Inclusion in American Orchestras
On this seventeenth anniversary of the Sphinx Organization’s work in the field, I felt compelled to speak to our field and nation as a whole regarding diversity, inclusion, and the state of American orchestras.
“There ought to be more and better qualified teaching throughout the country in schools so that Blacks can take advantage of that. There should be more scholarships given them at such places as Juilliard, Curtis, Eastman, etc. and they should be heard when they are in the growing stage instead of having to wait until it is too late.”
These are not my words, but rather the exact words (other than my substitution of Black for the historical term, Negro) of one of America’s greatest conductors, Leonard Bernstein, who majestically led the New York Philharmonic for many years. He wrote those words in the New York Times in 1947, just two years after the end of World War II . . . and twenty-three years before I was even born. It was not until twenty years later that Henry Lewis became the first Black music director of a major American orchestra, the New Jersey Symphony. And today, there are no Black music directors of America’s major orchestras (that being the top twenty-five). Bernstein stated, “I would like to have seen much more happen than did happen. As a private citizen, I would be impelled to do something about it.” Bernstein had hired Sanford Allen, who sat as the first Black member of the New York Philharmonic and was one of only two Blacks in major orchestras at the time.
I now write almost seventy years after Bernstein’s initial musings in the Times and over fifty years after he hired Sanford Allen, and his orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, has no full-time Black members and has not for over five years! There are also no Latino members of the orchestra. A decade ago, the Chicago Symphony hired the first Black in the history of their orchestra, and he remains the only Black member ever hired by that orchestra. In addition, they have only one Latino amongst their ranks. Nationally, only about 4 percent of orchestras have Black and Latino members combined. As it relates to repertoire, less than 1 percent of all of the works performed by orchestras are by any composer of color. And orchestras’ administrative leadership is even less representative of our society, with less than one-half of 1 percent of executive directors being either Latino or Black. So my question is, at what point are we actually going to all feel impelled to act in our professional capacities?
We are now sixty-six years after the nation’s most well-known conductor knew this was an issue and stated publicly what needed to be done, and basically, our field has very little to show for it. Those who are currently in the positions of leadership within orchestras and those policy and decision makers in the philanthropic community are the ones who will bring about this change, or we will never realize the hopes and dreams of those who came before us. Before I was born, the maestro whose talents graced this very stage stated that the field had an obligation to seek out musicians of color and give them aid and encouragement. One of the most basic ways to do that is through a traditional “fellowship” where someone gets high-level training, mock auditions, and can perform regularly with the orchestra. Yet in 2013, there are only three major American orchestras (Detroit, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh) with an active formal fellowship program that incorporates these three areas of impact.
Actually employing his beliefs in action, Bernstein implemented a policy where every time a position opened, the orchestra actively reached out to identify candidates of color. Amyas Ames, the president of the New York Philharmonic at the time, stated, “For about ten years we have specifically notified both the Urban League and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) of every audition and have made other inquiries in an effort to learn of available and qualified black symphonic musicians.” The Urban League actually recommended Sanford Allen to the New York Philharmonic four years before he became their first Black member. So, what is our field doing today to actively “seek out” talented musicians of color? It is my unfortunate duty to share with you that in Sphinx’s sixteen-year history, we have never, ever, had any major American orchestra reach out to us to share when their upcoming auditions for full-time members were being held or ask if we could suggest any potential candidates of color who should be informed of those auditions. In addition, today there is not a single major American orchestra (again, that being the top twenty-five) with an inclusion initiative that has focused on and resulted in any significant change in the cultural diversity of its staff, board, or membership onstage.
This is the seventeenth anniversary from when Sphinx musicians first graced our nation’s stages. There is no doubt that there is a pool of qualified talented musicians. Our Sphinx alumni soloists as well as the Sphinx Virtuosi (our touring chamber orchestra) have received rave reviews in the New York Times and dozens of papers across the country. Sphinx is acutely aware of the paramount importance of artistic excellence and shares orchestras’ view that it must be a priority. A number of our alumni have joined the ranks of America’s professional orchestras, including majors such as the Philadelphia Orchestra. The notion that orchestras cannot be culturally inclusive without decreasing their artistic excellence is a patently ridiculous argument and is one that has not been borne out in other fields such as academia or the corporate world (where actually those corporations that are more inclusive perform better).
