Diversity and the Arts: The Portland Initiative

Me (right) drumming for the Greek Musicians at the Indy Greek Festival (Sept. 2010). Indianapolis ranks 8th in the 40 largest metro areas in the U.S. with a percentage of a white population.

Joe Patti and Drew McManus post about Portland’s new diversity goals and they (as well as commenters) bring up a ton of controversial issues regarding the implementation of such an initiative.  In my Portland is where young people go to retire post, I mentioned some problems with the idea of giving arts organizations superficial facelifts that seems to coincidentally come on the tail end of Richard Florida’s influential ideas regarding his Creative Class and the types of environments that purportedly draw these budding [and younger] entrepreneurial types to various regions (including Portland).

The problem is, as I mention in my post, most of those regions that Florida ranks high on his metric for economic growth seem to be doing poorly.  Funding the amenities that draw in the Creative Class just hasn’t seemed to be enough to actually promote economic prosperity.  Another side effect of the effort to attract this kind of demographic is particularly relevant to the diversity issue.  Creating an attractive environment for the Creative Class is making many of the neighborhoods far too expensive for young families:

Portland is one of the nation’s top draws for the kind of educated, self-starting urbanites that midsize cities are competing to attract. But as these cities are remodeled to match the tastes of people living well in neighborhoods that were nearly abandoned a generation ago, they are struggling to hold on to enough children to keep schools running and parks alive with young voices.

Officials say that the very things that attract people who revitalize a city – dense vertical housing, fashionable restaurants and shops and mass transit that makes a car unnecessary – are driving out children by making the neighborhoods too expensive for young families.

Portland and the changing Racial Demographics of the U.S.

Recall that there has been an emerging Racial Demographic Gap in the U.S. which simply means that the median age for the percentage of the population that is white is getting higher than the median age of the population as a whole.  In other words, non-whites in the U.S. are the youngest population.  Part of this is explained by increased immigration, but also by the far higher birthrates amongst recent immigrants and ethnic minorities–i.e. the young families mentioned above.

As Mayor, Sam Adams, is claiming:

Adams also cites additional data from other sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau, that reveal children of color make up about 45 percent of the students in local public schools. That means Portland is more racially diverse than the public generally believes, Adams said. Organizations, he says, need to acknowledge that reality to attract prospective patrons.

which, while true of the younger segment of the population of Portland, still doesn’t quite mesh with Portland (and the Pacific Northwest in general) being “one of the last Caucasian bastions of the United States” (Ernest & Ernest 2004, pg. 55 ).  In 2009, Portland was ranked fifth amongst the 40 largest U.S. metro areas in terms of highest Caucasian population.

As the piece linked above states:

It’s a plus that Portland is a magnet for young, college-educated Americans who can choose to live anywhere, says William Frey, demographer for the Brookings Institution and a specialist in urban and suburban trends.

But college-educated Americans are overwhelmingly white, and those who migrate to Portland are disproportionately so — the “beer, bikes and Birkenstock” crowd, in the words of Portland economist Joe Cortright.

Portland-area employers competing for top talent have a hard time retaining African American hires, who often can’t bear the social and cultural isolation of a metro area that is less than 3 percent black.

The Demographics of Traditional Arts Organizations in the U.S.

Tom Loughlin at his blog, a poor player  …meditations on the art of theatre…, wrote a provocative post with a claim that is increasing being supported by the data.  Referring to The Broadway League 2010-11 Demographic Report, Loughlin states, in the post that drew nearly a hundred responses, that Theatre is primarily for white people, as both audience members and practitioners.

All apologetics aside, this view that the traditional arts as found in the U.S. (e.g. Orchestras, Museums, Ballet/Opera, Theater, Musicals) are art forms that are enjoyed by a mostly white audience isn’t nearly as contentious as many of Loughlin commenters and other bloggers make it out to be.

