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28004: Wharram (commentary) Why so white? Artists answer (fwd)

From Bruce Wharram <bruce.wharram@sev.org>

  R E L A T E D   C O N T E N T
"They don't want to go home with their violins because they might get picked
on ... No one wants to be the dork, black or white." - Rudy Perrault, Duluth
Classical Musician And Educator
Amanda Odeski/News Tribune

Posted on Thu, Feb. 23, 2006
Why so white? Artists answer

As a young boy growing up in Haiti, Rudy Perrault felt destined to become a
classical violinist. His mother thought he was nuts.

But Perrault moved to Philadelphia anyway, and studied music at Temple
University. Usually, he was the only black person on stage.

"I started thinking maybe she is right, maybe I'm coming into a world that's
not mine..." said Perrault, a Duluth performer, conductor and composer. "It
is frightening that in a country where the population is so diverse, that in
the orchestras, it's not."

Across the nation, it's often difficult to find minority artists and arts
administrators working in traditionally white, European arts forms such as
classical music, ballet, theater and museum art. It's even harder to find
statistics. Requests for research came up empty, from organizations such as
the Minnesota State Arts Board all the way up to national social policy
researchers at the Urban Institute. "Research on this topic just hasn't been
done," said Kathleen Kvern, project director of www.mnartists.org, an online
media center for Minnesota artists.

In Duluth, the situation is pretty obvious to anyone with working eyeballs.

It's awfully white on our stages. It's awfully white in the seats, too.

Duluth's an awfully white city. Ninety-three percent white, says the 2000
U.S. Census. We are 2.4 percent American Indian/Native Alaskan; 1.6 percent
black/African American and 1.1 percent Asian and Hispanic/Latino.

So can anyone blame our orchestras and ballets and theaters if they're not
the Black-Eyed Peas?

Yet the arts are where the conflicts of society and the human condition play
out. Whether it's Lorraine Hansberry's visionary "A Raisin in the Sun" or
Werner Bischof's pleading "Hunger in India" photo, art is about
enlightenment, education, communication.

So what good is art that just presents what's already familiar?

"Art is diversity," said Tonya Sconiers, a black assistant principal at
Denfeld High School who has acted at The Duluth Playhouse. "If even one
(culture) is not acknowledged, then we're denying people of what art is
truly about."

Local arts administrators and artists of color gave myriad reasons why
diversity in arts is lagging behind diversity in the local population:
Socio-economics. Image. Lack of arts education in schools. Most
discouraging, the lack of diversity appears to feed itself.

"When you get diversity on stage, someone in the audience can think 'Oh,
maybe I can do that or maybe my son would like to do that some day,"' said
Perrault, who is director of orchestras at the University of Minnesota

"People of any color -- white, black, green, brown -- can do it. But first
they've got to want to do it. If they see it as, 'That's not my place,' then
they're not going to work for it."


The Minnesota Ballet, Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, Duluth Art
Institute and The Duluth Playhouse are nonprofit performing arts
organizations that rely primarily on local talent. Their annual budgets are
large enough to afford outreach and diversity programming.

These organizations present art styles invented and largely defined by white
Europeans. Ballet is rooted in 16th century French and Italian courts.
Classical music's foundation was laid in the Middle Ages. Theater as
Westerners know it was born in ancient Greece. Although the history of
visual art is informed globally, you'll find the majority of non-European
art segregated and shoved into the back of art history textbooks.

That's an awfully long, white history.

"It's 400 years worth of work. It's not going to change overnight," said
Allen Fields, who is part Native American and the artistic director at the
Minnesota Ballet.

Historically, performance halls haven't been spectacularly welcoming places
for people of all colors, either, said Andrew Berryhill, the DSSO's white
executive director. To promote fairness and equality, the DSSO auditions
musicians behind a screen.

Other organizations actively pursue minority hires. The Minnesota Ballet's
company of 14 dancers includes a native of Russia, three Jewish dancers and
two Native American dancers.

That's not diverse enough for Fields, who understands prejudice on several
fronts. Not only did Fields grow up in North Carolina during desegregation,
he has been in a same-gender relationship for 22 years. After trying both
auditions in New York and advertising through national dance magazines,
Fields said neither method draws a very racially diverse pool. In 13 years,
he's had just three black dancers even audition.

Ojibwe artist Carl Gawboy said it's vital for both artists and arts
organizations to be persistent. He pointed to what diversity did for
American popular music -- the creation of blues, jazz and rock 'n' roll --
genres he believes just about anyone can identify with.

"I think American music is incredibly richer because of the diversity and
input of minorities," said Gawboy, who is an adjunct American Indian studies
teacher at the College of St. Scholastica. "Then think about visual arts,
sculpture and painting, what a rich experience we could have if that was
developed to its potential. The arts are for everybody and the more that we
add to the gumbo, the better it is."


Many arts administrators believe the income gap between whites and
minorities is the biggest barrier to diversity.

"If we in the symphony are only playing to people in two different zip codes
in Duluth, and only playing music written between Bach and Brahms because
that's what those people in those two zip codes want to hear, we're not
doing the job of presenting moving artistic experiences (for the entire
community)," Berryhill said.

Art costs. For example, a parent can spend $2,500 a year for a child's
upper-level ballet experience, similar to the cost of playing hockey. And
ticket prices go up as organizations hire more professional artists.

But as nonprofits with missions to serve the entire community, the local
organizations keep trying.

