Leadership and Financial Power Expand Access to the Arts

Photo Credit: Ford Foundation

You may recall the Arts and Culture Connections blog last year about the honor and privilege I had to moderate a discussion at the 92nd Street Y with the phenomenal Ford Foundation President Darren Walker and the amazing co-founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem, the late Arthur Mitchell. When I read the recent profile of Mr. Walker in the New York Times, which was titled “Man with the $13 Billion Checkbook,” it was a reminder of Mr. Walker’s trailblazing efforts to leverage philanthropy to advance social justice and promote diversity, equity and inclusion. Several thoughts also came to mind.

To expand our efforts to create access to the arts, we need leadership and financial power. Mr. Walker embodies that understanding more than anyone I know. Not only has he navigated a brilliant career for himself – from corporate law to finance to philanthropy—he utilizes every opportunity to help build bridges for others. In the article, he was described as “the connector” and “intersectional.” Mr. Walker fully utilizes each encounter and opportunity to bring his whole self to the table in order to create pathways of inclusion and openings for those historically left behind. And not only does he feel compassion, he can write a check to make a difference. That’s the power we need to leverage and expand in order to create access for everyone to arts organizations and cultural institutions.

In the interview with me last year, Mr. Walker said: “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 is that diversity makes organizations better. The more diverse organizations by empirical indicators are, the more excellent they are at whatever their mission…. I actually don’t talk about diversity without talking about excellence. Diversity is a contributor to excellence.”

I recently was talking with a colleague who said the next wave of diversity. equity and inclusion will be people of color managing the financial investments of patrons to the arts. Added to that, I believe, is their becoming heads of foundations and institutions that give money. There are three women of color in leadership roles that come to mind which includes Elizabeth Alexander, President at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; Maurine Knighton, Program Director for the Arts at the Doris Duke Foundation, and Sharnita C. Johnson, Program Director for the Arts, at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. These women have demonstrated a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion; they work to create opportunities for more people to have access to the arts, as well as provide people more access to funding.

Leadership and financial power—it’s imperative that this expansion continue. I believe as Artmakers and Change Agents of the 21st century, we must take 100-percent responsibility and commit to what Darren Walker describes as “Diversity is a contributor to excellence” in our offerings and in the executive suites. For the arts to fulfill its mission, and extend an invitation to everyone, there can be no less.