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A Dream Deferred: New York's Art Industry Lacks Diversity

Image source: Banksy ©

A Dream Deferred:

New York's Art Industry Lacks Diversity And The Means To Fix It

Although overt prejudice may no longer be socially acceptable, many institutionalized practices and economic factors continue to disproportionately affect minority participation in the arts industry. African Americans, Latinos, Asians, LGBTQ, and other groups have fallen victim to a stunning lack of representation in terms of participation, leadership, and financial support. In regard to racial disparities the numbers are at odds with one another. A report released in June of 2015 by the Center for an Urban Future (CUF) found that while 67 percent of New York City’s population is non-white, only 29 percent of those employed in creative occupations are non-white. This gap between community demographics and overall participation can be explained primarily through these three key factors:

  • The decrease in arts education disproportionately affects minorities.

  • The rise of college debt and unpaid internships.

  • The increase in rental prices.

I. The Decrease in Arts Education Disproportionately Affects Minorities

The defunding of arts education has been a decades long affair. In a recent report issued by the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) they found that the arts budget in New York’s public schools fell from $361 million in 2007 (inflation adjusted) to $337 million in 2014. According to this same NYCDOE report, 74 percent of school principals think that funding for arts programs in their schools is insufficient. This decline in arts education is particularly disconcerting for minorities who feel the effects of budget cuts most prominently. In a report released by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), they found that between 1982 and 2008 the percentage of white students who received arts education remained steady, falling from 59 to 58 percent, yet the percentage among black students plummeted from 51 to 26 percent and for Hispanics from 47 to 28 percent.

As if a decrease in arts education for minorities wasn’t enough, the evidence shows that when education funding is reduced so does their overall participation in the arts. In conjunction with the NEA report, the New York City Comptroller’s Office (CCO) also found that in 1982, 44 percent of whites aged 18 to 24 and 38 percent of non-whites attended at least one arts activity. By 2008, the figures were 42 percent and 25 percent. The correlation between arts education and cultivation in one’s youth to their eventual participation as an adult is found in not only the CCO report mentioned above, but also in the latest NEA study which stated that adults who attended the arts as children were three to four times more likely to attend as adults.

As we can see from this report decreases in arts education have and continue to fall disproportionately on low income neighborhoods, most of which house the city’s most diverse minority populations. This affects minority groups not only in their youth and education, but also in their participation as professionals and adults. Signs of life are coming though, Mayor De Blasio’s additional $23 million earmarked for the Department of Educations arts budget is a great step forward. However, the burden of solving the problem cannot fall solely upon state and local agencies. The industry is loosing massive amounts of both talent and revenue which is making the industry financially weaker, less diverse, and creatively limited.

II. The Rise of College Debt and Unpaid Internships

According to the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, or SNAAP, over 25 percent of recent arts graduates across the country faced over $40,000 of student debt. The rising cost of college and the burden of debt it places on America’s youth is an issue nationwide, but perhaps no other state feels its effects more than New York. The Wall Street Journal’s “How Does Your School Rank” reported that New York universities’ students borrow nearly double the national average. The rise of college debt within an industry that is demanding degrees more than ever is putting a great deal of strain on America’s young artists and making it extremely difficult for minorities to attend New York universities in the first place. Perhaps this is why NYU, a beacon of art education, is so incredibly white. In fact only 13 percent of students are Black or Hispanic.

For those who are lucky enough to attend a university statistics show a majority of them are signing on to a financial burden that will affect their lives for years to come. The strain is enough to push some aspiring artists out of the industry entirely. Of the 90,000 arts alumni SNAAP surveyed, 32 percent of those who never pursued professional art careers cited higher paying jobs as a reason for abandoning the industry. The cause of this for many must certainly be that student debt had a major effect on their career. The evidence of this can be found in the same SNAAP report wherein 20 percent of respondents said just that.

Not only are many young college educated artists entering the work force laden with massive amounts of student debt, they are now expected to work for free in the form of unpaid, or barely paid, internships. SNAAP found that only 15 percent of arts majors who graduated prior to 1983 reported working as an unpaid intern. Among the 2009 to 2013 batch of graduates that number is now 54 percent. Now an internship at its core is a positive, educational, and professional tool that allows young professionals who are entering the job market to gain valuable experience in organizations that they might otherwise not be able to work for immediately or perhaps for years to come due to lack of experience. Yet, it is somewhat alarming that Cornell University researches stated that between 2005 and 2010, 58 percent of interns did not receive compensation or reimbursement for expenses.

In working these internships, artists are sacrificing between one and forty hours a week they might otherwise be using to work paying jobs, or even jobs within the industry. The Economic Policy Institute has concluded that in order to be an intern one must come from a place of great socio-economic privilege. Naturally, this is tipping the scales against minorities. The task of alleviating student debts must fall to both the government and universities (public and private). It is also incumbent upon private enterprises to restructure internship programs to better suit their employees, the financial market, and the art industry as a whole. Each year these parties fail to act our audiences and artists get whiter and wealthier.

