If commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion has grown more apparent at orchestras around the country, that’s likely because it has increasingly become a full-time job. The number of leadership positions specifically focused on some permutation of EDI have multiplied following the calls for social justice that ignited during pandemic shutdowns. As live performances have resumed, many orchestras are reevaluating how best to connect with and serve their communities, a mission that’s essential to their survival.
“Our history suggests that representation, diversity, and inclusion doesn’t just happen; it has to be intentional and committed to,” says Harold Brown, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, where he was among the first top brass doing such work at American orchestras when he was hired in March 2021. “George Floyd’s death spurred folks to action, and I think people finally got the message,” Brown adds, noting that EDI initiatives had been on the rise at orchestras over the past 10 years but have recently kicked into high gear.
Orchestras with EDI as part of their core mission consider such principles integral to every part of their organization. A growing class of leadership roles are positioned within existing administrative structures in different ways, which reflect the many aspects of operations their priorities encompass. What unites these new leaders, who largely report to orchestra CEOs, is the intention to welcome people with diverse lived experiences to work behind the scenes, perform on stage, and connect with their programming. Such efforts work synergistically; diverse artists on stage can help attract diverse audiences, and education initiatives that reach diverse young people can lead to more diverse orchestra professionals and audience members—the people who are key to the artform’s future. “It’s a really pivotal moment in terms of orchestra culture, behavior, and business,” says Caen Thomason-Redus, Vice President for Inclusion and Learning at the League of American Orchestras. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm among the people doing this work, and that’s momentum we need to maintain and hopefully build on.”
A Focus on People and Culture
Making orchestras feel like a welcoming environment for people from all walks is a major objective for EDI leadership. Though such efforts may be more visible to the public in concert halls, that work is also being done behind the scenes among administrative staff and executive boards. “We’re really intentional about trying to create a space where everyone feels valued, heard, and engaged to do their best work,” says Sheri Notaro, Vice President of People and Culture at the Minnesota Orchestra, where her position has replaced what was previously known as a human resources leadership role and now has a wider scope.
A conceptual focus on people and culture means Notaro’s purview extends across how the Minnesota Orchestra connects with everyone who comes into contact with the organization, including in education, programming, community engagement, and audience growth. “We’re really distributing DEI and antiracism across departments so that it doesn’t seem like a silo or some separate activity,” Notaro says.
In carrying out the orchestra’s human resources functions, Notaro oversees how people from diverse backgrounds are brought in and supported by the organization. “We’re very particular and transparent about interrogating hiring processes and looking for ways to make them as fair and equitable as we can,” Notaro says. Creating a culture where people feel welcomed and want to stay long-term is another key priority, not just in cultivating a dynamic and forward-thinking workplace, but in competing to attract top talent.
That was one draw for Notaro herself, who recognized the Minnesota Orchestra’s existing commitment to inclusivity as she considered taking on her role. “I could feel that the culture was a warm and supportive place to be and that they want to do even better,” Notaro says.
Education and Community Engagement
Strengthening ties with local communities, and responding to their needs, is another major focus of EDI efforts, and marks a shift away from the conventional elitism that has sometimes characterized larger institutions. “We need to be listening to what the community wants as opposed to sitting up in an ivory tower and waiting for the folks to come and pay us,” Brown says.
For Orchestra Lumos, which has only four full-time staff, reaching the broader community of Fairfield County, Conn., was part of what inspired its name change last year, from Stamford Symphony. As part of Lumos Orchestra’s core team, Nicolas Gonzalez, Director of Learning and Community Engagement, says EDI is central to his work on education and other community-focused programs. “Among the areas we serve, Stamford has the highest need for music education and access to opportunities, so I work very closely with schools to make sure our musicians are inspiring kids and reinforcing techniques” when they work with the city’s middle and high school students, who are 50% people of color, on music instruction, Gonzalez says. “I also make sure music is happening in places where it wasn’t before, or with programs that draw diverse communities together,” including a partnership with a Stamford immigration center, and devising events and marketing materials in both English and Spanish. [Orchestra Lumos recently announced that Gonzalez would step down in June to become Associate Vice President for Strategic Innovation and Special Initiatives at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City.]
At the Norfolk-based Virginia Symphony Orchestra, education initiatives extend to developing a pathway for aspiring musicians in-house. A fellowship program that began last year is offering four young Black musicians extensive training with the VSO, including mentorship, private lessons, and audition prep. “We’re trying to help them be successful in their careers as performers, so they know what to expect as professional musicians,” says VSO Director of Diversity and Engagement Nikki Thorpe, who works closely with every department on their EDI goals.
Developing Inclusive Programming
EDI leaders are also working to diversify orchestra programming, both on their own stages and in partnership with their surrounding communities. “We are making an impact by going out to where people are; that’s as important as inviting people in,” Thorpe says, noting a Christmas event that the Virginia Symphony organized with a church in the Hampton Roads area, which is 40% Black. People from that area were not coming to the orchestra’s concerts, Thorpe says. Bringing the symphony to the congregation has led to ongoing crossover. Later, the orchestra invited the church’s gospel choir to sing at a pops concert, an example of how community engagement can shape programming.
Thorpe, Notaro, and others also cite having a voice in collaborative artistic decision-making, which has increasingly showcased more diverse composers, musicians, and guest performers. In May, the Minnesota Orchestra will debut a commissioned piece called “brea(d)th”, from composer Carlos Simon and librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, inspired by the legacy of George Floyd, a powerful touchstone for the Twin Cities community. “That trauma has not gone away,” Notaro says. “This piece is very much in response to that continued reckoning, and we’re really excited to support artists who are bringing something different and new to the stage.”
In Stamford, whose population is close to 30% Hispanic or Latinx, Gonzalez says he hears more Spanish being spoken in the concert hall lobby when Lumos programs culturally specific artists. “When we offer bilingual programming or have artists of color on stage, people who feel represented or identify with the artists are showing up,” Gonzalez says.
Communication is a key component of EDI work when it comes to reaching potential audiences where they are and speaking their language (at the Virginia Symphony, for example, the communications manager works under Thorpe). But internal communication is also essential for EDI leaders, whose mission reaches across every department and impacts many different groups, including musicians, staff, board, and audiences.
“We really need to focus on how we are communicating and collaborating internally on this work,” says the League’s Thomason-Redus, who works to support the growing number of EDI leaders in the field. “Consensus building is probably the toughest challenge for any EDI professional,” he says. Fortunately, many leaders feel their mission is supported, or even driven by, their organizations’ core values, so that the importance of their work is clearly acknowledged. But the processes for drawing input, and for articulating what’s being done and why, are areas of focus for future progress.
Helping people recognize the value of EDI work also ensures its sustainability with adequate funding and resources. One model has been to carve out administrative positions that fit within existing departments, like HR or community engagement. Brown’s position at the Cincinnati Symphony is endowed by a board member, which guarantees its funding beyond his tenure. “The culture of philanthropy supporting the artistic community needs to embrace the need for this internal work as much as external programming,” Thomason-Redus says.
EDI leaders are helping orchestras understand what it means to engage with communities that are becoming more diverse, a mission that’s crucial to both artistic richness and the longevity of their organizations. That doesn’t mean they haven’t encountered some resistance, for example from patrons who prefer familiar repertoire. But programming a season with old favorites and work from underrepresented artists is a balancing act. “We don’t have to take away anything from anybody, we have to continue to build,” Brown says. “This is a field that’s steeped in tradition, but long-term successful organizations have to innovate.”