Identity and the Cultural Workforce

Lessons Learned in Seven Years and Three Cities

Arin Sullivan

The arts and culture sector continues to have conversations on multiple levels about how to advance the causes of equity, inclusion, and diversity. The discussion is not new, but the momentum toward implementing clear action steps is building. A new level of understanding of the ways in which racial and social inequities are the result of complex systemic issues has given rise to a realization that the path to truly effective solutions will require deep, and deeply challenging, institutional change.

Many funders, including the community at Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA), are beginning to take these issues beyond the discussion phase into action. The conversations we are hearing often focus on intended outcomes: serving more diverse audiences and visitors, supporting under-resourced organizations and those reaching underserved populations, recognizing and reflecting the demographic makeup of the community, and fostering opportunities for a more diverse cultural workforce and leadership pipeline. The next steps will require grappling with what it means to fundamentally alter behaviors and policies in grantmaking to make way for greater equity and inclusion.

Gathering, analyzing, and sharing data are important and concrete steps to inform the process of change. We see the arts and culture sector poised at a crucial moment, where greater recognition of the systemic issues in our field and the growing momentum toward action can be paired with technology that allows for confidential and accurate data collection. A data infrastructure that supports ongoing data collection and measurement of progress toward established goals is a tool for system change and accountability.

DataArts brings fourteen years of experience in data collection within the sector to the current conversation: ten years as the Cultural Data Project within The Pew Charitable Trusts, and four as an independent nonprofit. In partnership with public and private grantmakers, public arts agencies, and arts and culture organizations, we survey, collect, analyze, and share secure information. Since 2004, thousands of cultural nonprofits have submitted their financial and programmatic data through our flagship service the Cultural Data Profile, creating an extensive repository of longitudinal data on the nation’s cultural sector.

DataArts’ distinctive position within the arts sector has recently drawn us into many new initiatives with funders who are leading the way in using data to pursue outcomes that foster equity, inclusion, and diversity.

Surveying the Cultural Workforce

While there are many ways in which funders can begin to make change, there is broad agreement that the arts cannot meaningfully represent the vast array of human expression through art and culture if our workforce fails to reflect the communities we serve.

Collecting demographic information from our cultural workforce is a sensitive undertaking, touching on our most deep-seated concerns about privacy, fairness, and identity. And yet without baseline information on who we are as a sector, we cannot see where we are or imagine what we might become.

Over the past seven years, we have worked with communities from Minnesota to Chicago, Los Angeles to Houston, gathering data about the cultural workforces in their regions that will drive actionable strategies for change. In the process, both we and our partners have learned important lessons about privacy, identity, and the value of clear and frequent communication to drive participation and appreciation of shared goals.

A Journey of Learning and Change

The workforce demographic survey instrument DataArts uses today is private, confidential, and streamlined for completion in just a few minutes. We collect information on five demographic characteristics: race/ethnicity, age, gender, LBGTQ status, and disability status. It is designed to be completed by everyone from board members and staff to contractors and volunteers. We worked hard to create an accessible, inclusive, and flexible survey instrument that is also compatible with current federal demographic language.

A 2010 pilot of the survey in Chicago helped DataArts learn more about the knotty challenges inherent in collecting demographic data. At the time, less than 1 percent of the respondents said their organizations collected demographic data on their own workforce.

In the standard method of collecting workplace demographics, which was used in the Chicago pilot, a single individual from each participating organization (usually human resources or the executive office) is responsible for identifying and reporting staff demographics. Typically, these surveys rely on categories that mirror US Census categories.

When DataArts gathered and analyzed feedback via a survey of respondents following the Chicago pilot, we found that both of these aspects — collection by the employer and using census categories — created challenges. Many respondents expressed concerns about releasing personal demographic information directly to their own employers. They also told us that the language of US Census categories does not go far enough to capture the actual range of residents’ identities. Lastly, they expressed trepidation about how demographic data might be used in funding decisions.

