Why is NYC’s Art Scene So White?

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Christina Quintana, a New York-based playwright with Cuban and Louisiana roots, would like to see a formal support system for emerging artists of multiracial backgrounds.

Adi Talwar

Christina Quintana, a New York-based playwright with Cuban and Louisiana roots, would like to see a formal support system for emerging artists of multiracial backgrounds.

If you can make it in New York City, you can make it anywhere. Or so the saying popularized by Frank Sinatra goes.

With the growth in the city’s creative sector in the past decade, now is as good a time as any to make it in the city that never sleeps. While overall citywide job growth has increased by 12 percent in the last decade, creative industries have grown by as much as 53 percent during the same time period.

But statistics show that New York City’s demographic population is not proportionally represented in its creative sector. While the performing arts industry has expanded rapidly post-recession, for example, its members have remained overwhelmingly white.

The creative workforce includes the visual arts, performing arts, advertising, architecture, broadcasting, design, film and video, music and publishing, as well as independent artists. According to 2014 American Community Survey statistics, nonwhites, including Hispanics and Latinos, comprise 68 percent of the New York City demographic population. However, a 2015 Center for an Urban Future report found that while more than two-thirds of New York City’s demographic population is nonwhite, only 29 percent of the city’s creative workforce are black, Asian or Latino.

Adam Forman, senior researcher at Center for an Urban Future and the report’s author, points to a number of factors that have contributed to the disparity, including the high cost of a fine arts degree, lack of affordable rehearsal and living space and a greater emphasis on arts education in upper-class neighborhoods.

“Only people who are wealthy can afford to succeed in the arts, to have a career in the arts,” says Forman. “And unfortunately, that wealth is highly distributed to people who are white in the city.”

Racial barriers persist

There is also the issue of racism. Adrienne Jones, a professor of fashion design at the Pratt Institute, describes an incident that occurred when she was a young designer only a few years out of fashion school. Jones, now in her 50s, recounts how she was very close to selling her designs to a high-end retailer because the department store buyer thought her Jewish friend, who accompanied Jones to the appointment, was the designer. When the buyer realized Jones, an African-American woman, was actually the designer, the sale fell through.

“Did it surprise me? No,” says Jones. “Because the fashion industry is just a smaller version of what’s going on socially and politically in the rest of the world. So if you see racism in the rest of the world, how is it not going to touch the fashion industry?” asks Jones. “It’s not like the people you work with in the fashion industry come from another place or another planet or another thought process.”

While the incident occurred long ago, Jones does not feel much has changed in the time since. Feeling there is still work to be done in order to diversify the fashion industry and wanting to recognize the work of relatively unknown black fashion designers, Jones curated an exhibition called Black Dress in the spring of 2014. She now has plans to travel the exhibit, which celebrates the work of ten black designers, nationally.

Preconceptions and misconceptions have also plagued Eden Marryshow, a 37-year old black male actor who I met in an acting class several years ago. Marryshow says he has noticed a greater number of roles for white males than for any other demographic. But for Marryshow, it is the type of roles available to people of color rather than the number of roles that is problematic.

“Hood number two or thugged-out guy number three. Bank robber. That’s really the thing with me,” says Marryshow. “Are there minority criminals? Yeah. But there are white criminals, there are all kinds of criminals. There are also people that do other kinds of things.”

Minority actors are underrepresented in the national arts scene as well. A casting report from 2008, the last year for which SAG-AFTRA (the union for film and television professionals) issued such a report, shows that 27.7 percent and 29.3 percent of television/theatrical roles were cast with non-Caucasian performers in 2006 and 2007, respectively. When asked how SAG-AFTRA tracks diversity data today, Adam Moore, national director of diversity for the union, said, “The short answer I suppose is as best we can.”

But as Moore himself noted, other entities are supplementing the effort. On February 22, the Media, Diversity & Social Change initiative at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism issued a damning report on the Hollywood diversity issue. As outlined on the USC site, the report found “only 28.3 percent of all speaking characters across 414 films, television and digital episodes in 2014-15 were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. This is 9.6 percent below the U.S. population norm of 37.9 percent.”

But if Hollywood has what the report’s author calls “an inclusion crisis”, the data show that the diversity gap in the New York City arts scene is even greater, proportionally speaking. In fact, Forman believes the latter to be less inclusive than it was 50 years ago when cooperative gallery ownership enabled artists an affordable space to showcase and sell their work.

