Revisiting and Celebrating a Legacy of Diversity and Excellence: A conversation with Arthur Mitchell and Darren Walker

Taken with Iphone

As I’m sure you’ve already heard, Arthur Mitchell, who helped break the “color wall” in classical ballet and founded the Dance Theater of Harlem, died on September 19, 2018. Mr. Mitchell danced with the New York City Ballet from 1956 to 1968 and, according to the New York Times’ obituary, “displayed a dazzling presence, superlative artistry and powerful sense of self.” I am so grateful that I got to see  Mr. Mitchell a week before his transition, as he directed members of the DTH company as they rehearsed some of his early, choreographed works.

Like all of us touched by Mr. Mitchell’s life, artistry, as well as his work with DTH, I am deeply saddened by his unexpected death. But I’m also tremendously grateful for the 36 years I spent experiencing this larger-than-life artist and mentor, who pointed me in the direction of launching a career developing multicultural audiences. The pioneering work I was able to do, along with all of the accomplishments and recognition, are a direct result of one question Mr. Mitchell asked when I worked for DTH as its marketing director and was on tour with the company. Looking out at the audience, he asked me: “Where are the Black people?” Consequently, I have devoted my life to responding to that question through concrete action—the development and launching of programs; the cultivation of staff; writing articles and a book; teaching, leading workshops and giving lectures on this singular topic. I believe the seeds that Mr. Mitchell planted at that moment have pried open many doors to the arts and cultural experiences for people of color around the world.

In honor of Mr. Mitchell’s life, I thought it would be a fitting tribute to re-post the blog that documented a rich conversation I moderated, at Mr. Mitchell’s request, between him and Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation last April. The conversation covered highlights of Mr. Mitchell’s illustrious career. However, what I am most happy about is the fortuitous insight Mr. Walker shared about the Ford Foundation’s decision to preserve the legacy and impact of Mr. Mitchell’s contributions to the arts for future generations.

Thank you, Arthur Mitchell. I salute you as you take your bow on your tour throughout the eternal universe.

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A few weeks ago, I had the honor of moderating a conversation sponsored by 92nd Street Y in New York between two giants of the arts and of philanthropy: Arthur Mitchell, Dance Theater of Harlem co-founder and the first African-American principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, and Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation. The purpose of the discussion was to reflect on Mr. Mitchell’s lifelong commitment to diversity, social justice and excellence in dance. But we also discussed the importance of equity, diversity and inclusion in the arts, as well as the challenges facing today’s arts community.

Mr. Mitchell, who is 84 years-old, offers a broad perspective based on more than six decades of experience as a performing artist. And Mr. Walker, who has been the head of the Ford Foundation since 2013, shared a perspective about philanthropy that gave me and the audience quite a bit to think about. The following is excerpts from our conversation before a live, noontime audience, which included high school students.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: Mr. Mitchell, you are a legend. You developed a company of dancers in the face of the civil rights movement and following the assassination of Dr. King. What are some of the historic challenges to diversity and inclusion facing the arts, specifically in dance?

 Mr. Mitchell: Everyone is talking about diversity. But very few people know what it means. So consequently, it’s not just diversity in skin color but it’s in the dance itself—using all the different styles—from classical ballet, to modern, to jazz; ethnic and tap—all of that comes together to make the arts that exist today. Years ago, when I started dancing, you were either a jazz dancer, a modern dancer, a tap dancer. Now you’ve got to be a good dancer and dance all of the styles. That’s what makes the American dancer so unique in comparison to the European or South American, and even Asian dancer. It’s that surviving, you have to be able to embrace all styles. You even have to sing. You’ve got to talk. You’ve got to do everything now because the audiences want much, much more than it used to be.

Mr. Walker: I think diversity, for me, is about excellence. I think regrettably, diversity was framed by some and continues to be framed in a way that suggests that diversity correlates with a loss of quality. And actually, what the research shows, the empirical evidence s is that diversity makes organizations better. The more diverse organizations by empirical indicators are, the more excellent they are at whatever their mission—whether it is IBM, the Ford Foundation, or a ballet company. I actually don’t talk about diversity without talking about excellence. Diversity is a contributor to excellence. There are many components of excellence depending on the mission of an organization. Having said that, I do think that dance, and maybe because I was for a number of years trustee of City Ballet, and I have believed and I continue to believe certainly for the discipline of classical ballet, which I love, that we suffer in that discipline, just as we suffer in our society at-large in America from the legacy of white supremacy and the white hierarchy that puts at the top of the pyramid whiteness as the ideal. And that unfortunately contributes to an inability to see excellence in all of its forms and colors. And because a company like City Ballet and the tradition of (George) Balanchine and the European perspective continues to inform ballet, we have not been able to fully realize the potential of the ballet. Fortunately, Mr. Mitchell, when he formed his company nearly 50 years ago, recognized that by creating the great Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) that there could be an excellent company composed primarily of black- and brown-skinned people. And it has produced a remarkable and extraordinary legacy of excellence and a global brand, in part because you proved a company could be built. And you demonstrated the potential of particularly American perspective–Balanchine through the lens of an African-American man with a commitment to his community and his commitment to excellence. And that’s what DTH has stood for all of these years.

Donna: Mr. Walker, you lead one of the country’s most important foundations. You said not too long ago that Ford Foundation was going to direct all of its money and influence into curbing financial, racial, gender and other inequities and that would be the main focus. You called this social justice infrastructure, reminiscent of how you used to fund nonprofits in the Civil Rights era. What strategic efforts have you undertaken to develop more diversity in the arts?


