Toronto arts boards in dire need of diversity

The largely white, male boards of Toronto’s top arts organizations may be one reason for declining attendance and reduced funding.

Two years ago this week, I had a look into the gender and racial makeup of the boards of Toronto’s Big Six arts organizations. They were overwhelmingly male and white.

Since then their overall attendance has trended downwards and their funding is more challenged than ever. Since then as well, Toronto’s visible minority has become the visible majority, and the percentage of Torontonians born outside of Canada has also crossed 50 per cent.

So here’s my two-year update on the progress of the Big Six in moving away from white maleness in the boardroom, aligning their boards of directors with the population they serve, and in the process, bringing in new audiences and donations.

That progress is, in a word, glacial.

In June 2013, all 25 of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s board members were white. Today, there are 22 TSO board members; 21 are white.

Two years ago, 23 of the Canadian Opera Company’s 36 board members were men, including all six officers of the board. Today, 25 of them are men, as are five of the six officers. But more telling is the fact that all 36 of the COC’s board members are white. The COC couldn’t find a single person of colour in a city of 1.3 million of them to help guide and secure their future. Not one.

Both the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario are moving toward gender equality, with the AGO having 23 male trustees and 13 female trustees, and the ROM 16 male and eight female. However, of the AGO’s 36 trustees, 34 are white, and of the ROM’s 24 trustees, 20 are white.

Two organizations are breaking new ground in terms of gender and racial equality: the National Ballet of Canada has a perfect pas de deux of 18 women and 18 men on its board; and the Toronto International Film Festival, TIFF, has 11 men and 8 women; two of those men are people of colour and 5 of the women are people of colour.

All six of these groups are struggling to find new audiences and donors.

One way is to send a signal to people of colour that they’re welcome by having people of colour on your board.

Now some skeptics say that ballet and opera and symphonic music are Western art forms, so why would Chinese and South Asian audiences be interested? The TSO, for one, contradicts that myth, with a Mandarin version of its website, hosting Chinese New Year with six top Chinese classical artists, and regularly packing the house whenever pianist superstar Lang Lang appears. But why can’t the TSO bring Chinese-Canadians on the board?

This wilfull blindness isn’t limited to other genders and races.

There is a group of people out there who know a lot about opera and symphony and ballet and art and museums. They’ve been perfecting and enjoying them for centuries. They’re major attenders of the arts, they have lots of money and they’ve built some of the world’s most revered arts organizations.

They’re called Russians.

In ballet, there’s the Bolshoi and the Kirov. In music, there’s Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra and Opera; in art, there’s the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, which houses one of the largest collections of artistic treasure on earth.

A decade ago, Svetlana Dvoretskaia came to Toronto from St. Petersburg because she believed she could build a business by bringing in top Russian performers like Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Denis Matsuev and Vadim Repin.

My wife and I have attended some of their performances in Koerner Hall and Roy Thomson Hall. What’s striking about them is that a huge percentage of the audience at these events is Russian. English-speakers like us are in the tiny minority.

Last month, Svetlana Dvoretskaia presented the Eifman Ballet, a modern Russian dance company, at the Sony Centre. Again, a huge Russian audience flocked to see great dance. Apparently, it sold out all three nights, which means 9,000 people saw Eifman. I’d guess two-thirds of them were Russians.

So how many Russian immigrants are among the 173 board members of Toronto’s Big Six arts groups?

You wouldn’t be far off if you guessed none.


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