When the Museum of Fine Arts announced last month that its board of trustees had elected Edward E. Greene as its first Black president, the news highlighted an uncomfortable truth about the city’s cultural sector: Even as arts organizations work to attract more racially diverse audiences, their governing structures remain stubbornly monochromatic.
Boston’s museums and performing arts institutions have sought for years to broaden their appeal — presenting works by minority artists, holding community discussions, and special events. Nevertheless, in a city where more than half the population is non-white, the percentage of minorities serving on cultural boards of trustees — whose members often set an institution’s agenda — remains markedly out of step with the communities they seek to serve.
At the MFA, for instance, people of color make up some 23 percent of voting trustees. That figure drops to 16 percent at the Institute of Contemporary Art, while the Boston Ballet, Handel + Haydn Society, Huntington Theatre Company, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra all have boards of trustees that are roughly 90 percent white. At the Boston Lyric Opera, meanwhile, fully 100 percent of board members are white or caucasian, according to the company.
The Globe requested demographic information from 12 of the region’s mid- and large-size cultural institutions about their boards of trustees. While the vast majority are overwhelmingly white, there are exceptions: The Museum of African American History, for instance, has a board that is more than 70 percent Black.
The question of equitable representation has gained increased urgency in recent months, as the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others have laid bare structural inequalities, prompting organizations across the spectrum to take a hard look at themselves.
In response, nearly every organization in the city’s cultural sphere has published an anti-racist statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many have hired diversity consultants. Some have formed board subcommittees devoted to equity and inclusion. Others have sought to diversify their administrative and artistic staffs, held community forums, or are participating in anti-racist education modules. Nearly all are trying to present works by more diverse artists.
And while some organizations have been working on diversity issues longer than others, arts leaders across the city acknowledged they have a long way to go when it comes to board diversity, perhaps the most challenging — and consequential — aspect of becoming more inclusive.
“In no way do I want to express satisfaction with where we are,” said Meredith (Max) Hodges, executive director of Boston Ballet. “Representation is deeply important. The Ballet needs to do better, and we’re working hard at doing better.”
Brian Kennedy, director and CEO at the Peabody Essex Museum, said the issue goes to the “core values” of the museum world, which developed in “power structures that are rooted in whiteness.”
“We have been brought face to face with the structural issues within our institutions that need to be addressed,” said Kennedy, whose board is more than 80 percent white. “It’s been a time of reckoning for all of us.”
Issues of equity and inclusion are not confined only to governing boards. The staff at arts organizations, for instance, often skews heavily white, as does much of the programming.
“It has to be all at once,” said Hodges, who like many arts leaders said they were examining numerous aspects of the organization. “I don’t think there’s any piece of this equation that is standalone.”
But while diversifying programming is important, the question of leadership is significantly thornier, said David C. Howse, executive director of ArtsEmerson.
“The programming is outward facing, but when you actually interrogate the [leadership] structure, that’s where the power sits,” said Howse, one of four Black trustees on the MFA’s 43-member voting board. “We are loath to shift those structures because of what it might mean for our business models.”
Unlike European arts institutions, which often receive substantial state subsidies, US cultural nonprofits rely heavily on significant philanthropy from wealthy board members who can tap equally rich social circles.
That philanthropic obligation — both in terms of personal donations and connections to moneyed social networks — has meant boards have traditionally been dominated by members of the donor class: individuals with the means and inclination to make sizable contributions, and those people are, presently, overwhelmingly white.
James S. Hoyte, a board member at Handel + Haydn, said Boston’s lack of a sizable Black business class has been a barrier to diversifying some of the city’s cultural boards. Hoyte, an attorney by training who previously served as the state’s secretary of environmental affairs, has sat on a variety of boards over the years, including, in the 1990s, the MFA’s board of advisors (then known as the board of overseers), whose members are often recruited to join the board of trustees.
Hoyte recalled that when he spoke with the chair of the nominating committee about joining the board of trustees, however, he knew it wasn’t to be.
“The financial commitment blew me out of the water,” said Hoyte, who is Black. “It wasn’t something I could even begin to approach.”
Brent L. Henry, an attorney who serves on the BSO’s board of trustees, said that although diverse boards are more responsive to the community and foster open dialogue “at all levels of an organization,” the city’s wealth gap stands as an enduring obstacle.
“Minority participation … would accelerate if there were greater opportunities for wealth creation in those communities,” said Henry, who is Black. “Until we solve for that, boards seeking to diversify their membership must devise other strategies to engage new directors in ways that are meaningful to them.”