The data is also showing us that the audience demographic is also aging faster than the population as a whole which, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, brings up some numbers regarding the overall possible future audience for these art forms.  In other words, if the white population is both shrinking as a percentage of the U.S. population as a whole AND aging faster as a percentage of the population of the U.S. as a whole, then maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that there is a growing ethnic population that is also younger than the population as a whole!

The whole idea that that we need to bring these traditional art forms to those ethnic groups which historically have been economically disadvantaged becomes the contentious issue for all the diversifying initiatives that are starting to become a priority for the traditional art forms, the Portland case notwithstanding.  But how can this be made to work is the crucial question especially as we understand that most Arts Funding goes to organizations that have historically been tied to a generally rich and white demographic.

Diversifying the Arts: A Case Study

Three questions need to be addressed when we’re considering a Diversification Initiative.  Those questions are: 1) Can it be done?,  2) Should it be done?, and, of course, 3) How will it be done?

1) Can it be done?  Sure, on various levels organizations have been successfully drawing in a more diverse audience and engaging a more diverse performing work force. One organization, the Chicago Sinfonietta, has stood out for many reasons.

Touting itself as the “Nation’s most diverse orchestra” the Chicago Sinfonietta’s Mission Statement is very explicit about its goals for diversity and how to achieve it:
The Mission of the Chicago Sinfonietta is to serve as a national model for inclusiveness and innovation in classical music through the presentation of the highest quality orchestral concerts and related programs. The Chicago Sinfonietta aspires to remove the barriers to participation in, and appreciation of classical music through its educational and outreach programs that expose children and their families to classical music, and by providing professional development opportunities for young musicians and composers of diverse backgrounds enabling new, important voices to be heard. This will help America become a true cultural democracy, in which everyone can share fully in its cultural resources and in which all can contribute to it cultural richness.
What do the numbers show?  Well, according to Morris Fred and Betty Farrell (2008, pp. 143-148), fully 55% of its audience are ethnic minorities. The group [in 2006] included 21 African Americans, 4 Latinos, 2 Asians, and one Native American. 50 percent of the board is comprised of African Americans (as is the [former] Conductor) and four to five works per year are written by composers of color and performed by guest artists of color.  Some other numbers and points:
  • Its subscriber base of eleven hundred has been augmented by five thousand to ten thousand single-ticket sales annually, a number that is likely to increase dramatically as the organization expands its repertoire to reach a broader audience
  • Its subscriber base has grown 24 percent from 2004-2006, and the goal is to keep that base growing by 8 to 12 percent every year.
  • Creative collaborations like the one with Chicago-based Rock group in 2005 in original and remixed performances of Dvorak’s new world symphony attracted a significantly younger audience of rock fans or the collaborative performance with Fareed Haque and Zakir Hussein which melded Jazz, CLassical Indian Music, and Classical music which brought in a new audience of South Asians, “99 percent [of whom] had never been to a Sinfionetta concert before” (Hirsh interview 2005)

Also, as of its 2009 Annual Report, the organization had been operating in the black for five years running.  For more examples of successful implementation of diversity initiatives, see Grams and Farrell (2008).

2) Should it be done? This is the question most discussed at Patti’s and McManus’ blog.  The legality of affirmative action type initiatives (which is very much the line the Portland initiative is attempting to navigate) and the effectiveness of them have a peppered history in the U.S.  While I don’t necessarily want to rehash most of the points made in those blogs here, one question that no one is bringing up (and the article that Patti links to only hints at it) is, for those organizations like Portland Taiko and other arts organizations which do traditionally draw ethnic audiences and/or members, will they be required to include more whites to better represent the Portland racial demographic?  It’s a question like this that shows some of the problematic issues of quotas and the asymmetry of their implementation.

3) How will it be done? In the end, this will be the issue that ultimately divides people as it is the one that involves the legislation that will redistribute money and resources.  As I mentioned in 2) above, with the proliferation of arts organizations that cater specifically to ethnic minorities one question that will arise is should these organizations also have to comply with initiatives to better represent the proportion of “non-ethnics?”  Would Portland Taiko’s board membership need to include more Caucasians, for example?

