How diversity can help Michigan arts organizations

Mar 31, 2014

Gabriela Frank is probably not what comes to mind when you think of a contemporary classical music composer.  For starters, she considers herself a hippie.

“I was born in the 1970s in Berkeley, California, during the Vietnam protests," says Frank. "My dad was a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx who married a Peruvian woman from the coast. I’m also a woman and I have a hearing loss, so technically I’m disabled as well.”

Gabriela Frank
Gabriela Frank
Credit sphinxmusic.org

She covers a lot of bases when it comes to diversity. You can hear some of her music by clicking here.

When she’s composing music, she thinks of “diversity” as a door through which she can explore a wider universe of sound.

“For me, diversity is a portal and an invitation. It’s not a wall or a barrier,” says Frank.

She says her compositions become richer when they’re inspired by different cultures and places.

Frank is the composer-in-residence with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

She says the world of classical music must embrace diversity when it comes to its audiences and its players. If not, then its future is bleak.

“I think the art will die if art is not rejuvenated. We’re losing our audiences," says Frank. "Classical music has been talking about this for a long time, and we’re not tapping a brilliant audience out there that’s beyond the normal demographic.”

Black and Latino musicians make up roughly 5% of orchestras, according to the League of American Orchestras. And audience members and the people who work for arts organizations are predominantly white, according to Clayton Lord with Americans for the Arts.

“The reality is that’s not what America looks like now and it’s not what America is going to look like in the next ten or twenty years,” says Lord.

He says the research shows minority audiences tend to seek out art that reflects their lives. So if arts organizations can tell more stories on their stages, where more people can see themselves in that art, then they can grow their audiences and potentially bring in more dollars.

He says a great example of an arts organization pursuing diversity, both on-stage and off, is the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. It uses a model called “radical hospitality” where audience members can pay for their ticket on a sliding scale. The theatre also provides a certain number of free tickets for every performance.

In Michigan, arts organizations are also thinking seriously about diversity. The Jewish Ensemble Theatre in West Bloomfield has an ongoing collaboration with Plowshares Theatre Company, an African-American company based in Detroit. Together they just produced “1300 Lafayette East,” a play about a friendship between two women in Detroit during the 1967 riots.

Actors Andrew Papa, Lisa Lauren Smith, and Sharla Mills in 1300 Lafayette East
Actors Andrew Papa, Lisa Lauren Smith, and Sharla Mills in 1300 Lafayette East
Credit Plowshares Theatre Company

Diversity is on the radar for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra as well. Music director Leonard Slatkin recently wrote about diversity in the Detroit Free Press: “As more and more minorities make inroads in our society, we must not forget that America is an inclusive society…. This means making great music available to all, as both listeners and participants.”

The DSO has hosted its Classical Roots series for 35 years, celebrating African-American contributions to classical music.

But the DSO’s members are not wildly diverse, especially considering that more than 80% of the people living in the city the DSO represents are African-American.

Thirteen musicians in the DSO are Asian, and two are African-American.  (The orchestra has one additional member through its fellowship program for young African-American musicians.)  

Of course, any conversation about diversity and the arts must include the Michigan-based Sphinx Organization.

Violinist Aaron Dworkin founded the national organization in 1996, to help overcome the cultural stereotype of classical music, and to encourage the participation of blacks and Latinos in the field. The organization does many things, but is best known for its annual Sphinx Competition held in Detroit. Think of it as an "American idol style" event for young minority musicians.