Now, you might think I am “calling out” America’s orchestras, especially the New York Philharmonic, whom I do not mean to single out but rather to use as an indicator. In fact, the New York Philharmonic has most recently actively worked to diversify its board of directors and is achieving greater success than many other major institutions. This challenge of inclusiveness is a story that can be told across the over one thousand orchestras that dot the landscape of our nation. The New York Philharmonic is one of the greatest orchestras on the planet, and Bernstein was passionate about the role of artistic excellence as am I, but I am not calling out America’s orchestras, I am “calling upon” them. For sixteen years, beginning with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., Sphinx has partnered with America’s orchestras, and I currently sit on the board of directors of the League of American Orchestras, where we have various initiatives related to inclusion being explored and launched, and I am excited about the potential of those programs. Sphinx Laureates have performed as soloists with dozens of orchestras across the country, including the New York Philharmonic. Many orchestras have and continue to try to tackle the challenges of inclusion in a host of ways, and as a result, there are several key initiatives that are bringing about some aspects of change. So, we have accomplished and continue to accomplish some good things . . . but they are not great things. And, most importantly, they are not the things we need to accomplish if our art form, in particular orchestral music, is to not only survive but thrive in any similar manner to its current form. In February, the international convening on diversity in the performing arts, SphinxCon, will be held in Detroit where ideas and solutions related to these critical issues are shared, debated, and disseminated to enable action across the field. SphinxCon.org has an online discussion section where these issues are discussed throughout the year, and I encourage all of you to share your feedback on my address through that forum.
Isaac Stern’s name graces the main performance space at Carnegie Hall, and his initiative and actions saved that incredible venue from being destroyed. Mr. Stern came to the inaugural Sphinx Competition sixteen years ago, and, separate from his support of our Laureates by inviting them to his studio in New York for years until his passing, it is the words that he spoke to me in the alley behind Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan, after hearing our Finalists, that had the greatest impact for me when he shared, “I had no idea this talent was out here, Aaron. Thank you for inviting me.”
For sixteen years Sphinx has been inviting and encouraging in a manner that has given us a reputation for persistence. But, in the end, our results are simply not good enough. They are not good enough for our art form and its evolution, which is what drove me to stay up late nights as a college student working on this dream. Leonard Bernstein conversed about these issues since before I was born. And while he took some historic actions that at least brought about more Black representation than the orchestra reflects today, his efforts ultimately (even by his own admission) were incomplete. However, things are possible now that were not possible when he led one of the greatest orchestras in history. We need orchestras to do more now. We need the philanthropic community to do more now. And, we, our communities, the audiences, need to do more now. And so I call upon our field to consider two policies to implement to begin to address this issue.
First, every single orchestra in our country should commit 5 percent or more of its budget to inclusion initiatives and establish metrics for success. With the financial pressures that orchestras face these days, this is not an easy proposition, but inclusion is a complex problem that must be addressed and has challenged our field for decades, and any solution that brings about real change will require sacrifice. The second policy should be that every arts grantmaker will require an orchestra to have an inclusion plan for its artistic membership, repertoire, audience, staff, and board and be achieving identified metrics to be eligible to receive funding. The reality is that the philanthropic community wields tremendous influence over our field. If it demanded action related to inclusion to get a grant, we would see action all across the field. I propose that members of Grantmakers in the Arts consider this as a best practice for their members. And this is not a new idea; for years, for-profit companies that supply the federal government with services have been required by law to have a supplier diversity program.
Now, implementing those two policies is a start, but it is only a beginning. And while it is probably never a good idea for a grantee to comment on the effectiveness of grantors, I am compelled by Sphinx’s mission to give voice to these ideas if it can potentially make a difference.
If the philanthropic community is committed to correcting the vast underrepresentation of our society in the arts, it would allocate the majority of its resources toward that end. However, it does not. Of the over two billion dollars given to the arts in this country, not enough is specifically targeted to benefit underserved communities. The most significant change agents in the arts sector are often smaller organizations that tend to be more agile, responsive to their communities, entrepreneurial, and able to adapt. Einstein stated that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. At some point, the philanthropic community needs to seek out and provide major funding to new partners if they hope to realize the change they seek.
Finally, I want to address our community, our audiences, and, most importantly, our young people. They must not be passive observers of this art form, which is integral to who we are as a people. They must be active participants as that can often bring about more change than any policy or initiative. They must be diligent in their pursuit of excellence through their own artistic practice. They must buy tickets to the performances that are of interest to them, they must support the organizations that strive to serve them and their community, and they must advocate for the change they wish to see in the institutions they treasure but feel ostracized from.
I do not believe that today there is significant active prejudice practiced by the leaders in our sector. However, there is a profound sound of silence that echoes in the unfilled halls we have built to practice our art form. Martin Luther King Jr., referencing Dante, said, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” I believe this issue of inclusion in our orchestras and in the arts constitutes a moral crisis within a form of expression that is vital to our culture as a thriving society. And I believe those who remain silent in voice or in action betray the music, the art, that, in the end, we all strive to honor.
Thank you very much for letting us share the talents of our musicians and composers with the field over the past seventeen years. I am truly honored to have this be my life’s work.