Women leaders of color are leaving arts groups. Here are 6 ways to change that.
From board composition to decision making, women leaders of color across the country are calling for institutional change.
Women leaders are leaving top jobs at a higher rate than ever before. It’s being called the “Great Breakup.” And it’s happening to women of color at arts groups nationwide, from theaters and opera companies to museums.
There’s still little data on the issue, according to Zannie Voss at Southern Methodist University and Randy Cohen with Americans for the Arts. There’s often a time lag with such data, Cohen said.
Still, research and conversations with women leaders of color in the arts suggest a concerning trend.
In recent years, following calls for racial justice, arts groups have been hiring more women of color into leadership positions. Last month, Martine Elyse Philippe, who is Haitian-Cuban American, became the new director of Dallas’ Office of Arts and Culture.
Women leaders of color are often hired by arts groups to diversify programs and reach communities of color. But once they step into these leadership roles, they often don’t have the support to succeed or even stay, according to Artnet contributor Lise Ragbir.
Problems they face include pressures to assimilate, different expectations from their white or male colleagues and added stressors from taking on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, according to six women leaders of color in the arts from across the country.
Afton Battle, one of the first Black women to ever lead a U.S. opera company, resigned in November as general and artistic director of Fort Worth Opera. She left amid tensions over the direction she was taking the company. (Battle declined to speak with The Dallas Morning News or KERA for this article.)
The turnover of women leaders of color is telling, said Kaisha S. Johnson, co-founder of Women of Color in the Arts, a national service organization. Organizations often assert that “we are with you,” Johnson said, but don’t back that up with their actions.
“There’s no more poignant point in bringing in Black and brown leadership and then allowing them to exit [stage] left as soon as it gets real,” said Johnson, who is Black.
So what can be done to address the issues?
Arts groups need to make institutional changes to support these new leaders, according to women leaders of color at these groups. They say solutions often seem obvious, but tend to be overlooked.
1. Change starts with the board
Teresa Coleman Wash, the founder and executive artistic director at Bishop Arts Theatre Center in Dallas, said pushes for equity must start with the board of directors. The board helps manage and guide an organization. Its responsibilities include fundraising, public relations and hiring top leaders.
“I don’t think it’s enough to appoint women of color in leadership positions without having done the work at the board level,” said Coleman Wash, who is Black. If that doesn’t happen, she said, leaders will experience more trauma.
Board members “set the tone” for how women leaders of color will be treated in an organization, Coleman Wash said. “If the leadership is not supporting that person of color, staff members certainly will not.”
Vicki Meek, who managed the South Dallas Cultural Center for almost 20 years, said arts groups need to consider the makeup of their boards. Important factors include race, gender and socioeconomic status, according to Meek, who was the board chair of the National Performance Network for two years.
She said arts groups who want to reach more diverse communities — and support women leaders of color in these efforts — need to move past outreach to what she calls “in-reach.”
“You have to have a governing body that represents the community that you serve,” said Meek, who is Black. “You can’t get ideas about how to serve [diverse communities] if you don’t have anyone speaking from their experience in your governance.”
2. Welcome leaders into the group
Yvette Loynaz, who is director of artistic administration at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, said inclusion and retention start the moment a leader is introduced to an organization.
Loynaz, who is Latina, compares it to inviting a guest into your home. You make sure they feel comfortable and introduce them to others. The initial impression, Loynaz said, is essential for when conflict and challenges arise later on.
“When you feel like you’re being taken care of,” she explained, you’re more likely to stay.
3. Allow women leaders of color to build their teams
Coleman Wash said it’s important to surround women leaders of color with colleagues who will support them and their work.
“We need people on our team who, first of all, are accustomed to championing a woman of color in a leadership position,” Coleman Wash said.
Camille Delaney-McNeil, who is director of Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s youth education program, said she can attest to the challenges of inheriting a team. That’s why she believes new leaders should have more of a say in staffing decisions.
“If I can’t do it right now, I will need a timeline of when I can assess, evaluate and possibly build a new team,” said Delaney-McNeil, who is Black.
When new leaders are given that authority, she said, it allows them to find people who are trying to achieve the same goals.
“We can find folks who are on board with the mission and on board with this kind of evolutionary progress,” she said.
But Meek said it’s hard to diversify arts staff when low salaries make jobs unsustainable for those who aren’t financially privileged. She says that’s why more organizations need to talk about pay equity, which involves recruiting and compensating employees for their level of experience and making sure they are paid a living wage.
“The salaries are abysmal in these organizations,” Meek said. “So these institutions need to start looking at what’s fair remuneration for these jobs.”
4. Let them lead inclusively
To foster a more inclusive workplace, women leaders in the arts say groups need to be willing to change how they make decisions.
“If you’re coming in and bringing something completely new and different and have a lot of big ideas and are very energized to come in and make an impact, it can be very challenging to be constantly met with barriers,” said Loynaz, in St. Louis.