To that end, many in the cultural sector are seeking new ways to diversify their governing boards.
Greene, the MFA’s new board president, is on the steering committee of the Black Trustee Alliance for Art Museums, a recently formed group of influential Black leaders working to increase the ranks of Black board members nationally.
He described the need for board diversity not only in terms of equity, but also of cultural relevance, as traditionally Eurocentric institutions seek to court new audiences.
“We must understand the communities that are right around us to be relevant,” said Greene. “If we want to maintain a narrow 18th-century, 19th-century European view, that’s beautiful, and a very few select folks will come. But over time that museum will not exist.”
Meanwhile, two of the country’s largest philanthropic foundations — the Ford Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation — have prioritized diversity and inclusion efforts in their grant-making. Several local foundations have similarly focused on equity in the arts, including the Barr Foundation, which recently joined the Ford Foundation as a regional partner to support minority artists and groups.
At the MFA, where 77 percent of voting trustees are white, director Matthew Teitelbaum said it’s vital that the museum’s board reflect those philanthropic principles, positioning the institution as one that contributes meaningfully to the surrounding community.
“Fund-raising and philanthropic capability is not just individual giving,” said Teitelbaum. “It’s also the influence they have — the kind of connections and willingness to put the interests of the institution forward.”
He added that although these less quantifiable measures are important, wealth exists across the cultural spectrum.
“There are folks across all communities in Boston who could make those financial contributions directly and indirectly,” said Teitelbaum. “We have to identify them. We have to encourage them, and we have to make them feel as though they can make a difference at the MFA.”
But the challenge can be daunting.
Why, for instance, would a wealthy person of color choose to support a legacy institution that for decades has embraced a Eurocentric worldview? Where does one see oneself there? Why not support a smaller, less staid organization where philanthropic dollars could potentially be transformative?
“For years, people of color had not been welcomed, had not felt welcomed, into these [white] spaces,” said Howse. “Now that the world is shifting, and we are realizing that it is incumbent for our survival to figure out how to engage those communities, our white counterparts are willing to move very quickly. But we have to reconcile what we’ve dealt with for many years.”
Howse, who like many of his board colleagues said he’s been made more hopeful by recent efforts, added that some culturally specific organizations have cultivated diverse board leadership for years. He described the current push among white-dominated institutions as a “privilege challenge,” giving rise to a certain level of distrust among potential board members.
“There are a number of organizations that have been doing this work, but because the larger white institutions are taking note, we feel like this is a new thing,” he said. “There’s a bit of skepticism: Why now, and why me?”
But if arts organizations have been more focused on equity in recent months, soliciting staff input, crafting new policies, and examining how board culture might inadvertently have been unwelcoming to prospective members, that hasn’t always been the case. Previous efforts, though well-intentioned, have come up wanting.
“There has been an intent and an effort made, but the problem that you often have is that you’re not effective,” said Esther Nelson, general and artistic director of the Boston Lyric Opera. “There is a great deal of work to be done in learning why that wasn’t effective. … It’s humbling.”
Hoyte, who has often been the rare Black voice in the boardroom, described how organizations have struggled in the past to sustain diversity efforts — a red flag when it comes to attracting minorities wary of tokenism.
“There’s [been] a willingness to seek a foundation grant for a year or two … but if the money isn’t a steady stream, the organization moves on to the next thing,” said Hoyte. “You don’t always want to be the voice of the Black person. There’s more to contribute than that.”
The Rev. Gloria White-Hammond, a board member at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, said that for organizations to authentically embrace diversity will take time — welcoming a sizable cohort of new board members, of course, but also engaged listening, critical self-reflection, and creativity.
“It remains to be seen how many of the well-crafted solidarity statements are reflected in what people actually do,” said White-Hammond, a physician and co-pastor at Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain. “Racism has been so baked into the system. We don’t even see it, so it’s really committing to the hard work.”
Percentages of white board of trustee members at local cultural institutions:
American Repertory Theater 71 percent*
Boston Ballet 89 percent
Boston Center for the Arts 75 percent
Boston Lyric Opera 100 percent
Boston Symphony Orchestra 90 percent
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum 71 percent
Handel and Haydn Society 89 percent
Huntington Theatre Company 92 percent
Institute of Contemporary Art 84 percent
Museum of African American History 27 percent
Museum of Fine Arts 77 percent
Peabody Essex Museum 82 percent
SOURCE: Respective organizations
* Nine of the board’s 40 members declined to specify race. Figures represent percentage of members who did.