Determined to develop best practices and inclusive yet census-relevant terms, we formed a committee with representatives from public and private funders, national service organizations, state and local arts councils, and cultural advocacy organizations. We worked closely with the D5 Coalition, a five-year project to advance philanthropy’s diversity, equity, and inclusion, to further refine the survey’s language and find innovative approaches to administering it.

We designed a new survey method that would protect the confidentiality of individual responses: participating organizations could distribute individual links to respondents, and the data would be submitted directly to DataArts. Workforce data were shared with the organizations themselves only through aggregated reports, and no individual responses would be visible to the employer. Further, employers only received the aggregated report if a statistically significant number of responses were returned.

It was important to us that respondents to the survey felt they could “see themselves” in the options provided by the survey and did not feel excluded by the choices. To that end, we worked with D5 to make sure we offered respondents a broad range of options for self-identification as well as the opportunity to write in an identifier. At the same time, the analytic processes ensured that data collected could be compared to benchmark population data sources.

The heritage questions are a good example of how the survey captures greater nuance and specificity. For instance, a person of African descent could choose to indicate whether they are from Eastern, Middle, Northern, Southern, or Western Africa (derived from geographic categorizations used by the United Nations Statistics Division). The survey’s data mapping schema then aggregated and tied responses back to US Census race and ethnic groupings.

A second iteration of the pilot with the new language and collection methods was launched in Minnesota in 2015, surveying grantees of the Jerome and McKnight Foundations. This time, feedback on the survey experience was overwhelmingly positive. We were thrilled to see responses like “refreshingly simple,” and “thanks for making this so easy!”

However, many participants told us that the survey should include sexual orientation. We had broadened the gender identity options to include nonbinary choices, but since the US Census does not currently collect data on LGBTQ status, and workplace protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation are limited, we had chosen not to include questions on sexual orientation. The feedback was so overwhelming in favor of including these data that in the next iteration of the survey, distributed with Dance/NYC, we included optional questions on LGBTQ status. The Dance/NYC iteration also added more inclusive qualifiers within disability status (e.g., communication disorders and behavioral disabilities) to the survey.

By 2016, we were confident about our questionnaire and distribution methods, and the time was right to seek a partner for a more ambitious, larger-scale workforce study.

LACAC Workforce Demographics Study

Meanwhile, major municipal efforts were underway to develop systematic approaches to move the needle on workforce diversity. In 2016, Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisors commissioned a “Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative,” an ambitious eighteen-month public process to develop recommendations to ensure equitable access to arts and culture in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles County Arts Commission’s (LACAC) Director of Research and Evaluation Bronwyn Mauldin contacted DataArts about implementing a workforce demographics survey in their county. “The timing was perfect,” Mauldin said. She was already familiar with DataArts, as the Cultural Data Profile has been part of the LACAC’s grant applications since 2008, and she had served on our demographics committee and saw the evolution of our survey instrument.

DataArts administered the first round of surveys in summer 2016, and LACAC released the data in an April 2017 report. A second round of the survey was conducted last summer, and LACAC has committed to an annual survey for an additional three years.

Responses included organizations who are not grantees of LACAC but were included in the survey through the county’s extensive outreach process in what was already a prevalent discussion in Los Angeles arts and culture circles. Participation was optional for each organization, as well as for each individual affiliated with the organizations.

The 2016 LACAC study, which reflects the responses of 3,307 individuals, will inform arts managers, boards, funders, patrons, policymakers, and the wider Los Angeles community, providing a baseline to measure future change. The study found that as many as 60 percent of arts and culture workers identify as “white non-Hispanic,” a much higher representation than that of the local population, which reports as just 27 percent white. Racial and ethnic diversity was highest among general staff, and lowest among boards of directors. Midsize organizations, with budgets between $500,000 and $10 million annually, were more diverse than their smaller and larger counterparts.

The survey also indicated that millennial members of the arts and culture workforce (those born from 1982 to 2000) are more racially and ethnically diverse than older generations; fewer than half of millennials in the Los Angeles survey identified as white non-Hispanic. “Sometimes you hear folks say that if you wait long enough, the workforce will look more like the community they serve,” says Mauldin. But LACAC saw in the data a recommendation for future action. Mauldin believes the survey confirmed the need for active steps to engage greater numbers of younger workers and guide them toward leadership roles. “Even if it is true that staff rosters will naturally grow more diverse with time,” she notes, “why should underrepresented populations have to wait?”

