At the Feet of the New Out-of-the-box thinking is the first step (diversity 1)

by Aaron Dworkin, Founder and Executive Director, The Sphinx Organization


Though I don't work for an orchestra, I think I understand one of the basic tenets by which they are run: A big audience is good, and a smaller audience is bad. A big audience means more ticket revenues, more prospective donors, more money for more and better musicians, more resources to do more programming--in the end, a better orchestra. A smaller audience means less of all that. Here's another basic fact: Most urban centers, where our leading orchestras are located, are already majority "minority," or will be soon. So with orchestras deriving, on average, more than a third of their budgets from ticket sales, I would suggest that moving away from an audience that is largely homogeneous in terms of age and race towards one that more closely reflects the population of America--or, more specifically, the region in which a given orchestra is located--should be a top financial priority for any orchestra, from the standpoint of ticket revenues and a broader donor base. With more than one-third of all Americans belonging to a "minority" group, it is increasingly difficult to be successful without incorporating diversity in your overall organization. Public funding is one area that could manifest this reality quite soon: No matter how small a proportion of your budget it may represent, eventually there will be a public outcry if your organization lacks appeal to a diverse audience, and that public funding may be cut. Or your orchestra may face some difficult decisions in situations where you won't be given adequate time to implement diversity policies fully among your orchestra's musicians, board, and staff. (Some orchestras have already faced such situations.)

Then there's the artistic environment of the orchestra. As the conductor shapes the unified sound of the orchestra, he or she transmits to the audience not only the artistry of the composition but also the feedback from the musicians themselves. If a conductor rehearses and performs a given piece with a "non-diverse" orchestra, and then rehearses and performs the same piece with a diverse orchestra, the result will be a completely different artistic product--one that I would argue is superior, because the scope of the artistic input that went into its creation is so much greater. Classical music is an art form that thrives on new interpretations and cultural influences. Currently, it is thirsting for new oases from which to sustain its artistic vibrancy. The supply of musicians exists, as The Sphinx Organization has learned through direct experience, to attain diversity without any sacrifice of quality. The challenge is to achieve it.

A Baseline for Progress

I'm an optimist, and I like to look forward more than to focus on the past or present. But it's necessary to define our starting point if we are to understand how much commitment it will take to achieve the goal of diversity onstage.

We all know that orchestra membership does not reflect the nation's population. Among American orchestras responding to the American Symphony Orchestra League's annual survey of its orchestra membership, nearly 90 percent of the players are white, three percent are African-American or Latino, and most of the remaining seven percent are Asian. Compare this to the overall population, of which 25 percent are black or Latino and five percent are Asian. Among music directors and conductors--the key figures in terms of the artistic mission and drive of the orchestra--2.3 percent are black, 1.5 percent Latino; almost 90 percent are white. Among executive directors, who shape the overall direction of the orchestra, fewer than one-half percent are African-American, and fewer than one percent are Latino. Among artistic administrators--who make influential decisions about guest conductors and repertoire--zero percent are African Americans or Latinos. Moving on to education and community relations, where you'd expect the heaviest representation, blacks and Latinos still fall woefully short, with a combined figure of only six percent.

Let's look at repertoire. The League's annual Orchestra Repertoire Report is based on analysis of nearly 9,600 performances of individual compositions in 3,400 concerts by the 100 largest orchestras in the United States and Canada. Of the ten composers whose works were scheduled most often for the current season, there are, expectedly, no minorities. And if we look at the top-ten most frequently performed American composers, there are still no minorities. Given that African Americans and Latinos, combined, account for a quarter of the overall U.S. population--and a much higher percentage in most of the cities in which major orchestras are based--if we strove for a statistical representation, about 700 of the season's concerts would include a work by a black or Latino composer. If just one percent of works performed by orchestras were by black or Latino composers, the total would be 96. So far, we have been unable to attain even this much.

Given this climate as a starting point, one of the most important things orchestras can do in the immediate term is create an environment that is visibly more inviting for minorities. As an African-American violinist, I can tell you that, on the whole, orchestras seem like uninviting, intimidating, unfriendly, scary places to minority musicians--and that doesn't even begin to describe playing before an audition committee. To these outside parties, orchestras appear to be all-white, conservative institutions filled with condescending people over the age of 40 wearing tails, playing for even more conservative audiences filled with even more condescending people over age 50 wearing suits. If this seems incredible to you, think about how classical musicians and their audiences are stereotypically portrayed in movies and the media.

Let me draw an analogy that may help to explain why it can be difficult to attract minority musicians to orchestra auditions. Several years ago, the State of California passed Proposition 209, which was lauded by then-Governor Pete Wilson as an opportunity to create the nation's first color-blind society by rolling back affirmative action policies at California's universities. In the first year alone, the number of African-American and Latino applicants to state medical schools plummeted by 22 percent. The number of admissions at U.C.-Berkeley's Law School dropped by 80 percent for black students and 50 percent for Latinos.

The perception, in just one year, that these institutions were no longer welcoming of diversity--as a result of their "color-blind" mandate--had a devastating impact on students who otherwise might have considered applying to, and might actually have attended, these fine schools. Imagine what the legacy of decades of exclusion (both of racial minorities and women) and then "color-blind" (i.e. screened) auditions have had on the impressions of potential minority members of your orchestras. Creating an environment that visibly invites diversity will be critical to achieving diversity on stage. This process will require thinking outside the box--and acting outside it as well.

