Cultural Diversity and the Arts in America

I’ve just re-read Robert Garfias public policy piece, Cultural Diversity and the Arts in America (1989), and still find it a fascinating and prescient read.  I had first come across Garfias’ work through another paper he had written (1981), but the former resonated very much with what I’ve been researching and blogging about lately.

And while many of the things he called regarding arts institutions in this country haven’t really changed, what has changed is the proactive stance many ethnic minorities have taken with regards to their own arts.  This paragraph in particular could have been taken out of my own life story growing up here in the states:

The reasons are complex, but in essence for these new immigrants, the environment has initially appeared very hostile. At almost every furtive foray into the larger unknown territory, their initial perception has been further reinforced. Everything they see around them appears to reject who they are.  The contrast between the comfortable support of their community and the hostility and lack of acceptance on the outside makes all but the very necessary excursion into the exterior uninviting.  Our concert halls, museums and galleries which for us represent an aspect of our lives which we deeply cherish and need, reflect for these large communities of immigrants, even more pointedly, the very same hostility and unwelcomeness which they experience when they must venture out.  Here, even more so, our art institutions seem to say that “you must belong here to enter” and “you must know what you are doing here”.  For these new immigrants and a good number of other diverse ethnic groups in America there is little or no incentive to meet this challenge.  To them our open doors appear as tightly shut as ever.  The apparent hostility of our arts institutions to the non initiated is, most unfortunately, something vividly clear to those outside and at the same time something unimaginable to those working within the institutional network structure.

In the end, I did opt for assimilation into the dominant arts culture which was made all the easier as I didn’t have a large community of Thais in the area.

This is generally little different than what you would find in the non “Performing Arts” institutions such as in pop culture, going to a show filled with Anglo-caucasians playing Anglo-caucasian music can be just as off-putting as the Western culture bias of the formal institutions though in some ways it can be easier for ethnics to break into that kind of performing environment.

So much of that is changing in today’s world, as I’ve been talking about in my previous two posts.  I guess one benefit of severing the ties between so-called creativity and the economic institutions and art institutions that  monopolize the idea (whether public or commercial) is that more and more ethnics are feeling less apprehensive about making public appearances and this can only be a good thing as the monopoly of tradition Western and American cultural art forms slowly morph to actually reflect the population rather than just the majority or minority-majority populations tastes and efforts.

And this is just a reflection of the age demographic gap which just also happens to correspond to the racial gap.  The audiences for classic rock icons is looking no less old and white than those for classical music.  Just a sign of the times, really.



Garfias, Robert (1981)  “Survival of Turkish Characteristics in Romanian Musica Lautareasca”  Yearbook for Traditional Music

Garfias, Robert (1989)  “Cultural Diversity and the Arts in America”  Public Policy Paper


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