New York City Seeks Hard Data on Diversity at Its Cultural Institutions

By Michael Nam

New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs will conduct a wide survey of its cultural institutions this summer. According to The New York Times, it will cover the diversity of board members, hired staff and even the audiences for institutions from museums to public gardens. A private nonprofit vendor will be selected to administer the survey.

There is no indication what the data will be used for at this time, but Tom Finkelpearl, the city’s Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, is explicit about how the report won’t be used.

“We’re not looking to be punitive,” Finkelpearl said. “We don’t want a moment when a list gets published that says, ‘Here are the least and most diverse organizations.’ The administration is committed to diversity as a general goal. We want to know by sector, what can we learn from how people develop audiences and staffs and boards, highlighting the positive, sharing best practices.”

One key promise Mayor Bill de Blasio made during his campaign was that his administration would reflect more of the diversity of the city itself. The survey looks to address what is likely a nationwide situation with the arts and other publicly financed cultural organizations. As Finkelpearl says, “Over 90 percent of staffs at museums nationally are white.”

Additionally, in a Crain’s New York Business forum, Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who is involved with the survey as Chairman of the city’s Cultural Affairs Committee, expressed his intention to pass legislation to commit the city to systemic planning for cultural activities. Fellow Councilman Stephen Levin also supports the legislation, and Van Bramer indicated that the bill “is very close to passing.”

This approach to cultural planning is to take more specific actions than just a survey, as detailed by Van Bramer on his website.

The plan will require the Department of Cultural Affairs to analyze whether some neighborhoods are better served by culture than others. It will require an analysis of the needs of artists. It will also require the department to outline how it intends to increase participation in cultural activities throughout the city. By including these real, straightforward and tangible goals, New York City will have a clear plan and goal as to how to maintain its status as the cultural capital of the world.

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