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A study focused on the Canadian Arts Summit, an annual gathering that includes 125 of the largest arts and cultural organizations in Canada, found that only 5.7 per cent of chief executive officers of those organizations are people of colour, while 94.3 per cent of CEOs are white.Karolina Kuras

Charlie Wall-Andrews is a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar, PhD (ABD) candidate at Ted Rogers School of Management and recently appointed to the board of the Canada Council for the Arts. Owais Lightwala is an assistant professor at The Creative School, Toronto Metropolitan University.

Diversity may be one of Canada’s best qualities, but it’s not one the Canadian arts can take credit for.

In 2020, we sought to find out if Canada’s cultural institutions show how diverse the country is. We looked at the Canadian Arts Summit, an annual gathering that includes 125 of the largest arts and cultural organizations in Canada (including the National Ballet of Canada, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and National Theatre School), through the lens of geographic, gender and racial diversity, especially in executive leadership.

Our study found that only 5.7 per cent of chief executives are people of colour, while 94.3 per cent of chief executives are white. We also looked at the artistic directors and board chairs, who are also in charge. Only 7.3 per cent and 7.5 per cent of these roles, respectively, are filled by people of colour.

The 2016 Canadian census, on the other hand, shows that 27.2 per cent of the country’s people are Indigenous, Black and from a racialized demographic, which increased to 31.5 per cent as of the 2021 census. This number is expected to rise to more than 40 per cent by 2036.

The average number of racially mixed people in Canada’s seven biggest cities (Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Vancouver), where three-quarters of the summit members live, is already 38 per cent. White women do a little better in leadership, making up 43 per cent of chief executives or executive directors, but they are only half as likely as white men to be an artistic director or board chair.

Why does this matter? With a few exceptions, almost all of the members of the arts summit are non-profit organizations, either independent charities or institutions that are owned by the government. Legally, for an organization to be non-profit, it must exist mainly for the good of the “public.”

But how can you serve a public that you don’t speak for? And as the “minorities” continue to quickly become the majority, how will the arts and cultural institutions stay important in these communities? Our arts and cultural institutions are a big part of what makes us who we are as a country. Who decides what these Canadian stories are about?

At the Canadian Arts Summit, the leaders of Canada’s largest arts groups gather to talk about how they can shape the future of the arts, and have a direct effect on public policy agendas. It was started by a small group of 20 important institutions, but there have been efforts to get more organizations from all over the country to join.

Still, the annual summit meeting could easily be mistaken for an old-fashioned country club. It shouldn’t have to be said again in 2022, but having a diverse group of leaders is important. Business research has known for a long time that diversity is good for business and innovation. Diversity in leadership is linked to better governance and management, and it shows the rest of the community who belongs and who doesn’t.

Of the 125 organizations we looked at, 49 had public statements on their websites about commitments to equality, diversity and inclusion, or EDI. Many people have worked to solve the “pipeline problem” by taking anti-oppression and anti-racism trainings, hiring diversity consultants and making mentorship programs.

In the meantime, public funders have “diversity and inclusion” criteria in their applications. These are boilerplate sections that ask for moral commitments but don’t have any way to measure them objectively. Instead of patting someone on the back, why not set benchmarks that can be measured objectively and used across the sector? Or by giving cash prizes to organizations that have already started using EDI. Agencies who give money have the most power to change things.

This isn’t just about being represented because it’s the right thing to do. It is a question of life and death for the arts.

A dangerous type of right-wing populism is growing around the world, and the arts already must fight hard against the idea that they are useless. If the arts and culture world can’t explain why it’s important to Canadians, how long will it be before a reckoning leads to the end of public funding, which is already too low?

We are going through a crisis of relevance, and if our arts and cultural institutions want to keep going, they can’t just be for the rich.

Acknowledgments to Rochelle Wijesingha and Wendy Cukier as authors on this study. The views expressed in this article are of the authors only.