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NYC Department of Cultural Affairs Strives for Diversity

Equity in the Arts
#Cultureforall
(photo via www1.nyc.gov)

Last year, the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) launched an initiative to promote diversity among the cultural organizations of New York City.  As part of this effort, Commissioners Tom Finkelpearl and Eddie Torres, of the DCLA, worked with the research firm Ithaka S+R, with support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund, to conduct a survey of recent grantees. The survey examined the leadership, staff and boards of nearly 1,000 non-profit institutions, and while the results showed cultural organizations still have a long way to go in developing a workforce that more accurately reflects the diversity of this city, they also revealed the necessary next steps in creating a more inclusive and accessible cultural field. 

A handful of the organizations surveyed, The Lark among them, were flagged as already having begun to develop effective practices for fostering equity in the arts.  At a New York City Council hearing on February 25, 2016, these organizations were asked to testify before Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer and report out on the work they have been doing to cultivate diversity within their respective organizations and communities.

During the hearing, Van Bramer expressed his personal investment in the DCLA Diversity initiative, and his sentiment that “every other agency should take on a similar exercise.”  And in the spirit of inclusivity, the initiative provides a platform for public engagement.  If you have something you’d like to contribute to the conversation, the DCLA encourages you to Speak Up! And share your feedback.

Below is the full testimony delivered at the hearing by Roni Ferretti, Development Manager at The Lark. For a video of the entire hearing, including reports on the results of the survey and Q & A session with Commissioner Eddie Torres, visit The New York City Council’s website.


February 25, 2016

Good morning.  My name is Roni Ferretti from The Lark Theatre Company.  I respectfully submit the following testimony on behalf of my colleague Michael Robertson, Managing Director at The Lark.

Dear Council Members,

I am honored to share a little bit about The Lark’s work supporting diversity, access and inclusion.  I am actually out of town working on an “equity in the arts” task force as these words are being read.

Over the past 22 years, The Lark has dedicated its resources to supporting storytellers who have been historically marginalized and are living at the intersection of art and social change.  We focus on creating conversation around visionary playwrights from all five boroughs, across the nation, and through our extensive global exchange program. If you are looking for a place for conversation around the issues facing our city and world, we are one of those places.

We live in a city of many different communities, communities that deal with a broad range of issues from affordable housing to immigrant rights to law enforcement relations to health care, and so much more.

The Lark’s role is to identify writers who are community leaders who speak to the needs of their communities through their plays and also through direct theater-based movement-building. For example, we are partnering with Gregg Mozgala from The Apothetae, a company dedicated to the disabled experience, to launch an unprecedented program supporting disabled artists. Another example is our partnership with playwright Keith Josef Atkins from Brooklyn’s The New Black Fest, where we look at a wider range of Black experiences than those we typically see in the media. Yet another collaboration is withartist/activist Diana Oh, who addresses sexual violence against women.  In short, our programs are structured around leaders who are creating narratives that engage with the public about the needs of their communities.

The Lark embraces community issues in other ways as well:

  • Our programming is free to artists and audiences. 
  • We engage with 30-40 organizations annually throughout the city to reach the broadest demographic possible.
  • Our portfolio of fellowships provides financial stipends, health care and career support.
  • We have created a tuition-free free Business of Art Financial Bootcamp for artists to learn how to manage their careers and weather rising living costs.
  • Our paid apprentice program helps lower the economic barrier for participation and creates a pipeline for a much more diverse group of future arts leaders.

Not only does our program address equity issues directly, but we have been doing intensive work internally to make sure that our staff and board increasingly reflect the demographics of the artist community that we serve.  To that end, our internal methods of addressing diversity include:

  • A robust recruitment strategy for staff and board members.
  • Monthly conversations  around current equity issues.
  • Skills-building in how to talk about and facilitate difficult conversations.
  • Participation in Theatre Communications Groups’ Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Institute.

While The Lark is a theater company and we support the creation of vibrant plays, our goal is to support artists who are leaders and put them into contact with a diverse community—bringing forward stories that need to be heard and discussed face to face through live theater experiences. We recognize that differences in identity bring vibrancy to our organization and the city.

The DCLA survey findings about race and gender in cultural organizations are an important starting place for the change we need to see, a change that each organization needs to embrace.  The Lark is on a lifelong journey to be a more equitable place and we intend to be in conversations with organizations throughout the city to share our learnings and learn from our peers. Equity does not have a one-time solution and it is not achieved in isolation.  There is deliberate, ongoing, never-ending work to be done.  

In closing, I want to thank you for supporting storytellers who are working to bring to light what is great about New York while highlighting the vast inequities that still remain. These stories lead to conversation and the conversation leads to action. 

Thank you.

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