Angélique Kidjo performs at Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah last December. Photo by Gabe Palacio, courtesy of Caramoor.
Local arts organizations and artists embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion as an expectation to create community in Westchester.
The arts have always been a crucial part of Westchester culture — which is, by its very nature, diverse. Artists and administrators in the region say that it is essential that works represent our diverse population, championing equity and including everyone. And they are now making sure that action trumps rhetoric.
“We worked with a consultant to make sure we are as diverse as possible. That includes our programming, our staff, and our board of directors,” says Janet Langsam, the executive director of ArtsWestchester in White Plains. “We looked at any intentional or unintentional racism in our 150 affiliates to see if we could do a better job.”
Arts organizations, like many Westchester businesses, are making diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) central to what they do. This objective isn’t a tacit or subtle flavoring; it has become a stated and clear goal and expectation.
“At Caramoor, diversity, equity, and inclusion is integral to our mission,” says Edward J. Lewis III, CEO and president at Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah. “Because music has the power to unite people and heal divisions, we feel strongly that, as presenters, it’s our responsibility to do our part. It’s our intention to embed these values in all aspects of Caramoor, including hiring, board recruitment, our artistic programming, community engagement and school programs, audience services, fundraising, and in our strategic planning.”
Of course, there is saying, and there is doing. Adhering to rhetoric without action is anathema to the DEI movement, and people aren’t fooled anymore by talk. Action is required.
“There’s a lot of conversation about who is merely putting words on their website and who is really doing it, who is really aware and who isn’t,” Gabrielle Fox, the director of Theatre Revolution in Mount Kisco, says. “The whole process of rethinking and becoming aware has really been enriching and rewarding.”
Theatre Revolution doesn’t have its own space. When the company plans events, it rents out performance spaces, and that means taking an extra step in planning.
“It is really important to look at accessibility,” notes Fox. “We want to make sure anyone and everyone can attend.”
Accessibility is an important facet of inclusion; providing content that is representative of the community is another. The Westchester arts community has committed to both.
“We are having an exhibit titled Who Writes History?, which examines different versions of historical events, how they happened, and how they were perceived. A good example would be examining the history of the Civil War and how it is remembered and taking a new look at what happens to things like memorabilia in the National Archives. It is about asking hard questions,” Kathleen Reckling, the senior deputy director at ArtsWestchester, says.
Last June, ArtsWestchester hosted a panel discussion on ballroom culture. The culture goes back to the late 1800s, and it allowed for the Black and Latinx communities of Harlem to dress in drag, compete, and watch performances. It was one of the first ways LGBTQ+ community members — particularly those of color — could express themselves freely. Today, celebrities such as RuPaul and Madonna, and movies like Paris Is Burning and TV shows like America’s Best Dance Crew have come to embrace and celebrate ballroom culture.
Mitch Goldberg, the director of the Upstream Gallery in Hastings-on-Hudson, is hosting an exhibit featuring themes related to the LGBTQ+ community this June. In the true spirit of inclusivity, submitting artists can identify as LGBTQ+ or not. It is the work that is most important.
“As a gay man, this is very personal for me,” Goldberg says. “I want art that is the truth. I want submissions to be authentic, so the public can understand what people feel.” The exhibit is being promoted nationally, and it is expected to draw works from across the country and in a variety of media.
Artistic expression always says a lot about a community. Westchester artists believe what is said needs to come from all voices and all expressions. They are making that happen.
“The arts have the power to transform lives. They provide a mirror into our humanity and reflect back to us who we truly are and aspire to be,” Lewis adds. He assumed the role of CEO and president at the iconic Katonah performing arts venue last year with a commitment to diversify Caramoor’s program, which will complement its traditional classical offerings this summer with diverse singers and bands, jazz performances, and a Juneteenth celebration. “The arts promote empathy and healing across all types of divisions and obstacles. They can and often do change how we choose to live in the world. The more voices we include in this enterprise, the more agreeable the reflection and higher the aspiration to move humankind forward.”
Moving society forward is no small task. While our lawmakers and business leaders toil away at the issue, it is quite possible that the change agent for our culture may be found elsewhere.
“It is our obligation to be a reflection of our population and all of our people,” Langsam notes. “The arts are the hope of the future.”