Times have changed, and so has Orange County.
Once a bastion of conservatism, the county’s voters chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by nearly five percent in the 2016 election.
Profound demographic shifts have happened quickly. A place with a 78.6 percent white majority in 1990 has become more than half Hispanic and Asian, according to the 2010 census.
But in one highly visible area Orange County still seems mired in the past: arts leadership.
Almost without exception, white men have run Orange County’s largest arts institutions since their beginnings – in most cases it’s an uninterrupted line of succession stretching back six or seven decades. Many reign for scores of years, until well past retirement age. (The track record is better at several medium-sized institutions such as Pacific Chorale and the Laguna Playhouse.)
The #MeToo movement, recent surprise victories in the political arena by women and candidates of color, and other shifts in public perceptions of inequality have made the topic freshly relevant.
And a couple of high-profile local vacancies in the arts world bring the issue to center stage here.
Orange County’s nationally famous theater, South Coast Repertory, is looking for a new leader to take the reins from founders David Emmes and Martin Benson, who’ve been at the Tony-winning company since its inception in 1964.
In 2011, it seemed like they’d found the right fit when Marc Masterson, then 55, a well-respected director and administrator who shared their affinity for developing new work, was hired as South Coast Rep’s new artistic director. There was no indication at that time that SCR had considered a woman or person of color as a candidate for the post.
Last year, SCR dashed any thoughts that Masterson’s succession would stand the test of time when it announced that he would leave after his contract expired at the conclusion of the 2017-18 season. A spokesperson said that Benson, now past 80, and Emmes, closing in on that number, will remain active at the theater under the title they both received when Masterson arrived – founding artistic director. Emmes’ wife, Paula Tomei, also remains as the theater’s longtime managing director.
Finding a replacement for Masterson apparently hasn’t been easy. Despite anticipation that a new leader would be chosen by fall, an SCR spokesperson said no announcement is imminent as the search stretches toward the nine-month mark.
The Philharmonic Society of Orange County, a presenter of large touring orchestras that was founded in 1954, has been looking almost as long as SCR has for a new leader after its president and artistic director, John Mangum, accepted an offer to lead the Houston Symphony. He began his new job as the Texas orchestra’s executive director on April 16.
A search committee formed by two members of the Philharmonic Society’s board aimed to find a replacement before the beginning of the 2018-19 season. They’re still looking as the season opens. “We expect that we will be able to announce our new appointment by the end of September,” said interim president Chantel Chen Uchida.
The Tide May Be Turning
Given the recent zeitgeist shifts, now would seem to be an excellent time for one of Orange County’s major arts institutions to align itself with new realities. It’s a decision being weighed by many arts groups around the country.
“The leadership of the American theater is at a crossroads like it hasn’t seen since the birth of the regional movement in the 1960s,” wrote John Moore in an August, 2017 American Theatre magazine article titled “American Theatre’s Leadership Vacuum: Who Will Fill It?” Moore listed more than 20 leadership vacancies at leading American theater companies. Many of them were the result of a generational shift like the one SCR is experiencing.
Until recently, evidence pointed to a bottleneck preventing eligible women and people of color from making that leap to leadership positions. A 2015 study conducted by the Wellesley Centers for Women found that white men held 73 percent of the top jobs at major theaters, yet 63 percent of those working in jobs just below that level were women or people of color.
But the tide may be turning. A more recent study by Berkeley-based arts consultant Rebecca Novick shows that out of 53 executive-level position changes at American theaters, 30 were awarded to women or people of color (although she noted that most of the appointments were at smaller companies). “(SCR) would do well to take that trend into consideration,” said former Los Angeles Times theater critic Sylvie Drake in an interview just after the regional theater’s job search had begun.
Naysayers may grumble that political correctness is behind this new hiring philosophy, but some arts leaders counter that it’s simply a practical matter of hewing more closely to audience demographics and the changing tastes of the cultural consumer.
Snehal Desai, producing artistic director of East West Players in Los Angeles, said it’s the job of an arts institution’s board of directors to address any changes that will affect its bottom line. An effective board even alters its own ranks to reflect its community more accurately, Desai said.
“Sometimes … there’s a real divide between these groups and the communities they’re supposed to serve. Our board includes people of color and women and someone who’s under 30, because they’re all important parts of our community.”
Richard Stein, executive director of Art Orange County, made the point even more succinctly.
“The arts in this country are a business, and businesses have to pay attention to change. If you don’t change with the times, then you die.”
Finding new arts leadership “is not as difficult as people think it is,” said Stephanie Ybarra, a San Antonio native and Yale School of Drama graduate who was recently appointed artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage. “What gets in the way of these processes, unfortunately, are really insidious and often unconscious biases … We’ve been conditioned to have a narrow view of what experience and success look like. I’m walking, talking proof that we’re out there, and there are actually lots of us. All anyone has to do is ask.”
Ybarra sees top-level diversification in the arts world not only as as an economic but a moral imperative.
“In the theater community, we are rapidly reaching a critical mass of folks who are demanding a new way of thinking. For anybody working in the arts, one of the attractions is the promise of artistic institutions to be an accepting place for everyone.”
Ybarra thinks an unspoken mandate of the arts is “to reflect the widest swath of humanity and human experience back to us. We can’t do that if we’ve only got one lens to look through. It feels like failure of a fundamental promise … if we’re not diversifying our leadership.”
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected].