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For Diversity Leaders in the Arts, Getting Hired Is Just the First Step

McCreary, who in 2018 became the first person of color on the MFA’s leadership team, said institutions need to evaluate managers based on clear criteria. When managers argue they can’t find candidates of color, for example, organizations should say, “you don’t get to hire anybody until you find someone, or you don’t get a merit increase,” McCreary said. “We have to have consequences.”

In the past, relying on a new hire might have checked the box on diversity efforts. Now, institutions are insisting on the involvement of the full staff. “I see the entire organization as my team,” said Clay, who is working on setting benchmarks for progress at the Phillips. “Hiring me is the first step of you all saying, ‘We’re ready to roll up our sleeves together.’”

Strapped nonprofit cultural organizations have had difficulty raising the funds to pay for dedicated diversity officers, especially when the pandemic’s economic toll has forced layoffs and furloughs. Now they have recognized the importance of raising money specifically to hire these specialists (the Phillips Collection’s chief diversity officer position, for example, was funded by the Sherman Fairchild Foundation).

“People realize there needs to be a professional,” said Sarah James, who specializes in cultural executive searches at the firm Phillips Oppenheim. “They’re finding the money for it.”

What will make these hires more meaningful, experts say, is if diversity officers are overseen by institutions’ top managers, not just the human resources department. “If it does not come from the top, it’s not going to work,” said Nancy Huckaba, a vice president at EFL Associates, an executive search firm.

Above all, experts agree, arts executives need to keep hammering away at entrenched institutional inequities — and holding themselves accountable. “It’s about intentionality and purpose,” said Greene, “and having the perseverance to keep pushing it — one trustee, one employee at a time.”

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