III. The Increase in Rental Prices

As most of U.S. history reveals, when prices, debts, and other financial burdens are increased on an industry it has a direct, negative effect felt most prominently in minorities. Real estate is no exception. Over the past 30+ years real estate prices have increased, doubled, tripled, and even quadrupled in some areas, forcing artists and their companies to compete with each other (and other industries) for what little affordable spaces remain. This increase in price and decrease of space has forced many companies to remain mobile and/or move outside the previously established art districts in Manhattan. The increase in art companies and individuals moving to the outer boroughs may seem ripe with opportunities for artistic and cultural diversity and, although this is possible in some cases, for the most part this only inflames minority disparities and provides only a temporary safe haven. As Ginny Louloudes, executive director of the Alliance of Resident Theatres put it: “In some ways, we’re our own worst enemies.”

When creative people and their industries move into affordable areas they drive up real estate values. If one need evidence of this simply look to the neighborhoods and districts occupied by artists of the 1970s. These artists and collectives originally found solace in cheap apartments and studios in the industrialized neighborhoods such as Soho, East Village, and Brooklyn Heights. These areas which became cultural hubs have been taken over by wealthy tech firms, banks, and of course the pseudo-intellectual rich. An artist has little to no chance of reaching the financial means to live in these neighborhoods unless they’re producing such classic, groundbreaking works as Bad Blood or Blank Space.

To this day this cyclical phenomenon continues as artists and those who follow move deeper into the outer boroughs. Ms. Louloudes admitted “We go into a neighborhood and gentrify it. Then we can’t afford to have our own spaces there.” This trend hurts the industry as a whole, however, no one is more affected than the minority artists who previously inhabited these areas out of financial necessity, not hipster hierarchy. As prices soar and gentrification takes hold, these areas, which historically maintained diverse minority and immigrant populations, are forced to vacate and move further out into the boroughs out of financial constraints. It is here where lower income, minority artists and companies are met with a whole host of new challenges.

When these artists are forced to move further outside the city their access to reasonable or reliable transportation makes it a far more difficult task for them to get to their jobs, auditions, rehearsals, performances, or meetings in areas that still host the majority of art events such as Midtown, Manhattan. Barbara Davis, chief operating officer of The Actors Fund confirmed this as “the number one concern that we hear about on a day-to-day basis.” If a large number of diverse artists living outside Manhattan can’t attend art events they don’t get to work and when they don’t work the industry suffers from both an artistic and a financial standpoint. As the cultural sphere of New York continues to spread artists are forced to compete for limited space and limited audiences both of whom cost more than ever to obtain. When art companies are forced to move out of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn because of real estate increases they risk decreases in two major areas. Audience Attendance and Financial Support.

As a greater number of art productions and events move further into New York City’s boroughs many audiences are forced to travel and spend more then they have in past times. In a report issued by the NEA in 2015 respondents were asked to name the biggest barriers in their attending of the arts, the top three were: Time (47%), Cost (38%), and Access (37%). Companies in these areas are finding it harder to attract audiences and must then lower ticket prices which, as the Cultural Data Project concluded, “cover only 32 percent of their expenses.”

Not only is government support of the arts down 17 percent across the board for New York City, it is also disproportionately funding Manhattan based nonprofits. In fact the NEA study found that in 2014, 80 percent of all NEA funding for New York went to Manhattan based nonprofits. As did 70 percent of New York State Council on the Arts. Due to this lack of funding and inclusion within the city’s cultural sphere the evidence has and continues to show participation in the arts as disproportionately white and economically privileged. This cycle of displacement is bad for business too; the stability of a company or an art collective is highly correlated with the stability of their performance space and their audience base which many companies in New York don’t have. As a result many historic and artistically vibrant organizations and companies have had to close their doors.


The perpetual beauty of New York City is it’s rich history and future of diversity. It is a point of pride for many of us that inhabit the Big Apple that we are constantly engaging with various cultures, ethnicities, and genders. Our local art industry must continue to strive for this as well. It is vital to the city’s culture and economy that the arts and its allies address current issues. Below is a list of solutions offered up by groups such as American for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, Center for an Urban Future, and even myself. The industry alone cannot, nor does it posses the means to fix the issues stated in this article. Only through the combined efforts of individuals, organizations, state and local agencies can solutions be implemented.

  1. Provide Affordable Housing and Work Spaces for Artists.

  2. Simplify and Expedite Nonprofit Applications.

  3. Increase and Diversify Federal Funding.

  4. Restructure Tax Codes for the Artistic Industry.

  5. Adapt Internship Programs to Fit the Current Market.

  6. Mitigate Barriers to Access for Artists and Audiences.

  7. Diversify Leadership within Organizations.

  8. Engage in Cultural and Civic Issues within the Community.

  9. Commission and Cultivate Diverse Art and Artists.

  10. Establish Connections between Art Organizations and Local Schools.

​Alexandre Pope once said that art “awakens our souls with its tender strokes, it raises our genius, and it mends our hearts.” Ultimately, for me, art is an empathy machine. It allows one to see, listen, and read the most intimate glimpses into the life and times of an artist and the world they occupy. If minorities are unable to participate in the arts they, and their community suffer. As do we all. If the spectrum of art we’re consuming is limited to the experiences and issues of a set racial and economic group our empathy machine is in desperate need of repair. •

5Pointz in Queens NYC,

was demolished November 2014.


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