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ISSUES | Why Are Toronto's "Big 6" Arts Boards Nearly All Men, And All White?

By Anya Wassenberg on December 1, 2017

Toronto has become one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, yet the leadership at Toronto’s largest arts boards still looks the same.

In Toronto, recent headlines and casual observation tell us that visible minorities now make up the majority of the population. If you perused group pictures of the board of directors of Toronto’s major mainstream arts organizations, however, you might be forgiven for wondering whether the headlines were an exaggeration. When it comes to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO), Canadian Opera Company (COC), Tafelmusik, Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), and The National Ballet of Canada, overall board members are still largely white, and in some cases, still largely male.

It’s not just a conceptual issue, or one that is tied to public relations. “The whole world is — and should be — focused on this issue.” That’s the opinion of Barry Hughson, Executive Director, and board member, of The National Ballet of Canada since 2014. He’s right.

By and large, the backbone of the big six arts boards in Toronto is still made up of the usual suspects — wealthy arts patrons from what we can call Eurocentric backgrounds, the Hilary Westons and the Ivey family members. However welcome they are, though, for those arts institutions and, in some cases, the very art forms themselves, to survive, they will need a far broader base of support in the community. That’s the most pragmatic argument for diversity at the board level and trickling down the line to the audience and even the music, the art on gallery walls, and the performances on stage.

Beyond the big six, there are arts boards that do buck the trend in a big way. The board of the Aga Khan Museum includes people like Malik Talib, a lawyer and entrepreneur, and also the current President of the Ismaili Council for Canada — just the kind of community leader the boards of public institutions look for. As an institution focused on Islamic culture, the inclusion of people from that background is a no-brainer. That logic, in essence, highlights the premise on which diversity is founded: public institutions should reflect the public.

“Are the Boards reflective of the community they serve?” The question, posed by Kevin A. Ormsby, is a simple one.

Kevin A. Ormsby is Program Manager of Cultural Pluralism in the Arts Movement Ontario (CPAMO). He’s also the Artistic Director of KasheDance, has received awards and nominations at the provincial and national level, and this after a performing career that took him to various dance companies in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. He sat on the Toronto Arts Council’s Dance Committee from 2012 to 2015 and is Chair of the Pluralism Advisory Committee at Canadian Dance Assembly. As he explains it, boards should reflect the artists they represent, as well as their geographic area. “The demographics of this country has changed,” he notes.

It’s not that the fact has entirely escaped anyone’s notice, and a lack of progress on diversity doesn’t quite cut across the board. TIFF’s board, for example, is a mix in terms of gender and people of colour, and there has been some progress over the last couple of years in particular at the ROM and AGO.

The current board of the National Ballet is made up of more women than men, but lags behind concerning representation of people of colour. Hughson calls true diversity an “aspirational goal.” But, it’s a goal that the organization is building into its future. The Turnout program targets young professionals of all stripes who want to get involved through the RBC Apprentice Program, which supports young dancers. Turnout has its own Board of Directors, and from the group’s pics, they’re female friendly (70 percent) and a more diverse group (43 percent). Hughson acknowledges that the group can only be an effective initiative if it eventually feeds into a more diverse pool of potential board members for the professional group. “The worst thing we can do is silo the discussion at this level. It has to be part of the DNA of the organization.”

Barry Hughson (Photo courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada)
Barry Hughson (Photo courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada)

Visible diversity is an issue at other performing arts institutions in the city, including the COC, TSO, and Tafelmusik. It may be that the art forms themselves are a hard sell to both audiences and potential board members outside the Anglo-European community.

Barry Hughson is realistic about the historical implications of classical ballet. “It’s an art form that was brought to this continent through the lens of colonialism,” he notes. While he’s a passionate lover of ballet himself, he’s equally pragmatic about the overall potential of what will always be seen as a niche art form. “It’s mostly about extending an invitation. I would like to find a model where anyone who wants to access it, can.” He reports that the National’s audience is growing, with a steady subscriber base. Not all arts organizations in the city are so fortunate. Barry believes, nonetheless, that the potential audience is still undersold. “I think people make assumptions about who will be attracted to the classical ballet.”

Kevin Ormsby agrees. “You’re assuming that those diasporic audiences aren’t interested in the European created arts,” Kevin says. However, as he points out, even with all its baggage, colonization did also introduce European classical music and dance to audiences far from their geographic origins.

Charles C. Smith is a writer, editor, lecturer in cultural pluralism in the arts at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, and Executive Director of CPAMO, which works towards opening up opportunities for racialized artists and organizations. He’s also a board member of various arts organizations, including theatre companies, and the Civic Theatres Board — City of Toronto, which oversees the Toronto Centre for the Arts, Sony Centre, and the St. Lawrence Centre.

