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At cultural institutions that pledged to diversify staff, hiring — and change — have been slow

At Boston Ballet, three of 11 hires from June 2020 to the beginning of May 2021 were people of color.
At Boston Ballet, three of 11 hires from June 2020 to the beginning of May 2021 were people of color.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/file

Boston’s cultural leaders hurried to release statements of solidarity amid last year’s racial justice protests, pledging, among other things, that their institutions would become more inclusive when it comes to hiring and retaining staff.

But while people of color have assumed leadership roles at a few organizations in the last year, a Globe survey of 11 institutions found the pandemic’s continued grip on the region’s arts and entertainment sector has meant that not much hiring is going on, period.

Many organizations have hunkered down since March 2020, reducing payroll through a mix of hiring freezes, early retirements, furloughs, and layoffs. For those organizations that have added staff, the diversity gains were modest between June 2020 and the beginning of May: Of the 99 people hired across all 11 institutions during that span, 33 identify as non-white — just four of whom were hired into leadership positions.

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“It’s not been a hiring year, it’s been a reduction year, a survival year,” said Vikki Spruill, president and CEO of the New England Aquarium.

The Aquarium, whose workforce is roughly half what it was before the pandemic, hired just five full-time employees, which included one person of color, by the beginning of May. By contrast, the organization added 44 full-time employees in the 10 months prior to the pandemic.

In the meantime, the Aquarium, like other Boston institutions, has sought to make its workplace more welcoming to nonwhite employees, with an internal working group on diversity, unconscious-bias training for staff, a series of community dialogues, and a consultant hired to work with the board.

But adding staff remains a key, if largely unrealized, dimension to the effort to become more inclusive.

“We are definitely not where we want to be,” said Spruill. “We need to have a staff that reflects the audiences we serve, so that we can better fulfill our mission.”

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It’s a challenge shared by other high-profile organizations in a year marked by economic anxiety and staff reductions: The Institute of Contemporary Art, Huntington Theatre Company, American Repertory Theater, and Boston Children’s Museum all report hiring three or fewer full-time employees between June 2020 and the beginning of May.

But even at organizations that are hiring — and hiring more diversely — demographic change remains incremental. At the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, for instance, roughly 30 percent of the museum’s 24 recent full-time hires identify as nonwhite. Nevertheless, nearly 89 percent of all Mass MoCA employees identify as white.

Similarly, while five of the 13 new full-time hires at the Peabody Essex Museum identify as a racial minority — about 40 percent — the museum itself remains overwhelmingly white at roughly eight out of every 10 staffers.

These institutions are not alone: Of the seven organizations that provided overall demographics to the Globe, just one — the Museum of Fine Arts — reported that nonwhite employees make up more than 25 percent of its staff.

Michael J. Bobbitt, executive director of the Mass Cultural Council, said arts and entertainment organizations must rethink their hiring and personnel practices if they want to attract broader audiences.

“If the decision-makers are homogenous, they’re taking care of people that look like them, because that’s where their biases are,” said Bobbitt. “Until you diversify the people who are making the decisions, you’re never going to take care of all of the people. It’s always going to be slanted towards the people that look like you.”

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Michael J. Bobbitt, executive director of the Mass Cultural Council.
Michael J. Bobbitt, executive director of the Mass Cultural Council.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Ann Andreosatos, human resources director at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, said the effort to diversify museum staff bears on every new hire.

To that end, she said, the museum is trying to access different talent pools, reaching out to professional associations, and asking current employees and board members of color to talk to their networks as well. Its also trying to look beyond professional experience when assessing job candidates and giving greater thought to the questions posed in interviews. Four of 14 recent hires at the Gardner were people of color.

“There’s just a whole lot of fronts where we’re building intentionality,” said Andreosatos. “With each posting you have the opportunity — you want to keep a diverse candidate slate as best you can, and that would be your commitment. Over time that should put you on that committed path.”

She added, though, that successful recruitment efforts must go hand in hand with a nurturing and equitable work environment.

“[It’s] very important to people to have access to their manager, to coaching, to learning, to growth,” she said. “Do I have the chance to have a manager that cares about me, understands, and will talk to me about things that are important?”

At Boston Ballet, where three of 11 recent hires were people of color, executive director Meredith “Max” Hodges said the past year has sharpened the organization’s efforts to be more inclusive.

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But she added that recruiting diverse talent — particularly dancers, 37 percent of whom she said are people of color at the Ballet — is a long-term proposition.

“Think about the dancer pipeline,” she said. “This is concerted work that begins when future professional dancers are children. You’re talking about an effort that takes 10 to 20 years to bear fruit.”

She added that successful recruitment must be a continual effort that also depends on establishing a welcoming workplace. “This is also about creating a culture of inclusion at Boston Ballet, so that when we recruit diverse talent, we’re also retaining them,” she said. “It’s truly sustained, intentional work. It’s never going to be ‘done.’ ”

Cultural leaders hesitated to indicate specific hiring percentages they’d like to reach, saying that staffing is just one aspect of a multi-faceted approach to becoming more equitable. Other avenues include presenting (and employing) artists of color, offering more diverse programming, unconscious-bias and anti-racist training, efforts to increase board diversity, support for staff-led equity councils, and appealing to broader audiences through community partnerships and other means.

Even so, some organizations have set more quantifiable goals: The American Repertory Theater, for instance, has pledged quarterly diversity updates and an annual report enumerating money spent at minority-owned businesses. The Huntington has committed to updates as well, and both theaters are seeking to diversify their boards so membership isn’t tied so closely to wealth. Meanwhile, the Gardner, which is more than doubling its free admission hours, is working to ensure that half of all new board members elected in fiscal year 2021 are people of color.

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“Predominantly white institutions are predominantly white because they were designed to be that way,” said Bobbitt, who added that diversifying a board can have a “huge and immediate effect” on transforming an organization. “What we have to do is go back and redesign the business model.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.