This article came across my Twitter stream this afternoon and immediately piqued my interest. On the surface, a city like Portland linking funding for arts organizations to racial diversification of their boards, staff, contractors, and eventually audience sounds like an innovative and progressive idea. Diversification of voices around the table is a good thing and we should all invite a variety of voices to the conversation. However, linking vital public funding to blanket benchmarks can’t be healthy. While I understand this policy is still in its infancy and “years from completion,” the information covered in the article is plenty to make me wary.
Here are some of my concerns:
- Arts organizations, their missions and their audiences, are as diverse as the city itself. Suggesting that every organization should be striving for the same benchmarks goes against the very reason they are distinct organizations in the first place.
- What about organizations that are not producing work that speaks to a large and diverse audience? We, as an industry, have decried funders dictating programming for decades. Is it OK here because diversity for diversity’s sake is seen as a good end result? There should be room in a vibrant arts ecosystem for niche companies and each of those will serve a different audience. You can’t force an audience to be interested in a type of programming and you shouldn’t force an organization serving a distinct audience to turn from its mission in order to secure public funds.
- Requiring a certain level of spending (30% of their budget is the “ideal” mentioned in the article) on communities of color is misguided. How would this play out?
- Do the Mayor and City Commissioners understand that each dollar an arts organization spends is already stretched to the limit and that few companies can simply divert funds in this way?
- Does this mean a forced quota for staff, artists, and contractors? What happened to allowing companies to hire the best person for the job, regardless of ethnicity?
- Throwing marketing money at underserved communities may be the antithesis of actual engagement of these communities
- Why just enforce ethnic diversity? I’m willing to bet that there isn’t a direct correlation between the gender split of the staff and boards of Portland’s arts organizations and the population of the city as a whole. What about gay voices at the table? The disabled community? Religious beliefs? Socio-economic status? Diversity comes in all shapes and sizes and each organization daily contends with reaching out to those audiences who could be interested in their work.
Instead of making arts organizations jump through ever more hoops to reach benchmarks unrelated to their mission, how about some of these ideas:
- Rewarding organizations for diving deep into the communities to which a company’s programming speaks?
- Judge an organization on their dedication to fulfilling their mission and the steps they take to engage and broaden their audience in ways that make sense for them?
- Celebrate diversity in all its forms within the arts community
I applaud the Portland city leadership for looking for ways to encourage diversity. I just fear they are heading down a path that will be detrimental for all involved. As always, I’d love to know what you think. Please continue this conversation in the comments below.