Johnson with Women of Color in the Arts said it’s important to consider how traditional structures are serving an organization to see if there’s a better way forward.
“Perhaps in order to eradicate the power war, maybe you move from a less hierarchical organizational structure to a more horizontal or lateral one, where power is shared among many people,” she said.
The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, for example, started an initiative called the New Works Collective, which invites a group of community members — including a journalist, sociologist, activist and others — to help select new commissions.
Loynaz said the New Works Collective shows “how you involve the community in the process, how you shift and share power in the organization [and] how you center artists through your programming, your process.”
5. Listen and embrace discomfort
Women of color in arts leadership stress the importance of listening and embracing discomfort.
Loynaz, in St. Louis, said inclusion goes hand-in-hand with listening. This is especially important for women leaders, who often face an “authority gap,” or gender bias that leads to women being overlooked, underestimated or ignored, according to Mary Ann Sieghart’s book The Authority Gap.
“It’s easy to hire people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives,” Loynaz said. “For me, retention is really about that step of inclusion. It’s very harmful to bring people on and then not include them, not listen to them.”
She feels heard when her coworkers listen carefully and in silence, and then ask questions about her ideas and how she would proceed.
“That matters,” she said. “And if we move forward with a different decision, that’s okay. But I was included, and I think that’s what it boils down to.”
Khori Dastoor takes a similar approach at the Houston Grand Opera. There, she’s general director and CEO of one of the largest U.S. opera companies.
Dastoor, who is of Southeast Asian and South Asian descent, said listening to staff, artists and area residents leads to programming that resonates with audiences.
“It’s not about what Khori wants to see on the stage or what Khori believes in,” she said. “It comes from listening to the creatives in my organization to identifying talent and really giving them the resources they need.”
Part of listening is being able to sit in discomfort, says Coleman Wash. And that, she said, is one way groups can combat discrimination against women leaders of color.
“We have to have really hard conversations with folks who don’t look like us,” Coleman Wash said. “We cannot continue to talk in an echo chamber with folks who share our values and ideas. We have to be open to listen to everyone.”
6. Prioritize the well-being of women leaders of color
Overlooking the well-being of women of color has far-reaching implications. In fact, burnout is a significant reason why many women of color are switching or quitting jobs during the pandemic, studies say.
Burnout is one of the issues addressed by Women of Color in the Arts (WOCA), which has over 2,000 members from across the country. Johnson, co-founder of WOCA, said the group helps members learn how to assert their boundaries and protect their well-being.
“It’s really about, how do we hold on to our unique [selves] and still be able to go into situations that do not value our unique [selves]?” she said.
As a mother, director and wife, Delaney-McNeil, director of YOLA, said she’s had to learn to say no to protect her boundaries. She often feels burdened by the idea that she can handle anything.
“What I have felt in my work to date is the assumption that I can take care of it all, that I can do it all,” she said. “You know that, ‘Oh, you’re so strong or you’re this or that,’ and this assumption that it is my burden. Me as a woman of color in leadership to take all this on.”
Working to combat that stereotype, WOCA supports women beyond their jobs, helping them find ways to stay healthy — mentally, physically and emotionally.
“A woman of color does not enter any professional place as just the professional,” Johnson said. “It’s their whole being that enters the space. And so that includes being able to talk about and nurture their well-being.”
Nurturing their well-being is made harder by the wear and tear of microaggressions. These are everyday and subtle actions that reveal bias toward marginalized groups. Microaggressions can lead to increased rates of depression, anxiety, stress and even heart disease, according to a Pfizer study.
They can also be hurtful reminders that a woman of color does not look like a traditional leader of an orchestra or opera or theater company, Coleman Wash said.
In a 2018 opinion piece called “The Ugly Truth About Arts Institutions Led by Women of Color,” she wrote about the racism, classism and sexism she has faced as a woman of color leading an arts group.
“Hidden behind a race-neutral job description is an expectation, grounded in a stereotype, of what a theater leader needs to look like: white and male,” she wrote.
To challenge stereotypes about arts leaders, Coleman Wash said groups need to prioritize the well-being of women leaders of color. That means making lasting changes that set “folks up for success, rather than giving them responsibilities that we know are Herculean efforts that no one can accomplish.”
And that process, of course, comes with its own challenges. Coleman Wash believes it’s worth the effort.
“Organizations want to be on the right side of history and we see across the nation that our systems are failing,” she said. “Our systems are failing because we are doing the same thing. We’ve invested in the same people and that same investment should go toward people who historically have not been in those roles. But that’s going to take time.”
- Speak On It: The Wisdom of Black Women Arts Leaders
- “The Problem” Women of Color in the Workplace
- The Role Of Senior Leaders In Building A Race Equity Culture
- Centering Black Women: Aligned Actions Worksheet
Arts Access is a partnership between The Dallas Morning News and KERA that expands local arts, music and culture coverage through the lens of access and equity.
This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.