The Playgoer: Diversifying the Big NonProfits: Lost Cause?

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Diversifying the Big NonProfits: Lost Cause?

A curious proposal by Michael Kaiser regarding the ever-struggling efforts of big arts institutions (that is, big white arts institutions) to diversify programming and audiences. What's surprising is he suggests throwing in the towel.

What's even more surprising is the fact that Michael Kaiser is the chief of a little nonprofit arts org known as the Kennedy Center. And that's he's posting this very visibly on Huffington Post.

Over the past 30 years, we were encouraged, primarily by foundation and government agencies, to become more diverse in every respect: we were asked to do works by minority artists, to bring diverse audiences to our theaters, and to diversify our staffs and boards. To justify funding, the argument went, we had to demonstrate our commitment to our entire community.

Having spent a great deal of my career working with arts organizations of color, I am as committed as anyone to the diversity of our arts ecology. I do not believe that we can have a truly great artistic community if all segments of our society are not represented well.

But I do not think I believe anymore in forcing Eurocentric arts organizations to do diverse works or to put one minority on a board.

When large, white organizations produce minority works they typically select the "low hanging fruit," the most popular works by diverse artists featuring the most famous minority performers and directors. This almost invariably hurts the minority arts organizations in the neighborhood, most of which are small and underfunded, and cannot afford to match the marketing clout or the casting glamor of their larger white counterparts. How else to explain the reduced strength of American black theater companies over the past twenty years?

I do appreciate the honesty and the willingness to reject the routine assumptions and think from scratch. He makes good points about the value of coproductions and collaborations between companies of different sizes, strengths and ethnic backgrounds. And it's a good question to ask what has happened to black theatre companies over the past twenty years. But did, say, Lincoln Center producing Joe Turner's Come and Gone really ruin the chances of any smaller African American troupes showing their work and getting audiences? I'm inclined to think that in a case like that, the exposure of that play to a wider Broadway audiences might well have increased curiosity and enthusiasm for the work of August Wilson and other writers of color.

So is Kaiser really saying something as fatalistic as, look: we're white, ok and white stuff is all we know how to do?

What is he saying? And what's prompting this?

1 comment:

cgeye said...

Simple: It's always about the money. Always.

Regionals would finally have profitable subscription seasons without the 'hole' created by the [insert obligatory ethnic production here]. If those slot plays were profitable, we'd see more than one a season, wouldn't we?

That black or hispanic (or, shudder, *feminist*) play is taking up a slot that could be used by a musical, or a crowdpleaser that doesn't need special casting or marketing.

And does Kaiser think that those trustees backing his org will step up and fund black theatres accordingly? *That's* the issue -- the seed capital to hire Kennedy Center-level talent and playwrights -- otherwise that theoretical black theatre's stuck doing their version of crowdpleasing work, and *they* don't get to grow artistically.

I'm half of a mind to wish that Tyler Perry create his own regional dinner theatre system, featuring his plays and other chitlin circuit work, just so for once we can see what an economically-viable black regional theatre system looks like.