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Set targets and be accountable.

One model for more inclusive programming is to set measurable targets for historically excluded composers and guest artists, and chart progress toward a more representative repertory. A target may for instance be at least one work by a BIPOC composer on every concert. This approach provides accountability and can show fast results. However, it signals tokenism if not backed up by organization-wide work to effectively engage audiences and by a commitment to center increasingly substantial works by historically excluded composers within mainstage programming.

In the summer of 2020, the Minnesota Orchestra found itself at the epicenter of the racial reckoning accelerated by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The orchestra felt a powerful imperative to demonstrate its commitment to all the people of its community. By the time the pandemic allowed the orchestra to begin to play publicly again in the fall of 2020, the musicians on its Artistic Advisory Committee had set a clear and ambitious goal: to include a Black composer on every program. Recognizing that it would take more than diverse programming, the musicians and staff nevertheless wanted to make an immediate response. Since then, the orchestra has programmed larger works by AMELIA (African, Middle Eastern, Latin, Indigenous, and Asian) and female composers.

“It’s part of our role as a community citizen, to foster more beneficial relationships with AMELIA communities and organizations.”

Kari Marshall, Director of Artistic Planning, Minnesota Orchestra

The West Virginia Symphony Orchestra (WVSO) is another ensemble that committed to a guest artist or composer of color on every concert program. But WVSO President Joe Tackett says they did not rush into the decision, wary of virtue-signaling in the summer of 2020. He began by expanding the conversation, recruiting Black board members knowledgeable about music who contributed programming ideas. Then, Music Director Lawrence Loh reached out to a young Black composer he’d worked with in Dallas: Quinn Mason, whose music has now had three appearances with the WVSO. Together, they have put established works together with new works by Black composers on virtually every WVSO program.

“I hear only positive response to the work we’ve done.”

Joe Tackett, President, West Virginia Symphony Orchestra

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Work with the most progressive artists and composers without setting specific goals for race or gender identity.

Another approach holds that engaging with the most interesting emerging voices will naturally lead to an increasingly diverse slate of composers and artists, especially if artistic partners have opportunities to curate. This approach shares power and aims to avoid tokenism. However, the selection of artist and composer partners can inadvertently reinforce systemic inequities, unless artistic planners actively work to expand and diversify their networks, always asking themselves who is still excluded.

The New York Philharmonic invited countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo to curate “The Beauty Within,” a series of programs in the winter of 2022 with music by composers of diverse racial and gender identities. This invitation did not so much reflect a decision to diversify, says Patrick Castillo, Vice President, Artistic Planning, but was instead a recognition of Costanzo as a catalyst for innovation.

“Our philosophy is that an organization like the New York Philharmonic has an obligation to act as an agent of meaningful social change.”

Patrick Castillo, Vice President, Artistic Planning, New York Philharmonic

The San Francisco Symphony entrusts progress in part to a diverse group of eight Collaborative Partners, ranging from bassist/vocalist/composer Esperanza Spalding to artificial-intelligence entrepreneur Carol Reiley. The Partners curate in spaces such as the experimental SoundBox, subscription concerts, and newly imagined spaces. Expanding the conversation has the power to change decision-making in meaningful and exciting ways. Without setting targets, SFS exponentially increased its representation of female and BIPOC composers within a five-year period.

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Collaborate to tell local stories.

Building deep, lasting relationships with local community organizations creates a strong backbone for more inclusive programming. When local people shape the telling of their own stories through orchestral music, the impact can be profound. And as noted above, the potential for new programming to engage latent audiences can be particularly powerful when collaborative storytelling involves local artists, community groups, and venues working together with the orchestra.

Building lasting relationships with community-based organizations is an ongoing investment of time, coupled with deep awareness of privilege and cultural difference. Organizational equity work can support orchestra staff in ensuring that these relationships remain respectful of a community’s practices, and do not inadvertently exploit or cause harm (for example through appropriation or tokenizing). With this solid foundation, these relationships can fuel the creative process, while broadening trust and engagement with the orchestra’s work.

Further Reading: Pursuing EDI Through Community Engagement

Learn about the Detroit Symphony’s cutting-edge work in community partnerships, and other examples of orchestras’ EDI work in practice in Catalyst Snapshots: EDI Case Studies from American Orchestras.

The South Dakota Symphony Orchestra has built a new intercultural repertory by collaborating with Lakota and Dakota musicians and elders for a dozen years and counting. Indigenous musicians perform alongside the orchestra, and new works are commissioned, from Native and non-Native composers, for them to perform together.

“Focusing on the traditional music of a given culture is the best way to form a musical connection between our community and another. This is also the best way to ensure that the music itself is meaningful, rooted in the history of the people with whom you are engaging.”

Delta David Gier, Music Director, South Dakota Symphony Orchestra

The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra takes the rich musical legacies of New Orleans as birthright. The orchestra collaborates with local musicians, including Tank & The Bangas and gender-fluid bounce artist Big Freedia, and plans to move such projects into the subscription season.

“We want to be a culture-bearer for the music of the region. Who better than us?”

Anwar Nasir, Executive Director, Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra

When the Philadelphia Orchestra presented its first-ever Pride Concert in June 2022, Verizon Hall was packed with such an enthusiastic, cheering crowd, including many who had never been in the hall before, that Doris Parent recalls thinking, “Look what we’ve started—we have to do this again!” The orchestra seized the opportunity of an unused musicians’ service to try something new. With the enthusiastic involvement of Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, they worked with the city’s LGBT Office to get the word out and they programmed local talent, including the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus and the drag performer Martha Graham Cracker.

“Events like this build an awareness of the orchestra and change the perception of the orchestra.”

Doris Parent, Chief IDEAS [Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access Strategies] Officer, The Philadelphia Orchestra

The Boise Philharmonic is building a multimedia project around Paul Chihara’s piece Minidoka (Reveries of…), which looks back to his childhood years in a Japanese American internment camp near Boise. The project has become an opportunity to build partnerships with the Idaho State Museum and Archives, Friends of Minidoka, and Minidoka National Historic Site. Amy Granger, VP of Audience Experience, says it’s on-brand for an orchestra striving to be “Boise’s Philharmonic.”

“I don’t have to be angry [about my family’s internment at Minidoka]. I just have to tell people what happened, and they get angry.”

Paul Chihara, Composer

Further Reading: Your Values, Your Impact, Your Stories

Learn more about the value of storytelling for orchestras by watching a video of this session from the League’s 2021 National Conference.

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