Creating a Culture of Diversity: Can the Arts Lead the Way?

Image Credit: Hachette Book Group

I recently read an interesting article in Time Magazine, written by award-winning journalist and author Pamela Newkirk titled “The Diversity Business is Booming. So, What Are the Results?” You may be surprised to learn that since the election of Trump, the diversity industry has exploded. However, as Ms. Newkirk notes in the article and in her book, Diversity, Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion Dollar Industry, the billions of dollars being spent on diversity-related jobs and initiatives are not translating into concrete change.

Consider these statistics quoted in the article:

People of color–who make up nearly 40% of the U.S. population–remain acutely underrepresented in most influential fields. From 2009 to 2018 the percentage of black law partners inched up from 1.7% to 1.8%. From 1985 to 2016, the proportion of black men in management at U.S. companies with 100 or more employees barely budged–from 3% to 3.2%. People of color held about 16% of Fortune 500 board seats in 2018. A 2018 survey of the 15 largest public fashion and apparel companies found that nonwhites held only 11% of board seats and that nearly three-quarters of company CEOs were white men. And in the top 200 film releases of 2017, minorities accounted for 7.8% of writers, 12.6% of directors and 19.8% of lead roles.

A look at higher education–where, in fall 2017, 81% of full-time professors at degree-granting postsecondary schools were white while just 3% were Hispanic and 4% were black….

At the same time, many whites are now claiming disenfranchisement. Citing a 2017 NPR poll, Ms. Newkirk notes that 55% of surveyed white Americans believe they are being discriminated against, although few can cite actual experiences of discrimination.

This is all thought-provoking, sobering and disturbing news. How did we get to a point where, as Ms. Newkirk writes, diversity has become such a catch-all that we have lost the focus of the original intention and goals of diversity and affirmative action programs—equal rights, a level playing field and anti-discriminatory efforts?

We can point our fingers at the White House; the resurgence of white nationalism; the flagrant disregard of women’s rights, or blatant homophobia. But finger-pointing won’t change the situation. We not only need a broader vision for 2020, we need aggressive action led by people committed to making change a reality. Can the arts lead the way?

Before Equality, Diversity and Inclusion became an umbrella term in the arts, I talked about the importance of building a culture of diversity. What does that look like? In my forthcoming book, Champions of the Arts: Lessons and Successful Strategies for Engaging Diverse Audiences, I outline key principles of building a culture of diversity, which include the recognition that no one culture is intrinsically superior to another; the need for understanding and appreciating the interdependence of humanity, cultures and the natural environment, as well as the importance of building alliances across differences so that we can work together to eradicate all forms of discrimination.

Most important, the responsibility for creating a culture of diversity belongs to everyone—not just the person with the job title. As a matter of fact, I always say that the President, Executive Director or Chief Executive Officer is the real Chief Diversity Officer. Of course, you also need dedicated staff and the financial resources to ensure that everyone assumes responsibility for this important work at all levels, from programming and partnerships to the staff and the board.

It requires courage to hire someone different from you; someone with whom you are unaccustomed with working. It takes bravery to challenge your staff’s or board’s conventional wisdom and take a risk to invest in the future of someone who is unknown to you, but also the future of the nation. “Other” is a construct of racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, etc. It’s a construct of fear, ignorance and insecurity; it is often fueled by the variety of exploitative and violent mediums that perpetuate it—from television, film and videos to social media and daily news reports.

The arts have traditionally been the only platform seeking to deconstruct barriers and celebrate the breadth and depth of humanity in all of its complex forms; even art we don’t like or appreciate. That’s why, it’s imperative that arts organizations and cultural institutions are on the frontlines leading the battle for a new cultural vision; a culture of diversity.

The breadth and scope of an organization’s vision and its ability to articulate or manifest that vision is not bound by the size of the organization. Rather, it is bound by the size of its conviction. Without the concerted efforts of the executive leadership, including the Board of Directors, to ensure that the senior and executive-level staff are diverse, the success of the organization is limited. Arts and cultural organizations utilizing the resources of a diverse staff not only are committed to engaging in developing a culture of diversity, their programming and audience responsiveness also reflect it.

Ms. Newkirk concludes her article by writing, “change will require resources and resolve, but no amount of money will succeed alongside a willful negation of our shared humanity.” I agree. What do you think? Please share your comments below or send me an email:

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