I am too often asked to recount my career trajectory as an example of female triumph against the stacked odds of a male dominated orchestral field.
Because equity for women is an issue that reaches far beyond the concert hall, I have told my story to businesses and colleges, service clubs and high schools across the globe. In each telling, I am meant to inspire women to believe that they can achieve anything by remaining true to their talents. Indeed, they can. But I have been telling my story to groups large and small for over two decades, and while there have been many more glorious success stories for women in the arts, stories like mine have unfortunately retained an outlier status.
Based on data from the League of American Orchestras, 9.2 percent of member orchestra music directors in 2016 were female. In 2006, 8.5 percent were women. Just 20.5 percent of U.S. League member orchestra conductors, other than music directors, were female—a number also virtually unchanged since 10 years prior.
Since 2006, there have been countless discussions and conferences dedicated to gender inclusion in the arts—and yet, we remain in the same condition with respect to equity in the field. This is not because talent is inequitably distributed between men and women. God knows no favor when it comes to the gift of music. What seems more at fault is our willingness to see and to encourage divine talent within all people equally.
I have been fighting on the front lines of this issue for my entire career. Frankly, I am tired of waging this battle on traditional grounds. That is where we lose.
When we focus on the statistics, we can be lulled into a belief that all we need is a dogged commitment to equal employment policies and gender ratios. Those things are important—but as I have dreamed of solutions for inclusion, my thinking has migrated beyond these well-intended yet seldom followed policies. If the problem is our willingness to hear God singing through the instrument of a young woman as equally as we hear it from a young man, perhaps what is needed is an entire spiritual shift in our purpose as leaders of arts organizations.
Beauty does not discriminate. It finds us all if we allow it to do so; and when we find beauty within ourselves we are suddenly liberated to see it within other people. For this reason, the arts ought to be the elixir for discrimination. But too often, they do not serve that function.
Perhaps we have not properly set our goals: What if we made every decision based on whether our audiences were going to leave the event feeling more beautifully about themselves and those around them? What if that was our true goal, instead of certain levels of ticket sales, certain ratios of new compositions versus deep classics or certain patterns of programming based what we think people already like?
In classical music, and in the arts as a whole, we tend to make most decisions based on preserving classics and protecting institutions. Is it any wonder that these goals tend to be incongruous with breaking new ground and creating new opportunities? The structure and ingrained mindset of traditional arts organizations will never allow for the kind of change that would be required to meaningfully provide gender and ethnic equity among their ranks. Something more radical is needed. The whole goal needs to change.
What if we could somehow make every artistic choice based on what we thought would truly enlighten, thrill and surprise our audiences? When I have this conversation with colleagues, I see them nod with sad recognition about how long it has been since they were able to do that. But why? What holds us back? Do we need to start over?
In 2011, I founded a new organization called MUSE/IQUE with the notion that our only guide star would be to expand empathy and imagination through music. With that as our only purpose, we have grown to become quite different in structure from the organizations within which I fought to practice my art for decades. We have no rules for which genres may be played together. We have no formal concert halls, and we do not even call our events “concerts.” Programs are not created based on what pieces of the classical canon tickle my artistic fancy. We curate events to illuminate the environment and the times, and to reach people in the deep parts of their souls. We create a narrative around the music that makes every selection, from Bach to Carol King highly accessible. Every staff member of the organization is charged with empowering the audience, not its conductor.
As a result, a radically open and welcoming mindset is part of our institutional DNA. Without really paying mind to gender ratios, our percentages of female artists and artists of color are substantially higher than the national average.
It is vitally important to track these ratios, of course, but tracking them is only a way to monitor progress. It does not create change in and of itself. We program in a highly diverse way because inspiration is our only goal. When enlightenment is the sincere goal, diversity and democracy follow as a matter of course.
I have been told that our nurturing, decentralized, counter-conventional structure is patterned after a traditionally female mindset; some say that is why we have such and inclusive orchestra. But I am not sure I agree. I believe everybody, even men, can find beauty and fair mindedness within themselves if they look for it. Sometimes we all need help to do so—and there is no better spotlight that one can shine on their own humanity than live music.