Here's a controversial example: I believe that screened auditions should be rethought. It's not my intent to cause a great uproar; I only use this as an example of the extent to which I believe structural changes must be made if, ultimately, diversity is to be achieved. Orchestral music is more than the sum of its notes. Basing the composition of the orchestra solely upon the performance of audition excerpts, without incorporating other aspects of the musician, limits the ability of an orchestra to deliver the best artistic result. Although the purpose behind the screens was logical at the time they were implemented, I'd suggest that their negative impact now outweighs the positive benefits. As a preliminary step, perhaps orchestras could move towards including race as a criterion during their audition process. Other industries across the board--including Fortune 500 companies and universities--recognize the importance of such changes, and have been working to implement them for years. It is time for the orchestra industry to wage that battle as well.

Another strategy that may raise some eyebrows--one that, like removing audition screens, would require extensive negotiations to become a reality--is to consider rethinking tenure policies. As with screens, the motivation behind tenure is laudable. As currently implemented, though, it ultimately limits orchestras to hiring a mere handful of new musicians each year. I know this number varies greatly depending on the size and structure of the orchestra, but for the sake of this discussion, two is probably a fair average. Now, let's say, hypothetically, that your orchestra decides to institute an absurd, aggressive policy that no one should adopt: that 50 percent of all new hires will be African-American or Latino. Even assuming an orchestra takes this unrealistic posture, it would take more than 20 years just to reach a point where the orchestra minority representation accurately reflects that in the overall population, let alone the minority population in any major urban center.

I use this example to encourage you to look realistically at the time frame you will be working in with a sensible diversity policy if your total new hires are limited by tenure. Remember, this is in that category of "Thinking and Acting Outside the Box." As a musician myself, I understand and support the purpose behind tenure, which is why I encourage orchestras to consider the myriad of ways in which it can be modified--not eliminated. An orchestra might institute post-tenure performance reviews, or offer new hires alternatives to tenure that provide them with a higher pay scale, or explore even more creative personnel strategies that could involve more musicians in the orchestra's programming while meeting its current human resource commitments.

Of course this is in addition to the obvious work that orchestras, like all organizations, should be doing to set diversity goals for their staffs and boards. And it is important that all these goals spring not from an "affirmative action" premise, but from a definition by each organization of what it should look like. Such changes should not be approached as "welcoming people to the team." Instead, an organization that implements these changes is purposefully creating a new team that reflects diversity.

Envisioning the Future
Any orchestra whose membership and programming does not reflect the community will be hard-pressed to build interest among an audience where there is no precedent for it. But in major cities with large minority populations, if the orchestras reflected that population, I could envision the orchestras' audiences becoming as diverse as their membership.

Another step is to change the way orchestra concerts are marketed. Subscription programming materials should express a commitment to diversity. I recently did an informal study of 60 orchestra season brochures, only five of which had an African American or a Latino on the cover. Of those five, one was specifically for a jazz series; one was specifically for a pops series with black guest performers. So that left three, or five percent of the total. Of those three, two had African-American music directors, which greatly influenced the decision to have an African American on the cover. That left just one orchestra that made an independent marketing decision to include minorities on its cover. The brochure in question had twelve people on its cover, of whom three were black or Latino, and I congratulate that orchestra on its population-representative, 25-percent-minority marketing effort.

But think again of the 55 brochures with no minority representation. Would for-profit companies market their products this way to the black and Latino communities? Look on the newsstand at magazines that are targeted toward minority communities. The Target ad in a Latino magazine and the Target ad in a black magazine sell the same store and the same products as the Target ad in a general-interest magazine. They just look different, and their copy may be phrased differently. Even Target's general-interest magazine ad wouldn't leave minorities out entirely. Target wants to appeal to all potential customers, and so should orchestras.

It's quite possible to put together specific marketing materials to engage minority communities. It doesn't change the artistic product that orchestras present. But at the same time, it's important to keep working at diversity in programming and orchestra membership. It doesn't matter how many people you get in the door for the first time; if the welcoming message isn't backed up once they arrive, they won't come back.

Here's one last example of "thinking and acting outside the box." Many orchestras want to improve their existing hall, or build a new one. What might be possible for an orchestra if the multi-million-dollar fund raising for such an effort were redirected towards the orchestra's diversity efforts, and the majority of its concerts were in community venues? Would your orchestra ever conduct a major endowment campaign to endow its ability to perform for the full spectrum of the community? Why not? What if the doors to your concerts weren't just open to all, they were welcomed by all; and no one would ask you, "Where is your community engagement programming?" but rather, "How do I get tickets to your subscription series?"

Now, I could make many more suggestions. I've certainly raised a lot of questions and maybe even a little cynicism ("Easy for him to say" ... "I've been trying" ... "No matter what we've tried, we just can't find good minority talent or interested minority audiences"). I encourage you to begin the process, even though actual change seems incremental, and make use of the appropriate resources and partners along the way. [See "Paths to Diversity," page 41.] Orchestras do not need to travel this road alone.

One of Sherlock Holmes's famous comments to Dr. Watson was, "Take all of the facts into account, Dr. Watson. Whatever you are left with, no matter how improbable, is the truth." We know for a fact, especially since the Sphinx Competition and the Sphinx Symphony have increasingly brought them to the fore, that there is currently a pool of highly talented minority musicians. We know for a fact, from Sphinx's programs and from special orchestral concert programs, that diverse audiences will attend concerts. And we know for a fact that there are volumes of high-quality repertoire written by minority composers. Taking these facts into account, we are left only with the actions taken by orchestra boards, administrators, and musicians to develop and implement an appropriate plan to interconnect these realities. My hope is that I have been able to suggest, with these brief gestures, a trajectory that may ultimately lead us all to the "feet of the new."