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Now That We'll Have A Diverse Cabinet, The Arts Need To Catch Up

11/03/2015 11:02 EST | Updated 11/03/2016 05:12 EDT
Barros & Barros via Getty Images

On Wednesday, Justin Trudeau will announce a new cabinet made up 50 per cent of women. That example could have painful consequences for a community that's been hobbled by the Harper Tories and is expecting great things -- especially more money -- from the new Liberal Government.

The major arts groups in Canada's largest city may be waiting a long time for sunny days, because they have among the least diverse "cabinets" anywhere in the land.

In fact, if any of them bleat that they can't find enough "merit-based" candidates among women and minorities, they risk being out of touch, not only with their audiences, but their funders, especially in Ottawa.

They say you can't wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time.

So in June when I wrote a commentary in the Toronto Starabout the shocking male whiteness of Toronto's major arts boards (all 36 members of the Canadian Opera Company board were, and are today, white; 21 out of 22 of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's were, and are the same), a lot of people raised an eyebrow, said "Oh my!" then moved on.

Some told me: "Give it time. They'll catch up." Others said: "Arts boards aren't like corporate boards. There's no real money or power at stake. Besides, board members are volunteers. So there's no motivation to change."

The COC and TSO said nothing. Then again, what could they say? "In a city even larger than Chicago, we couldn't find a single person qualified to serve on our board who's not white?"

Or "This season alone, we're presenting Chinese conductor Long Yu, violinist Angelo Xiang Yu, and Korean-born Earl Lee as our RBC Resident conductor. And who can forget in 2011, we hosted China's Lang Lang, the world's most popular pianist, in a two-week residency in Toronto. But we've never recruited a single board member from the Chinese or Korean communities."

Then I got a call from Ratna Omidvar, who runs DiverseCity onBoard at Ryerson.

As their name implies, DiverseCity works to boost the diversity of non-profit and public sector boards across the GTA, including social service organizations, community groups and hospitals.

Ratna Omidvar suggested they invite the chairs of the six arts board I profiled, plus those of 20 other arts groups, as well as corporate and government arts funders, to a half-day session devoted to breaking this vicious cycle.

The only chair to reply to the invitation among the Big Six arts boards was Lisa de Wilde, the Chair of TIFF, which has an enviable record of diversity on its 19-member board, with eight women (42 per cent) and nine members of a visible minority (47 per cent).

Ratna invited her to speak to the group last week which she did, detailing the "deliberative and purposeful process" TIFF uses to ensure its boards mirrors the audience it serves.

Then the group was invited to come up with its own answers for making arts boards more diverse.

Here's a summary of what was suggested in just one hour by 40 people thinking about the issue. 40 people with a professional interest in the arts and arts funding and corporate governance. 40 people of two genders, a few colours and 40 different backgrounds.

1. Set goals. You can't change what you don't measure. It's no use saying: "We must get more diversity on our board." Much better to say: "We need to look for three more women and five more candidates of colour for our board."

2. Set deadlines. Give your search a target date. Otherwise, it can drift in the waves of more immediate priorities. If you meet your goals by your deadline, great. If you don't, set up a formal process to "comply or explain", which is what public companies have to do with their regulator. Nothing spurs change faster than bad excuses openly expressed.

3. Don't be satisfied with having just one "diverse" board member. A quarter of Canada's public companies have only one woman board member. Forget how that hobbles different kinds of thinking, it's not much fun for the sole woman on the board either. As Ratna Omidvar observed: "With one out of 10, you're the token. Two out of 10 and you're an interest group. It's only when you get three out of 10 that the benefits of diversity really start to kick in."

4. Set strict term limits. Lots of non-profits have term limits for board members. They just don't enforce them. This means board members linger on as "deadwood" for years. Saying someone can be on for three years then actually replacing them after three years creates a pipeline of opportunity for new kinds of board members that doesn't exist today.

5. Reach out to lawyers and accountants for help. The meeting was hosted by PWC Canada and their GTA Managing Partner, Raj Kothari. Because PWC are the accountants to all kinds of major companies, they have a huge network of board and management talent, Kothari said, that they can access for candidates for non-profit board positions. Just ask.

6. Reach out to DiverseCity onBoard. This is why they exist. They don't do it for free, but their rates are very affordable.

7. Exert political pressure. Arts groups are hugely dependent on government and corporate support. The City, Queen's Park and Ottawa can all put a word in the ears of the arts boards that things need to change. Fast.

I suppose if Toronto weren't the only city in the world where -- at least freely and willingly -- the visible minority has become the visible majority, the picture of an all-white arts board, let alone an all-white anything board, wouldn't be so starkly offensive.

But it is.

We need to align the power structure with the city that's one of the most livable on earth precisely because we can work together to solve issues just like this one.

The days of wringing our hands that "we can't find any qualified candidates" are long gone. It's time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

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