Policy changes afoot

Recently, Forman says there has been discussion about keeping public schools open after hours so artists may use theater rooms and auditoriums as rehearsal space. In his report authored last year, Forman also proposed initiatives that include providing assistance in tackling student loan debt by establishing access to paid internships and apprenticeships, increasing funding for arts education, particularly in low-income and underrepresented communities, and better promotion of BFA and MFA programs in public schools, which tend to offer more affordable degree programs than private institutions.

Just last year, the Brooklyn College Barry R. Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema became the first public graduate school of cinema in New York City. Of the 69 students in its inaugural class, approximately 43 percent are people of color.

“Arts is not frivolous. It really frames our perception of reality. It frames our values, our morals,” says Forman. “The more voices we have in the arts, the more expansive our understanding of the world, our understanding of the possibilities.”

ART AT THE LIMITS: The people, places and politics of New York City's five-borough art scene. CLICK TO READ MORE.

ART AT THE LIMITS: The people, places and politics of New York City's five-borough art scene. CLICK TO READ MORE.

There also seems to be an audience eager to listen to those voices. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton”, a production that fuses hip-hop elements with musical theater numbers, remains Broadway’s hottest ticket. Even premium seats, starting at $549, are sold out for the remainder of the year (though there is still a lottery ticket option for the show).

According to Moore of SAG-AFTRA, now is the optimal time for new, diverse voices to emerge. “This is a unique moment where a lot of different factors are converging at once that will hopefully lead to more accelerated progress than we’ve seen,” says Moore. The convergence of those factors—including technological advances, enhanced distribution methods, and increased audience engagement—he says, “allows for kind of an amazing opportunity for untold stories and unseen faces to really come to the floor and people are starting to do this.”

Demi Vera, a 23-year-old Puerto-Rican street photographer and visual artist from the Bronx, knows what it’s like for a previously unseen face to break through.

“You definitely have to work for the opportunities,” says Vera, who decided to create her own. Having previously collaborated with others to form a collective of local independent artists, Vera is active in the underground arts movement. She regularly participates in Live from Underground, a spoken word event that takes place in the Bronx on the first Friday of every month. “It’s become such a beautiful place for people from the Bronx to come together and get out their frustration and connect,” says Vera.

But producing independent work can have its challenges. Live from Underground, an event that was started a year ago by co-organizers Rosangelica Lopez and Sunny Vazquez, had to cancel its March show when the space where it is typically held suddenly became unavailable on short notice. Lopez also says funding can be an issue for independent artists. “It takes work, it takes time, it’s really just the two of us,” says Lopez. “But at the same time, it’s not just us because we have a community of artists who support and come through.”

Survey under way

Earlier this year, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) released results of its own survey of nearly 1,000 cultural organizations that have received funding through the department in the last three fiscal years. A representative for DCLA says the department is committed to fostering inclusivity and encouraging more diversity within NYC cultural institutions.

To further that effort, the department has implemented several measures including a pipeline development program with the City University of New York to produce apprenticeship and internship opportunities for students. Specifics of the initiative, such as how many paid internship opportunities will be available through the partnership, have not yet been worked out according to the DCLA representative.

There are also plans to earmark $2 million in grants towards supporting the development and training of theater professionals, with priority given to organizations that promote inclusion of individuals from underrepresented communities. Theater, according to the DCLA survey results, is one of the city’s less diverse creative disciplines.

Christina Quintana, a New York-based playwright with Cuban and Louisiana roots, believes it is important to recognize different types of diversity. Quintana would like to see a formal support system for emerging artists of multiracial backgrounds and/or mixed heritage who feel they do not belong to any single community. “Mentorship is everything,” says Quintana. “Having someone who’s been there and can say I understand. I know what you’re going through and I’m here to listen and I’m excited about your work. I really think sometimes that’s everything.”

Lopez says she and the artists she collaborates with have one main goal in mind. “We’re just looking to be heard,” she says.

  • TK

    Everything is always too white, but nothing is ever too Jewish. Did I get that right?

  • Ishamgirl

    Always seems to be an issue when something is “too white”. But if it’s all black or Hispanic, it’s called “diversity” and the self-hating whites just lick it up.