Lack of diversity in Canada’s art scene should raise eyebrows

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Pradip Rodrigues

Time and again observers and activists have pointed out the obvious lack of diversity in Hollywood, but few could’ve predicted that 2016 would be the year the issue would snowball into a huge and embarrassing controversy. Following the 2016 Oscar nominations announcement on Jan. 14th, people of color were  conspicuous by their absence and what followed were rumbles of protests from Hollywood insiders. Two of their comments summed up what’s wrong not just in Hollywood but in the world of art in general all across the continent, including Canada which I will get to in a moment.
Here’s what Spike Lee had to say: “As I see it, the Academy Awards is not where the “real” battle is. It’s in the executive office of the Hollywood studios and TV and cable networks. This is where the gatekeepers decide what gets made and what gets jettisoned to ‘turnaround’ or scrap heap. This is what’s important…The truth is we ain’t in those rooms and until minorities are, the Oscar nominees will remain lilly white.”
Actor Will Smith, who decided against attending the Oscars this year was bang on when he said: “The nominations reflect the Academy, the Academy reflects the industry; reflects Hollywood. The industry reflects America.”

Do the arts in Canada reflect its diversity?

Insular arts organizations in this country have long functioned like exclusive private clubs and have been flying under the radar, as long as they have received adequate funding they’ve done little or nothing to nurture or encourage more participation from minorities. Needless to say they’ve escaped scrutiny. But the winds of change are blowing in their direction. Periodically arts organizations make token gestures demonstrating their commitment to being more inclusive and giving artistes and performers from ethnic minorities their fifteen minutes of fame but mostly it has been benevolent neglect.
Last week with little fanfare, the Canada Council for the Arts presented a new funding model the goes into effect in April, 2017. For the first time ever diversity has been directly tied to funding for large arts organizations that receive over $2 million. This is a paradigm shift indeed!
When applying for funding in the near future, arts organizations will have to show evidence that they’ve made efforts to reach out, engage with and more importantly reflect the demographics of the region from where they operate. The steps and progress they make in  reflecting diversity would determine the size of their grants. By that definition most arts organizations in  multicultural, polyglot Toronto would fail miserably.
Arts organizations across the land are undoubtedly scrambling to ensure they can reflect or atleast make serious efforts to ensure more people of color attend their performances. There is a very good incentive in doing that because Canada Council’s budget is expected to double over the next two years – from $180-million to $360-million.
To be fair a few organizations have made some serious attempts to reach out to certain target demographics based on perceived and known interest. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, (TSO) for example direct their marketing efforts toward Russians and Chinese who have a passion and affinity for western classical music. But it will be a herculean task for the TSO or any other arts organization in the city to increase diversity without a more in-depth understanding of the ethnic group they hope to attract.
The Mississauga Symphony Orchestra, (MSO) like so many others do not even factor in the demographic makeup of their geographical region when it comes to engaging and reaching out to ethnic minorities. In a statement to Can-India, a spokesperson said: “The MSO does not market to specific ethnic groups within our community. We employ a broad spectrum marketing strategy. We target certain age groups who have interests in classical music, or classical music that is featured in film, video games, etc (younger demography), but not towards ethnic groups in particular.”

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The Shaw Festival is making some serious efforts

I spoke with Tim Jennings, the recently appointed executive director of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-lake, a forward thinking progressive who is determined to make the largely Caucasian dominated Shaw Festival reflective of the region’s changing demography. According to the 2011 census, Ontario’s visible minority population stands at 25.9 per and another 2.4 per cent aboriginal. “We need to engage new immigrant communities. Jennings also points out that George Bernard Shaw, was a champion of women’s rights in the 18th century and social reform. “Given his values, engaging new Canadians and ethnic minorities should be our core value,” he added.
The challenge of getting more ethnic voices and participation.

‘Old stock’ Canadians often know little about ethnic minorities

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There is a perception in the arts community that South Asians have little or no affinity for western arts and culture. I’ve actually spoken with some Caucasians connected with the arts who found it ‘fascinating’ that Shakespeare plays and Western classical music flourishes in India and has a large and growing audience base. Right here in the GTA, there are thousands of South Asian children taking violin and piano lessons, art classes etc, they and their parents alone would constitute thousands of would be theater goers or visitors to art exhibitions. But most do not even bother to go. Why? Apathy to some extent, but I’ve talked to people I know would enjoy taking in a play or going to a concert by the MSO or TSO, but what holds them back is wondering if they’d fit in, some fretted about feeling out of place. They are acutely aware that they would be seen as outsiders in a club dominated by mostly white and graying audiences. That is the image mainstream arts organizations need to shed. There needs to be what I’d call a cultural perestroika.

It makes business sense

Many arts organizations are chasing an ever shrinking audience base. It is getting harder to attract and nurture new audiences for euro-centric organizations. As ethnic populations grow and mature, event organizers from within the communities arrange to bring down popular artistes from the old countries. For so long ethnic minorities have been ignored by mainstream arts organizations that today few in these communities seem to care whether they exist or not.
Arts organizations making belated efforts to engage new Canadians and other ethnic minorities have to accept this sobering reality. On the other hand getting them through the door and encouraging them to showcase their talent and participate in the decision making process that happens in boardrooms is key. New Canadians are not naïve, they are perhaps the most educated wave of immigrants ever to hit our shores. If art organizations expect to thrive if not simply survive 20 years from now, their success in engaging these new Canadians today will determine their future survival. As Anu Vittal, the executive director of Mississauga Art Council (MAC) points out, “Engaging diverse audiences opens up new marketing revenue streams. Encouraging new Canadians to attend a Beethoven concert could inspire their children to take up a musical instrument. AT MAC we’ve taken many steps to be reflective of Mississauga which is 52 per cent non-white. Needless to say, Vittal who is perhaps one of the few non-Whites ever to head an arts organization in Canada brings a lot to the table.
When Shaw Festival’s Tim Jennings travels to a new country, he first visits the art galleries and scans what’s on in the cultural world. That gives him a glimpse and an understanding of the culture of a place and its people. It’s a starting point to understanding a society. Perhaps new Canadians would be best served if they received an orientation in the arts. It could be be a vital tool in integrating new Canadians into a very multicultural Canada.

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