While most proponents of affirmative action and diversity initiatives would say no, then we’re left with the asymmetry of implementation.  Otherwise we seem to be left with Loughlin’s assertion that Theatre [and Orchestras, Ballets/Operas, Musicals] is [are] primarily for white people, as both audience members and practitioners as well as the corollary that ethnic arts organizations such as Portland Taiko, or Arabic Orchestras, or Chinese Opera are primarily for the ethnic groups they are associated with, as both audience members and practitioners.

While this might be undesirable, and while the Chicago Sinfonietta (and other similar organizations) have successfully breached the ethnic gap, are we entirely sure that it is a good thing to force either side of these arts organizations into complying with diversity or affirmative action initiatives?  Or should we let each organization decide for itself and “let the market decide?”

The Tyranny of the Market: Why You Can’t Always Get What You Want

In 2007, Joel Waldfogel published a book summarizing his research in market dynamics and how that affects what he calls preference minorities.  His research over the past couple of decades takes a look at how market forces tend to better serve majority populations and how market forces, especially when high fixed costs are involved, function very similarly to the idea of the Tyranny of the Majority as discussed by John Adams, John Stuart Mill and especially Alexis de Tocqueville.  Waldfogel states in the introduction of his book:

A dominant strand of current thinking holds that markets are distinctly different from, and superior to, government as means of allocation.  Markets are thought to avoid the tyranny of the majority because in markets each person can decide what she wants. (pg. 2)

After quoting Milton Friedman, he continues:

The statement that “each man can vote…for the color of the tie he wants and get it” bears repeating.  It is a statement that what’s available to me in markets depends only on my preferences, not on anyone else’s.  This rationale has stood for years as a compelling argument bolstering calls to “let the market decide” a wide variety of questions and for moving allocation decisions outside of the messy political sphere, where others’ preferences inhibit my options, and into the pure economics one. (pg. 2)

Then he poses some questions: “But do markets really liberate consumers from their neighbors’ tastes?  And do they avoid problems akin to tyranny of the majority that are endemic to allocation through government?”

His fundamental thesis is that when a population with similar tastes increases, then market forces will generally help an individual with similar tastes as that population; and conversely as a population with different preferences increases, that can actually hurt the individual. Waldfogel calls this the “Who Benefits Whom” phenomenon and rather than rehashing his examples here, you may find my posts on his work here.

If we let the markets decide, then it seems prudent that we need to come to terms with how the markets actually operate in the real world as opposed to the idealistic perfectly competitive world often touted by Free Market advocates.

“Portland is Where Young [White] People Go to Retire”

In the end, what I’m seeing is a city that has actually found a way to draw in a particular population with many of the suggestions made by Florida as the impetus.  What this has done is increased the population of the city, but radically changed the racial demographics since most of the population being drawn (and retained) are highly educated whites while ethnic minorities and younger families find little reason to stay due to either the relatively high cost of living in the neighborhoods (as the result of the amenities infrastructure and funding) or because of the relative lack of options for ethnic minorities (hence the diversity initiative).

The population under 18 is shrinking and nearly 45 percent of that population is comprised of ethnic minorities.  Whether or not the ethic minorities stay or have good things to report about the city if/when they leave may very well depend on changing the image of an increasingly white and educated population with numerous amenities and arts organizations tailored to that demographic.  It will be interesting to see how this unfolds either way.


Amy Wratchford and Shoshana Fanizza also weigh in on the Portland Diversity Initiative.

Fred, M., B. Farrell. (2008). “Diversifying the Arts: Bringing in Race and Ethnic Perspectives” in Entering Cultural Communities: Diversity and Change in the Nonprofit Arts. Rutgers University Press.
Grams, D., B. Farrell. (2008). Entering Cultural Communities: Diversity and Change in the Nonprofit Arts. Rutgers University Press.
Waldfogel, J. (2007). The Tyranny of the Market: Why You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Cambridge: Harvard university Press.
Wilson III, E.J., Wilson, E.J. (2004). Diversity and US Foreign Policy: A Reader. New York: Routledge.

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