 Mr. Walker: The challenge for our era, among many challenges, is growing inequality. And I believe for a foundation like the Ford Foundation, we were inspired by Dr. King’s words and what he stood for. In 1968, Dr. King gave a talk to a group of prominent philanthropists and what he said at the time was: “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” And what he was saying to that audience was that philanthropy ought not be about charity or about generosity. Philanthropy’s ultimate pursuit ought to be justice. The transition from traditional philanthropy—the Carnegie, the New Gospel of Wealth, Rockefeller, Ford—of charity and generosity to justice is a very difficult one to make for a traditional philanthropist. Because justice makes we privileged people uncomfortable; because it requires of us to interrogate the very systems and structures that produce our privilege, And it’s really hard to do that. I’ve been poor and lived with no privilege and I’ve been well-off and lived with a lot of privilege. And it’s fun to live with privilege….but most people in this country don’t live with privilege. As a foundation, our job, if we’re committed to justice, is to lift up that reality; the way most people in this country and the world live. And that requires us as a foundation to get uncomfortable; to interrogate our own practices and our own rhetoric and where we fall short…So the notion for all of us as a foundation to get more proximate is something I deeply believe in, but it’s hard to do.

Mr. Mitchell: We keep talking about the art form, but it’s the funders of the art form that are also important. You need that diversity in the board of directors; you need it in the people that are giving the money; the people that work for the foundations; the school teachers, everyone. It must be diverse so people, when they’re talking about a certain culture, they’ve been through it. They know what it is—not just the performance, but the actuality of making it happen. We all want to be a part of the community, but if we don’t know how the community came about, and the people in the community, then nothing will happen.

 Donna: Mr. Mitchell, you’ve travelled all over the world. What have you experienced in the world of developing more diverse audiences.

Mr. Mitchell: You have to go into the community and find out what it is they want and what they need. People talk about the community; and like Darren says, it must be quality. Excellence. It’s like the Olympics. Every country in the world will complete, but only three people will walk away with medals – one gold, one silver and one bronze. That doesn’t mean you stop trying to achieve that gold. You just keep working, and working, and working, and working. I look at these young people…they’re opening up their horizons. Don’t be classical. Be classic. When you’re classic then you’re unique. And everyone can relate to it.

Donna: Arts sponsorship: How do you make sure that it includes diversity? Who gets funded and who doesn’t? Has there been any changes in that trajectory?

Mr. Walker: I think what is really amazing about New York is that when we talk about diversity the reality it has been the patronage of prominent, white lovers of great art that has made it possible for organizations like DTH to do the work that they do. Remember, (Mr. Mitchell) and Alvin Ailey were the only ones. Revelations premiered at the 92nd Street Y in 1958 or 1959. It was an amazing thing that this institution would promote an African American in the late 1950s to start his own dance company. There were people (Mr. Mitchell) knew downtown…who immediately came to support to help sustain DTH. So, the great thing about this city is that you have people who are passionate about dance and the arts and they really do give generously to make it possible.

The question I think about when I think about sponsorship is, “What are the newly, wealthy billionaires that we’re seeing—what are they doing for the arts?” That’s what I worry about. I worry about that when I got out to Silicon Valley and I talk to them about their philanthropy and the arts isn’t it. When they do philanthropy, it’s through the lens of technology or of creating some app that will do something for an nonprofit. I think we’ve got to ensure that more humanities, more arts are in the curriculums of schools like Stanford and MIT, who are turning out all of these guys and gals who are creating all these unicorns. Because the arts are what make it possible for us to be empathetic. Our empathy comes from our understanding of our humanity and that is not something that just happens. We learn and we’re provided an experience. In my capacity, I want to encourage more young people, more young philanthropists, to give to the arts and understand how central the arts are. Without the arts, we won’t have empathy and without empathy, we won’t have justice.

Mr. Mitchell: Darren has added an artist to the board of directors of the Ford Foundation so they cannot just look at it, but they can talk about it with someone who has gone through it. Throughout history, it has been culture and arts that have made society great. What makes America great is the arts; the life of the arts; the vibrancy of the arts and that’s key.

Donna; We’re approaching 50 years for the Dance Theatre of Harlem. How important is it to preserve and continue this legacy?

Mr. Walker: I think it’s important that Mr. Mitchell’s legacy be documented and be preserved for future generations. As we think about the American narrative, it is a rich and vibrant and exciting narrative. It’s one of the reasons that I love this country. I love the unique confluence and contradictions of our culture and our national identity. Unfortunately, we have not captured the fullness of American history, and the narratives have not been fully transcribed for history. So it’s really important that those people, like Mr. Mitchell, important that Mr. Mitchell, Alvin Ailey, and August Wilson, and so many people of color, and of women and other people who traditionally were left out of the narrative. From the foundation’s perspective, we are prioritizing those narratives because we should not assume there will be the resources. Therefore, we have to prioritize. In the case of Mr. Mitchell, he has such a rich trove of artifacts and materials from his rich and unconventional life, and all of that is of preserving; all of that is history. So at Ford, we do our part to support history makers like Mr. Mitchell, whose story and creation in the form of DTH will live on well beyond his, and my and your lifetime.

Donna: I love Mr. Walker’s points about excellence in diversity, as well as philanthropy addressing social justice.  The notion that without a diversity your organization or business or institution is not operating at its best level; that the excellence in the work is a byproduct of diversity. He also shared another important point for the next generation of philanthropists—we have to ensure that the arts are a centerpiece of their giving, which is also critical. I agree with him that without the arts it’s very difficult to retain our humanity. Mr. Mitchell reminds us that arts are the fabric of our nation’s greatness, and without them, we loss our vibrancy. But he adds, it’s important that the arts be reflective of the community’s wants and needs, in order for the arts organization to thrive.

I am honored to have had the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with these two giants of the philanthropic and arts community, whose works continue to inspire and empower people worldwide.