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The really white cube: New York’s culture groups less diverse than they think

Survey conducted by the city’s cultural affairs department finds workforce does not match up with demographics

Cultural organisations in New York City are more diverse than their peers nationwide but still do not reflect the diversity of the local population, according to data released today by the city’s cultural affairs department.

New York City’s cultural workforce—nearly 120,000 strong—is 61.8% white, 35.4% people of colour and 53.1% female, a survey of nearly 1,000 non-profit organisations that receive city funding found. By contrast, New York City residents are 33% white, 67% people of colour and 52% female, according to the 2010 US census.

The study found that staff members become less and less diverse as they move up the ranks. Nearly three-quarters, or 74%, of senior staff at New York City’s cultural organisations is white while 55% of junior staff is white. African-American staff members comprise 9% of leadership positions, while Hispanic staff makes up 5%. Diversity also decreases as organisations increase in size, researchers found.

The survey, announced last year and conducted by the independent research firm Ithaka S+R, was one of the more controversial initiatives spearheaded by Tom Finkelpearl, the city’s cultural affairs commissioner. The department required arts groups to answer the survey in order to qualify for funding from the city in 2017. Some administrators worried that their organisations would be penalised for a lack of diversity among employees.

A spokesman for the cultural affairs department reiterates that the survey sought to gather information broadly rather than target specific organisations. The responses will not impact funding decisions, he says. The city received only anonymous data from Ithaka S+R.

Among the study’s most striking findings is the disconnect between organisations’ perceptions of their own diversity and the reality presented by the statistics. Seventy-seven percent of respondents said that there were no barriers to increasing diversity among employees.

Those who identified obstacles usually pointed to a dearth of diverse candidates for open positions. A lack of socioeconomic diversity was also of widespread concern. “We operate on a shoestring budget, and have trouble paying competitive salaries,” one respondent wrote. “As a result, job applicants are usually those who come from more privileged backgrounds and can afford to work for little money.”

The cultural affairs department plans to dedicate $1m to support diversity efforts among a select group of city-subsidised arts organisations, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. The department is also working with the City University of New York to support pipeline programmes that would establish new internship and employment opportunities at cultural organisations across the city.

New York City’s mayor Bill de Blasio says in a statement: “This survey gives us an opportunity to take a hard look at how we could do better when it comes to fostering a creative sector that opens doors for every New Yorker regardless of his or her background.”