We Need Diversity in the Arts

By Georgia Schoonmaker


This past July, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city will begin working to increase staff and board diversity in its museums and arts programs by linking these efforts to their funding. Many cultural groups, including our most famous and well-regarded institutions – The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, Lincoln Center, and Carnegie Hall – are run by boards and senior staff severely lacking in diversity, and do not reflect the population of the city. The statistics cited by Mayor de Blasio state that only 26% of senior staff members at NYC cultural organizations are people of color. While the mayor’s efforts are a step in the right direction, there is much more work to be done – specifically, ensuring people of color are provided the education and opportunities they need to find their way into these careers.

Marq Mervin, a freelance graphic designer who has worked in film and the private sector, spoke on this issue in his December 2016 TEDx Talk. As an African-American attending college in Florida, he majored in computer animation with the goal of one day designing his own video games. But as time went on, Marq described slowly noticing the lack of representation in his program and among his teachers – there were no people of color on the faculty; Marq began to doubt his ability and career choice. How could he succeed in this field as a person of color when it seemed like almost no one else had? During Marq’s senior year, an African-American professor with an extremely successful career animating for Disney and other films joined his program and Marq’s entire view shifted. He had a role model and saw that there was a place for him in the field.

Following his graduation, Marq looked into the ratio of professors and faculty of color overall at three of the top east coast art schools. He found that the faculty at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida and the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, were 97% and 87% white, respectively. But the biggest surprise was the The School of Visual Arts (SVA) right here in New York City, whose faculty was 87% white.

Other areas, such as theater and music, also report surprisingly low numbers. A recent study by Actor’s Equity, the U.S. labor union representing more than 50,000 actors and stage managers, showed that today many of the roles in New York theater still go to white men. On Broadway and in national tours, women had 35% of the principal roles in plays, 42% of principal roles in musicals and 37% of stage manager jobs. The numbers increase in off-Broadway productions, but are still less than ideal (47% of the principal roles, 54% of the chorus roles and 65% of the stage manager jobs). The numbers were even worse for minorities: for example, African-American performers were cast in 11% of the principal roles in Broadway and touring plays and 9% in musicals. Off Broadway, it was 14% of the principal roles and 22% of chorus jobs. A quick scan of a photo of the current New York Philharmonic shows that its members – and its conductors – are overwhelmingly white. Orchestras have been grappling with this issue for years, and some have been making conscious efforts to increase diversity, but the progress is slow-moving.

With such little representation among the arts on every level, it is often challenging for people of color to navigate these fields with confidence.

Artsmith believes the solution to this issue lies in education and introducing the arts to all children at a young age. We’re doing this by bringing arts programming to children in the Bronx who do not have access or whose access is limited. Despite these setbacks, many of the schools we’ve partnered with are working to overcome the lack in their arts programs. But with the government’s recent alarming cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), as well as the cuts happening throughout education programs across the country, these issues will only get worse.

It has been shown time and again the difference that exposure to art of all kinds makes in the life of an individual – increasing creativity, confidence, academic performance, and exposure to diversity, specifically by providing a view of other cultures. We’re offering our programs to help ensure that future generations can see themselves well-represented in the arts.

Marq put it best during his talk, highlighting the importance of diversity in the arts and the benefits for artists and art lovers. If we don’t open the arts up to all individuals and ethnicities, “we don’t receive the entirety of what art has to offer … You can’t see a full color wheel looking at it with only one hue, so we can’t experience the fullness of art looking at it through only one perspective.”