a good way to begin to change perceptions. But she and her colleagues need to bring business executives and others together to help make this more than a slogan.