Race, Arts, and Education: A Call to Action

An open letter from Richard Kessler, Dean of the Mannes School of Music and Executive Dean for Performing Arts, the New School and Janet Brown, President and CEO of Grantmakers in the Arts.

In the past few days, a growing controversy within the arts sector has emerged over alleged remarks made by the CEO of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) at a meeting of arts service organizations convened by the National Endowment for the Arts. As two arts executives who have spent a large part of our careers advocating for equitable access to high quality arts education and as members of the Steering Committee of Grantmakers in the Arts Arts Education Funders Coalition, an effort to enhance and develop arts education policies at the federal level, we are compelled to offer this public letter.

The remarks are centered squarely within the topic of race in America. As others parse through precisely what was said and what was meant, we believe this moment is served best by reaffirming a commitment to providing equity of access to all the arts, whether it be through high quality arts education, a pathway to professional careers, affordable tickets, or artistic work that reflects the diversity of people and lives lived across America. What is more, this commitment to equity must intentionally produce governance, administrative, and programmatic change at the core for all non-profit arts organizations.

At long last, the arts sector has begun to recognize the fundamental discrimination that has been at play since the arts emerged as a professional field in the United States. It is manifest through a century of orchestras that denied entry to African Americans and women, opera companies that barred the main stage to non-white performers, few traditional chamber ensembles with performers of color, painters denied gallery space, and today, through the vast majority of boards of directors and staff lacking diversity. It is also represented in the lack of access to traditional funding mechanisms by Asian, Latin@, African, Arab and Native American (ALAANA) artists and arts organizations.

Perhaps the single most important and concerning fact is that over a thirty-year period, access to high quality arts education virtually disappeared from our urban public schools, in districts that are and have been populated primarily by children of color. This has occurred while suburban school districts held steady. The seeds sown here have conspired to quash the pipeline of aspiring artists of color within the traditional, predominantly western-European performing and visual arts fields while denying these students the benefits of a sound and basic education that includes the arts. It is nothing less than a tragedy.

As America becomes increasingly diverse, many have begun to recognize the work that must be done. Leadership in the philanthropic field has begun to apply their considerable influence upon this sector, asking the hard questions about the diversity of boards of directors, artists, staff, audiences, and the precise nature of everyone’s commitment to making substantial change for ALAANA communities, artists, and arts organizations here and now.

The process here is not easy nor should it be. It requires a significant commitment to honest and thorough reflection, planning, and a rolling up of one’s sleeves around work that seemed to many to be beside the point or beyond the reach of any organization or individual. It takes a commitment from leadership and the acknowledgement that good intentions have not necessarily produced good results for all people, especially children.

We have little doubt that it is this very process that led to the recent controversy surrounding NAfME. These conversations, convenings, and growing points of reflection will continue to uncover truths that cause great discomfort, in large and small ways. This is not a moment to lambaste one organization while somehow feeling superior, but rather a moment to recommit to changing things in our lifetime – to ensure that the arts in America reflect the very democratic principles that we aspire to and deserve. The conversations will be difficult, and for both white and ALAANA people, sometimes painful. This is a long-term challenge that is truly systemic while being made more difficult having been glossed over for many, many years. We now have an opportunity to make real change in our systems and institutions. The time has come to make the commitment, stay in the room, and have the conversation.


Janet Brown
CEO, Grantmakers in the Arts

Richard Kessler,
Executive Dean, College of Performing Arts at The New School