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Michael Kaiser

Michael Kaiser

Posted: October 26, 2009 08:15 AM

Questions on Diversity

What's Your Reaction?

I have been spending a great deal of time thinking about the issue of diversity in the arts, specifically, the drive to diversify the programming and constituents of all arts organizations.

The more I consider this thorny issue, the less I am convinced that the arts world has worked hard enough to dissect the true costs, benefits and implications of recent diversity efforts.

Over the past 30 years, we were encouraged, primarily by foundation and government agencies, to become more diverse in every respect: we were asked to do works by minority artists, to bring diverse audiences to our theaters, and to diversify our staffs and boards. To justify funding, the argument went, we had to demonstrate our commitment to our entire community.

Having spent a great deal of my career working with arts organizations of color, I am as committed as anyone to the diversity of our arts ecology. I do not believe that we can have a truly great artistic community if all segments of our society are not represented well.

But I do not think I believe anymore in forcing Eurocentric arts organizations to do diverse works or to put one minority on a board.

When large, white organizations produce minority works they typically select the "low hanging fruit," the most popular works by diverse artists featuring the most famous minority performers and directors. This almost invariably hurts the minority arts organizations in the neighborhood, most of which are small and underfunded, and cannot afford to match the marketing clout or the casting glamor of their larger white counterparts. How else to explain the reduced strength of American black theater companies over the past twenty years?

And when a single minority is placed on a board with no responsibility other than to represent a race, it does nothing to change the true mission, or audience base, of the organization. More is required. The Kennedy Center's Community Advisory Board, for example, is a non-fiduciary board that works actively to reach communities not adequately served by the Center.

My work has focused on teaching leaders of diverse arts organizations to find the resources needed to be strong advocates for and producers of the work of their communities. Arts organizations of color have been overly reliant on grants from foundations and government agencies, thereby limiting their size. We need to build the board strength of these vital groups and work with them to build individual donor bases that match their white counterparts. This is what the Alvin Ailey organization has done so brilliantly.

I would prefer to see great African American, Asian American, Latino and Native American arts organizations whose excellent work complements the excellent work of the large white groups. And when a predominantly white organization does a major work by a minority artist, I would love to see it done in collaboration with an arts organization of color. When the Kennedy Center produced the entire August Wilson cycle, for example, we worked with Kenny Leon of True Colors Theatre Company.

I am not certain I am right. We need more discussion.