De Blasio’s Cultural Inquisition

(Kena Betancur/Getty)
Government has no business interfering with cultural institutions.

Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to know the race and gender of every employee of New York City’s cultural institutions. He has not been clear on why he wants this information, or what he plans to do with it. He is clear, however, that organizations that do not comply with the request will no longer be eligible for municipal funding. 

According to the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA), the goal of the mandatory survey is to “better indicate where cultural organizations succeed and where they struggle with the inclusion of underrepresented groups.” The specific groups cited are people of color, women, the disabled, and the foreign-born. 

The murky purpose behind this effort is troubling. Though he is careful not to say so, it is clear that the mayor intends to use these data to encourage and reward institutions that share his views on diversity in the arts. The problem with this is that there is no consensus in the artistic and cultural community as to what diversity should look like, much less how it should be achieved. 

For city agencies to bully cultural organizations with threats of defunding is not the way to increase female and minority participation in the cultural workforce. And it is entirely unclear what levels of participation would satisfy the mayor’s multicultural zeal. The DCLA points out, for example, that 40 percent of the city’s population is foreign-born. Does this mean 40 percent of cultural employees should be foreign-born? That would certainly have quite an impact on the work produced in the country’s cultural capital.

There is likely no industry that expends more time and energy on the question of diversity than the arts. The idea that the old, white elders from Footloose are barring minority participation in arts and culture is absurd. Arts administrators are extremely focused on this issue. The challenge has been that the fine arts (those that take government money directly) attract overwhelmingly white audiences. Forcing cultural institutions into minority hiring and programming is not likely to change the fact that it’s mostly white people who attend the ballet and opera.

#share#Frankly, even if this cultural affirmative action could turn the New York Philharmonic and its patrons into a Benetton ad, it would still be an outrageous government intervention. Artists and arts organizations exist in no small measure to challenge society. Any attempt by the state to force values and practices on the arts would undermine the freedom of artistic expression. The last thing we should ever want is a government that punishes the creators and producers of cultural content who do not hew closely enough to its moral preferences du jour.

The attempt by the government to strong-arm artists into compliance with progressive ideology on diversity is sadly not limited to the Big Apple’s socialist mayor. Recently the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced an upcoming investigation into the lack of women directors in film and television. Nobody is alleging that film and TV producers are engaged in a conscious effort to keep women from directing. The federal government simply doesn’t like the results of the free market in Hollywood.

#related#Well, too bad. Maybe more minorities should write for The New Republic, or appear on MSNBC, but we aren’t calling for those outlets to be punished. Why not? Why shouldn’t journalism be next? Why shouldn’t the government compel all media outlets to have staff and contributors that mirror the demographic diversity of the country? The answer, enshrined in the First Amendment, is that we don’t live in a nation where the government decides whose ideas we are allowed to consume.

If Mayor de Blasio wants to help minorities succeed in the arts he should focus on education and infrastructure. The city is full of artists of every identity group who want space to work, but instead of creating such space, the city squanders its resources on very white, very wealthy producing and presenting organizations. Encouraging tokenism in the elite world of nonprofit art is not an answer. It is a cop-out.

It is important for artists, and for all of us, to reject these government inquisitions into our arts and culture. Put simply, artistic content, which is what the employees of cultural institutions create or present, is none of the government’s business. The mayor would do well to abandon this policy and leave artistic expression to the artists.

David Marcus is a senior contributor to The Federalist. He is also the artistic director of Blue Box World, a Brooklyn-based theater project.


The Latest