All four offer inexpensive or free ways to participate, as well as
scholarships to classes and youth performing arts groups. To reach a wider
audience, they work with local social organizations such as CHUM or
LifeHouse. Arts organizations donate tickets to social organizations so
their clients can attend or sell them at fundraisers. Some invite groups to
view dress rehearsals for free.

They also go to budding artists and audiences, including those in Duluth's
classrooms. The art institute opened a satellite building in the Lincoln
Park neighborhood. "Being positioned there sends a strong signal that we are
interested in that diversity," said Samantha Gibb Roff, the institute's
executive director, who is white.

Ojibwe artist Wendy Savage said organizations' responsibilities go beyond
outreach to supporting artists by promoting and compensating them for their
work. She said Native artists aren't considered often for large, high-paying
projects. She pointed to the $250,000 "Wild Ricing Moon" public art project
at UMD, where she teaches American Indian Studies. The image is inspired by
Ojibwe culture, but created by a white artist.

"That's the stuff that pisses me off," Savage said. "When it's in vogue to
do Indian art, they hire a nonnative artist to make a profit. What few
opportunities are out there for nonnative artists, they aren't even


Even if everyone could be put on a level playing field via pay, scholarships
and donated tickets, there's still got to be a desire among minorities to
participate in and attend art events. To some people, the arts'
exclusionary, crusty-as-pie image might as well be a brick wall.

"The general feeling in the community is that the arts is for a certain
class of people and a certain race of people and we need to start from that
premise first, that that is not the case," Sconiers said.

Perrault, a board member at both DSSO and Sacred Heart Music Center,
believes just his presence on stage can help promote that change. "I can see
people looking at me. I feel the eyes. I don't let that bother me, because
I'm there to educate," Perrault said. "I'm there to show you I can do just
as good a job. And sometimes better."

Perrault argues classical music needs a full-blown makeover, something that
does for his genre what rapper Kanye West's Grammy performance did for
marching bands -- make it look cool. Perrault tries to do that with frequent
visits to his daughter's class at Grant Elementary School. "They don't want
to go home with their violins because they might get picked on," he said.
"No one wants to be the dork, black or white."

Sconiers said it's not enough for organizations to open doors. They need to
knock on other people's doors. Both times she acted at the Playhouse, she
was personally invited.

Sconiers believes people of color also need to take a leap of faith:
Although the arts may be outside a person's comfort zone, it's important to
make an effort and set an example for minority children.


Efforts to include people of color in the art world have been
well-intentioned, but artists often still feel snubbed or pigeonholed.

Savage said Native American artists are "absolutely not" treated the same
way white artists are treated. She pointed out that Native American art is
often presented in a separate exhibit. As a board member on the Arrowhead
Regional Arts Council, she said she learned firsthand that minority exhibits
are often scheduled by organizations to increase the chance of federal

"In an ideal world you shouldn't have to have shows done just specifically
for artists of color," Savage said. "They should be automatically included
as part of the process."

Berryhill said instead of doing a separate Black History Month concert, he'd
rather perform a Duke Ellington composition in the main season. "Our
challenge is how do we present a great artistic program. That's what we do,"
he said. "It would be pretty shameful to have a quota of something that took
us out of presenting a compelling artistic program."

Many local presenting organizations import talent. Sacred Heart Music Center
or the College of St. Scholastica can bring in an African vocal group or a
Brazilian quintet. However, performing organizations depend mainly on the
local artist pool.

Playhouse Executive Director Christine Gradl-Seitz, who is white, said it's
not enough for the Playhouse to reflect the level and types of diversity
within the community. "It's about educating and broadening the horizons of
our community with different viewpoints from other areas," she said. "What
complicates that is often maybe we don't have that kind of diversity here
(at auditions)."

The Playhouse and the Minnesota Ballet have cast mixed race families in
works where race isn't specified. But doing mixed-race casting in a work
that specifically requires an all-black cast is controversial.

The Playhouse has shied away from works like "The King and I" as
inappropriate. "It is such a great musical, but we just don't think that's a
high standard, to have a bunch of Norwegian kids with black wigs on them,"
Gradl Seitz said.

Other groups have opted to tweak a piece rather than not perform it at all.
In 2004, the DSSO performed "And They Lynched Him From a Tree," a cantata
written in 1940 by William Grant Still, the first black person to conduct a
professional symphony orchestra in the United States.

The original score called for a black chorus and a white chorus. Berryhill
had hoped to recruit a black community choir. But the work was written in
1940 and included some stereotypical language that turned many black singers
off, Berryhill said. The Arrowhead Chorale and DSSO Chorus, which had just a
few black singers, got on board. Berryhill said seeing the white singers
sing the black singers' words and vice versa may have seemed "a little
weird" to some people. But DSSO management believed the work's message was
too meaningful to be overlooked.

An arts institution can show ongoing commitment by involving more minority
artists and thinkers in the planning process -- voting them onto boards, for
instance, the artists suggested.

Sconiers believes once more minorities are helping select programming, the
minority talent pool may turn out to be larger than anyone thinks. "Is it
the chicken or egg? How do we know that the plays being done just don't
interest them and bring them forward?" she asked.

Perrault isn't sure what's in the glue that might eventually bond minorities
and fine arts. But he knows everyone just needs to keep stirring
contributions into the mix.

"It's just chipping away at it a little bit at a time. Certainly not resting
on our laurels and saying oh, well, we did this one time," Perrault said.
"That's just the first step. A bazillion more steps need to be taken here."
SARAH HENNING covers arts and entertainment. She can be reached at (218)
279-5536 or by e-mail at shenning@duluthnews.com.