On to Houston

At the Houston Endowment, Senior Program Officer Elizabeth Love and Program Officer Long Chu share responsibility for the endowment’s “strong civic access portfolio,” which encompasses the arts and culture sector as well as parks and civic space. A new strategic mission at the endowment emphasizes equity, and the endowment had already teamed with DataArts to pilot an audience demographics survey in late 2016 and early 2017.

Following the Los Angeles survey, we partnered with the Houston Endowment to conduct a workforce demographics survey across the greater Houston area this past summer. The intended six-week time frame for the survey was cut to four weeks by the devastating flood caused by Hurricane Harvey, but participation was so high — 1,700 responses from 187 organizations — that the hurricane didn’t damage the survey’s statistical significance.

Love and Chu attribute the survey’s success to the role that partners in the Houston arts community played in supporting an intense and well-organized communications cycle before, during, and after the survey period. The Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, the Houston Arts Alliance, the Houston Theater District, the Houston Museum District, and the Miller Outdoor Theatre, along with the Houston Endowment, held the primary relationships with participating arts and culture organizations and were instrumental in disseminating the survey and communicating its importance and confidentiality.

A full report on the initial Houston survey will be released in spring 2018, but Love and Chu say that raw topline findings, as in Los Angeles, indicate that Houston’s arts and culture workforce does not fully reflect the population of greater Houston. Often, “there is an assumption that a space like arts and culture is progressive enough to have the diversity that it often speaks about,” says Chu, but the data show that the sector often falls short. “I think this workforce survey provides a kind of clarity that will only help the sector to be stronger, and actually reach for what it always wanted to be.”

“One of our strategies is to provide actionable data, but also resources to translate learning into action,” says Chu. The endowment plans to release its workforce report in conjunction with the first of four symposia on diversifying arts access, from programming to training and hiring, presented in spring 2018 in partnership with the Texas Association of Museums and the Texas Historical Commission.


As the sector faces new demand for diversity metrics, some arts organizations fear that their staff demographics could be held against them in funding decisions, that data collection will not prove informative, or that such efforts may not be a realistic catalyst for change. But according to Love, “You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you are.” “There should not be any fear in finding out the answers to these questions,” Chu said.

Love, Chu, and Mauldin agree that participating organizations are enthusiastic about the opportunities presented by more comprehensive collection, analysis, and reporting of demographics in the sector. “If you want to do it right,” Mauldin says of increasing staff diversity, “you have to act based on facts.” All across the country, she says, it is probably true that the workers and especially the leaders of arts and culture institutions in major cities do not fully reflect local populations. “To quantify what that looks like isn’t something to be afraid of. It’s actually incredibly empowering.”

Our partners in Houston and Los Angeles both stress that any consortium undertaking this survey should plan a longitudinal approach, returning to the survey as often as every two to three years, to strengthen that baseline knowledge and measure efforts to become more inclusive. We at DataArts concur, and thanks to a generous grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we are building new technology solutions that will enable us to gather and analyze demographic data collection at scale.

As Chu puts it, “It’s knowledge that’s good for the sector.”


DataArts thanks the following funders and partners for their help and support in developing our workforce demographics survey:

  • Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County
  • ArtsMemphis
  • Asian American Arts Alliance
  • The Chicago Community Trust
  • Cuyahoga Arts & Culture
  • D5 Coalition
  • Dance/NYC
  • Doris Duke Charitable Foundation
  • Funders for LGBTQ Issues
  • Grantmakers in the Arts
  • The Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund
  • William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
  • interACT Advocates for Intersex Youth
  • The James Irvine Foundation
  • The Jerome Foundation
  • Los Angeles County Arts Commission
  • The McKnight Foundation
  • The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
  • National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures
  • New York City Department of Cultural Affairs
  • Theatre Communications Group
  • Women of Color in the Arts