Moving the Needle on Board Diversity at New York City’s Cultural Institutions

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July 30, 2016: The New York Times

“Board membership in New York has always been a rich person’s game,” according to The New York Times features writer Jacob Bernstein, in an article about the ever-so-slow diversification of board leadership in the city’s cultural sector.  “And until 1980, almost all of those who were on such boards were white,” he notes.  While there has been modest progress in the intervening years, the persistent lack of diversity among both trustees and senior staff in the city’s top-tier arts institutions caught the attention of Mayor de Blasio and his cultural affairs commissioner, Tom Finkelpearl.  As Bernstein describes the situation:

The numbers tell a stark story. The American Museum of Natural History has never had an African-American president or board chairman. Neither has MoMA, the Whitney or the Met. In a city where more than two-thirds of residents identify as nonwhite, according to the 2010 census, 78 percent of the board members serving its cultural institutions are white. On the board of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the chairman, nine vice chairs and the treasurer are all white.

So last September, Finkelpearl convened about 40 cultural leaders to discuss this issue and to describe a study the city had commissioned on the ethnic make-up of staffs, audiences and boards at about 1,000 cultural organizations. (Findings from that study, done by Ithaka S&R and published in January 2016, may be found here.)

The Times article cites a number of African-American trustees and staff leaders who helped break the glass ceiling of race in the city’s cultural sector, often bringing others along with them or advocating with peers to get involved. In some instances, these black leaders have influenced the work being presented by the institutions where they serve. More often, it seems, they have helped their boards to better mirror the diversity of the artists whose work already was being presented or the communities and audiences already being served.

It seems, though, that at least at the most elite Big Apple cultural institutions—as in other cities—board service in the arts sector is still a rich person’s game. Bernstein notes, “the bulk of trustees are expected to donate (or at least raise) hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.”  So the increasing diversity among trustees may be less a reflection of the population at large, and more a reflection of the changing face of the upper classes:

“African-Americans do not have a long tradition of wealth like the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts or Whitneys,” said Faye Wattleton, one of more than a dozen black board members of Jazz at Lincoln Center. “We are still not at parity by any means. But there is an emerging class of significant wealth in the African-American community that is now in great demand.”

Even leading cultural institutions committed to more diverse boards must balance the books, which has been increasingly difficult in the wake of the Great Recession, with significantly less public funding available and with a never-ending stream of capital campaigns and expansion projects to support. As Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation and vice chairman at New York City Ballet explains:

“The boards of all these organizations are receiving contradictory messages. On the one hand they’re being told, ‘You have to raise more private money.’ On the other hand they’re being told, ‘You need to diversify and elect people who may or may not be able to raise that money.’”

Interestingly, the article in The New York Times talks about board diversity almost exclusively in terms of black and white trustees and emphasizes the “new class of African-American cultural heavyweights.”  There is no mention of other racial/ethnic diversity, gender, age or even professional backgrounds, except to note that Dr. Muhammad, a highly qualified (and black) MoMA trustee from academia, said he could not afford the $2,500 ticket to the institution’s annual Party in the Garden fundraiser. There are but a few passing references in the article to “nonwhite” trustees. 

In the same way that arts and culture nonprofits—everywhere, not just in New York City—are proactively looking to attract more diverse audiences, board development strategies should do the same. But it’s a tricky dance, adding people of color and younger people who may represent their communities well and who may bring different perspectives and experiences, but who do not necessarily show up with the fattest bank accounts.

The Times article mostly focuses on elite institutions where “trustee” is often code for “big donor,” and where the staffs generally are large enough and sophisticated enough to do most of the work required to run the organizations and plan for the future.

One might expect that smaller nonprofit arts groups would be ahead of the larger institutions at diversifying their boards, because the financial expectations of board members are more modest and the boards are more likely to need a variety of professional and community connections to support smaller staffs and to provide good governance. But at least in New York, that does not seem to be the case: the survey commissioned by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs showed that even across a field of 1,000 cultural nonprofits—from the smallest to the largest—nearly 75% of board members were white. 

As Gordon Davis, who in 1978 became the city’s first African-American parks commissioner, observed, “There is an artistic history at these institutions that was sometimes way ahead of their philanthropic histories.” Way, way ahead, it would seem.–Eileen Cunniffe