Charles is a spoken word performer and artist in his own right. He’s seen the issue from all sides, in other words, and he’s blunt about what’s behind a lack of board diversity, which includes social status along with gender as race as he describes it. “Sadly, I think the traditional stereotypes get in the way.”

As an active member of Toronto’s arts community, he appreciates the contributions of anyone willing to serve on an arts board. “I’m grateful to the volunteer effort the board members put in.” But, representing the community has to be part of the equation. “I’m conscious of the mix we have.”

As he tells it, arts boards are often set up completely in accordance with existing guidelines, and they still end up composed of all-white members. It’s often left up to individual board members to take formal note of the situation, with additional members sometimes added to add to the mix.

That’s the problem in a nutshell: diversity can’t be left for someone to notice — or not — and then tack on at the end of the process. It has to be an integral part of an organization’s strategy.

Smith points out that Canada’s immigration policy has specifically targeted skilled, wealthier immigrants, creating an ever-larger pool of potential board and audience members. What’s often lacking is a specific strategy for targeting people of colour. He cites the training of current board members as crucial to the process. But, in the end, it can’t be so hard to find well-to-do non-white professionals, business owners, and others in Toronto. What’s needed is a network to tap into. Smith mentions organizations like the Black Business and Professional Association.

As Barry Hughson sees it, the current situation also comes down to a generational shift in the role of community leaders. Where the old style of leader was born, lived, prospered, and died within fairly small geographic limits, that’s far from the case nowadays. Instead of looking for people willing to make long-term commitments to board membership, perhaps the answer is a more fluid model, peopled by a more globally oriented generation that is here now, but may not be tomorrow. Nonetheless, they want to be active in their city’s arts life.

It is impossible to discuss diversity at the level of the Board of Directors without looking at what diversity looks like in an organization overall. The link is more than conceptual. In other words, potential board members — and season ticket subscribers — want to see their own community on stage. At present, that may be the biggest obstacle for many organizations.

While The National Ballet’s professional company includes members who come from all over the world, there is one element notably lacking: visible diversity. “Where we have lacked is the issue of blacks in dance,” Hughson says.

Professional dance candidates come from a pipeline that begins with amateur classes at the beginner levels. In many arts and educational institutions in Toronto, you only need to stroll down the hallways to notice that the student body is as diverse as the city itself. But, in some areas, that’s not necessarily the case. Much of Barry Hughson’s 25 years’ experience working in the arts came in the United States. He recalls a situation when the Boston Ballet was auditioning for dancers, and out of 1,600 applicants, only 40 were people of colour.

There needs to be a pipeline, in other words, from those under-represented communities all the way from beginner to the professional level. There are initiatives at the National Ballet School (run separately from the dance company) to reach out to young dancers in those communities.

The final piece of the diversity puzzle lies in the artistic practices themselves. In the world of dance, for example — and that includes both access to funding sources and audiences — ballet occupies a place of premiere consideration. It boils down to the essential question of what we agree to define as “classical”. What does it incorporate, and more importantly, what, if anything, does it exclude? What about African and Asian classical dance? Are they equal members at the table?

So where does an organization best begin the process? As a guideline, Kevin Ormsby advises that the makeup of a board of directors, staff, and ultimately performing artists should reflect the audience the organization wants to have — not necessarily the audience they currently have. If change is desired, it has to start from within.

Toronto is not alone in facing this very situation. A study on Diversity and Cultural Boards at the University of Texas analyzed over 400 arts organizations in the US and found that shockingly, nearly 60 percent of all those boards were composed of only white members, and that 98 percent had at least one white member.

Even the Big Apple is struggling with diversity and representation. As another global, culturally very diverse city, boards of institutions such as the New York City Ballet and Metropolitan Arts Museum are still strikingly and overwhelmingly white, including key staffers. Overall, a 2016 study found that, while 67 percent of the city’s residents identify themselves as people of colour, only about 38 percent of the people working at cultural institutions and organizations also describe themselves that way.

Tying funding to diversity at the board level is one strategy that may add impetus to the process. In New York city, Mayor Bill de Blasio gave the Big Apple’s big museums and arts institutions an ultimatum in July 2017 — diversify or your funding may be drastically reduced.

Back home, the Canada Council for the Arts unveiled a new funding model in April 2017 that also ties funding for large arts organizations directly to diversity — something entirely new. Those large organizations must demonstrate, “A commitment to reflecting — through your activities, membership and organizational make-up — the diversity of your geographic community or region…”

The concept is part of the assessment criteria, and the theory is that the money will be doled out in direct proportion to demonstrated diversity, second only to artistic evaluation. With the Liberal’s promises to boost funding to the Canada Council over the next couple of years, it’s an initiative that could have real teeth.

There has been progress made, however glacial the pace may seem to some observers. While the path has been long, slow, and still somewhat thorny, the rewards of incorporating diversity are great.

As Kevin puts it, “It’s about harnessing the potential of diversity.”


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