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The diverse cultural workforce we need: Why New York City government is pushing museums and other institutions to change hiring practices


Look more like the city. (Getty Images)

In her Tony Award acceptance speech earlier this year, Rachel Chavkin, director of “Hadestown,” diagnosed a lack of diversity among prominent theatermakers as “a failure of imagination by a field whose job is to imagine the way the world could be.”

With the release of a new pilot study of workers at cultural institutions that receive funding from the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, we see how this plays out among those employed in our city’s nonprofit art and cultural sector. Our cultural institutions provide so much more than jobs. They provide space — real and imagined — to reflect, connect, analyze, remember and project on our society, our history and our future.

The people in charge of these essential functions have power over what gets made, what gets experienced and ultimately who benefits from our world-renowned cultural institutions.

The report, conducted by SMU DataArts, sheds new light on a familiar issue: In many regards, our cultural workforce fails to reflect the richness and diversity of the communities it serves. For one, people identifying as white represent 66% of workers — compared to just 32% of the city’s population.

These big numbers are distressing and attention-grabbing. They certainly need to change as we move toward the de Blasio administration’s aspiration to make New York America’s fairest city. But there are more stories here.

Consider one new insight in this data: People with disabilities make up 8% of study respondents. Capturing solid data regarding disability was a major motivation for this new study, as it’s something previous reports didn’t measure.

So what does that 8% figure tell us? It falls short of the total population’s 11% of people with disabilities, but is higher than the 4% of NYC’s total workforce that identify as having a disability. Doesn’t 4% reflect the barriers to participation we’re seeking to address? The jobless rate among people with disabilities is an astonishing 78%, according to the American Community Survey.

Further, we’re looking to expand opportunities in the cultural sector, not quotas in exact alignment with Census stats. So how do we foster open and accessible work environments, moving beyond on-paper diversity to true inclusion?

What people chose not to say is also telling: 11% of survey respondents selected “decline to state” for their disability status, the same percentage as for sexual orientation. For ethnicity and age, 4% of respondents chose “decline to state”; for gender identity, fewer than 3% did.

One participating institution told us they were surprised by the number of their staff who reported having a disability — something their internal analysis hadn’t revealed. They’re now committed to better engaging and supporting these staffers: one small example of the value of shedding light on realities hidden in plain view.

Now, we’re setting out to codify changes like this. The 33 members of the Cultural Institutions Group — institutions on city property that receive public subsidies — spent recent months developing thoughtful, far-reaching plans that take aim at issues laid out in this report. The city required the plans, but the organizations embraced the opportunity to engage in intense and, at times, difficult self-examination, often accelerating work already in progress.

These plans are among the first of their kind for the cultural sector. We don’t know yet what strategies will work best. That’s why we’re evaluating the plans yearly.

A recent report by the Mellon Foundation found that, nationally, the percentage of curators of color rose to 16% from 12% over a three-year period, after years of investment and relentless focus on the issue by Mellon. We can make change happen.

In New York, following the initial 2016 report on the city’s cultural workforce, we created new pipeline programs like the CUNY Cultural Corps, and directed millions of dollars to addressing other challenges made clear in the report through channels like the Theater Subdistrict Council. These latest plans represent the next step.

We need a cultural community that draws talent and creativity from all the residents of our city. These plans — and a lot of focused, unwavering work — can help us get there.

Finkelpearl is New York City’s cultural affairs commissioner.