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For wider audience, organizations must hire diversely: NY cultural commissioner

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 03: Commissioner, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Tom Finkelpearl attends The Art Show 2015 at the Park Avenue Armory on March 3, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images)

Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

It has been an invigorating and hopeful week in the cultural sector. The CBC took the occasion of Toronto's Reel Asian International Film Festival to unveil a $7.5-million fund that will support feature films written or directed by women, indigenous people, visible minorities or people with disabilities – all creators who are significantly underrepresented in Canadian cinema.

In another part of the forest, the Royal Ontario Museum apologized for hurt caused by its Into the Heart of Africa exhibition 27 years ago, saying the display of African artifacts collected by white missionaries only perpetuated racism, and announced a series of bridge-building initiatives, including two museological internships for black youth, an annual lecture on African culture and the diaspora, and a major contemporary exhibition in 2018.

And, on the day of the U.S. election, New York's cultural commissioner Tom Finkelpearl visited Toronto to explain to an audience of business and cultural executives how he is helping the arts reach new audiences. Organized by the RamsayTalks speakers series, it was an illuminating presentation, filled with practical ideas about how urban arts groups can serve their multicultural cities – and offering glimpses of the bigger picture. In both Canada and the United States, it is do-or-die time for arts organizations whose traditional audiences of older white people are steadily shrinking as a new generation that prefers digital media does not pick up its parents' museum or theatre habit. "If you want to be a vibrant and relevant institution in five to 10 years, you have to think about diversity," Finkelpearl said in an interview after his talk.

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Finkelpearl is a former art museum director: he got his reputation as a problem-solving populist at the Queens Museum, a visual arts centre located in a New York borough where 65 per cent of heads of household were not born in the United States. From 2002 to 2014, he oversaw both a major building expansion and a major rethink of the organization's mandate. Figuring he could hardly compete with the downtown heavyweights such as the Metropolitan Museum or Museum of Modern Art, he looked to Queens' rich ethnic mix to make the place relevant to its own neighbours. The plan began with the obvious: exhibitions targeted at particular groups well represented in Queens, such as one devoted to art from Mexico City or another of contemporary Tibetan art.

The problem with this approach, he argues, is that it maintains an us-them distinction: the white institution is reaching out to the diverse population. To really engage, the institution has to become diverse itself: When Finkelpearl arrived at the Queens Museum, there might have been lots of Hispanics cleaning the building or providing security but there was nobody on the "upstairs" staff – that is, the museum professionals who created and marketed the programming – who spoke Spanish as a first language; by the time he left, nine out of those 50 staffers were Spanish-speakers.

One of the clearest messages Finklepearl had for Canadian institutions that are facing similar issues is that they must see every new hire as opportunity to diversify staff. Organizations with diverse staff reliably attract more diverse audiences, he said.

And, at the Queens Museum, his definition of diverse hiring was not simply about ethnicity; figuring that art curators did not necessarily know about engagement, he began hiring community organizers to develop art-based programming that would draw in groups such as undocumented immigrant workers or transgender youth. The museum began doing off-site programming in a public plaza, including dance performances and craft shows from local immigrant communities as well as booths run by relevant social service organizations. In short, Finklepearl turned an art museum into something that looks a lot more like a community centre.

Now, he is applying a similar philosophy in the city's department of cultural affairs, where he oversees relations with the 33 New York cultural organizations that operate out of city-owned premises, including the American Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Hall and several botanical gardens and zoos. New York has a municipal identification card that is available to undocumented immigrants: one of Finkelpearl's initiatives has been offering free membership in the city's cultural organizations to people with the card – who tend to avoid all public institutions because they fear deportation. The city has also recently collaborated with the City University of New York to offer students paid internships with cultural institutions as a way of naturally diversifying the arts hiring pool.

Meanwhile, Finkelpearl is hoping to collaborate more with public libraries – which, he points out, are more democratically distributed around a city than arts institutions are – and increase arts participation by people with disabilities. He also wants to work with the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment, which oversees relations with Broadway and the film industry, thus pushing diversity initiatives across the non-profit divide into the commercial realm.

Meanwhile, back in Queens, his legacy lives on: This weekend, the museum is offering free admission, art-making for adults and children, and information about community resources for anybody who might be feeling vulnerable. It is calling the event an "open house for unity."

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About the Author

Kate Taylor is lead film critic at the Globe and Mail and a columnist in the arts section. More

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