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by Valentina Bertolani and Luisa Santacesaria

Curating Diversity in Italy: Gender and Ethnic Distribution in Contemporary and Experimental Music Programming

Curating Diversity is a project created by Valentina Bertolani and Luisa Santacesaria in 2018, aimed at collecting data on gender and ethnic representation in Italian musical programming (concert seasons, concert series, and festivals). As is standard with this type of research, we harvested data from websites of symphonic and chamber institutions rather than submit direct questionnaires to the artists involved in each season. This means we manually and subjectively assigned all categories that pertain to the individual identity of the artists.

Harvesting data makes it difficult to work with identity categories such as gender, because we have to assign a value from an external standpoint, even though we fully support and acknowledge gender fluidity and self-identification. Nevertheless, with our quantitative data we exclusively want to draw attention to a discriminatory practice rather than describe the world in all its facets.

Our working method follows the following criteria:

1. Intersectional approach. In our data harvesting, we decided to consider not only gender but also the ethnic background of the artists involved in the musical programming. It is important to notice the oblivious nature of the discourse on ethnic diversity and race in Italy and the European Union. Italy does not have a clear framework to account for the ethnic diversity of its population, and ethnic diversity is often conflated with migration phenomena.[1] Similarly, the European Union uses a colour-blind attitude to data collection on demographics.[2] This idea that diversity comes from abroad (particularly from outside Europe) is deeply rooted in the Italian mindset, and it is culturally and socially intertwined with the recent history of Italy becoming a country of immigration after being for a long time a country of emigration and the legacy and erasure of the Italian colonial period.[3] Given this situation, given the act of assigning identity rather than asking for self-identification, and given the fact that with our quantitative data we exclusively want to draw attention to a discriminatory issue to start a deeper conversation with curators to explore possible solutions, we compromised on using binary categories as white/non-white and women/men artists in our datasets. In order to limit the drawbacks of this choice, even though we decided to publish the dataset we created to be of service to the community at large, these shared datasets have no name associated with the categories we assigned. Similarly, we do not single out artists based on the categories we assigned.

2. Acknowledgements of various artistic backgrounds. In our datasets, we include different artistic roles. Differently from concerts in which the identification of roles such as composer, soloist, and conductor is very straightforward, the role identification within contemporary, electronic, and experimental events is extremely challenging. In this second case, our role attribution follows these indications:

Composers: those who create music that can be easily transferred to and performed by others;

Composer-performers: those who create music and usually perform it themselves because asking others to perform their music would require some work in the transfer of knowledge, since the performance is linked to specific practices or sound sources;

Improvisers: those mostly in a jazz/free jazz/free improv environment or when a description of an event directly used the word improvisation;

Sound artists: this is possibly the loosest category. We used it for performers who work with an electronic element and/or in their performance interact consciously with the space they are in, and whose performance is live, as opposed to an installative work (for which we used the category “installation artist”);

Soloists: artists who perform someone else’s music. Soloists are all those whose names are usually mentioned on the webpage of the concert: so, we list quartet or trio members as soloists, as well as chamber or small ensembles in which all performers are listed;

3. Combine quantitative and qualitative research. In addition to the data, we decided to interview the artistic directors of the various institutions on their curatorial choices, management, budgeting, mission, and internal organisation. However, in this paper we are not using the interviews we collected.

Our investigation began by analysing the programming of the 2018-2019 chamber and symphonic seasons in Milan and Florence.[4] For the research we are presenting here, we decided to examine five of the main Italian contemporary music festivals and four independent experimental music concert series and collect data about their 2018 and 2019 programming for a total of 297 concerts and 1,354 single entries in our dataset.

fig. 1: Geographic distribution of analysed institutions

AngelicA is a concert festival active in Bologna since 1991. Its programming is mostly devoted to historical experimental music and free jazz.

Centro D’Arte Padova is a concert series based in Padua, first held in 1945. The series is mainly focused on the free jazz scene, sometimes moving towards electronic and experimental proposals. The curatorial board is formed by three people: all jazz experts and one musicologist.

La Digestion is a festival based in Naples and dedicated to experimental music, resulting from a collaboration between the cultural association Phonurgia and the Morra Foundation. The curatorial team is formed by three musicians and one artist. The festival first took place in 2017.

Milano Musica is a festival of contemporary music founded in 1992. It normally takes place in Milan between October and November. Every year, the festival is dedicated to a different contemporary composer. 2019 was dedicated to Luca Francesconi, 2018 to György Kurtág; since its foundation, no edition of the festival has ever been dedicated to a woman or ethnic minority composer.

MU is an independent organisation and an artistic collective focused on sound, active since 2016. The curatorial team is formed by three musicians and one artist. MU’s concert series is scheduled in different venues between Cesena, Ravenna, and Bologna.

Standards is a space for art and music based in Milan, born in 2015, with the aim to explore the relationship between sonic and visual cultures. Standards has scheduled live performances, exhibitions, workshops, artist residencies, and public presentations. The curatorial board features a team of seven people with different artistic backgrounds, from music to architecture and media arts.

Tempo Reale Festival is a contemporary and electronic music festival first presented in 2008 and organized by Tempo Reale, centre of musical research, production, and education founded by Luciano Berio in Florence in 1987. Its programming is mostly focused on historical and contemporary electronic and electroacoustic music, featuring both prominent and emerging composers and sound artists.

Traiettorie is a contemporary music festival programmed since 1991 in Parma. Promoted by Fondazione Prometeo, Traiettorie’s musical programming is mostly focused on the twentieth-century Western avant-garde and its legacy.

TRK. Sound Club is an experimental music concert series based in Florence, as part of the programming of Tempo Reale. The series has been ongoing since March 2016, with approximately one event every month. The curatorial board features a team of musicians and musicologists, all part of Tempo Reale’s staff. The concerts are held at Galleria Frittelli, a contemporary art gallery in Florence.

Fig. 2 offers a synoptic view of the programming choices of all these institutions in terms of ethnic and gender diversity in each organisation for two years in a row (2018 and 2019).

fig. 2: Distribution of ethnicity and gender in each season (all roles included)

These charts illustrate the ethnic and gender presence featured in each venue in both years. The data include many of the artistic and creative roles at the core of the programming (e.g.: soloists, composers, installation artists, etc.).

Although all are involved with contemporary music, these institutions have a difference in ethos that we needed to acknowledge in analysing our data. Thus, we split them into two different groups:

- Group 1. Institutionalised group of contemporary music festivals: AngelicA, Centro d’Arte, Milano Musica, Tempo Reale Festival, Traiettorie.

- Group 2. Loosely structured experimental music concert series: La Digestion, MU, Standards, TRK. Sound Club.

This division is based on the following criteria:

- Public funding. While the activities of Group 1 are supported by public funds at the national and local levels,[5] those of Group 2 are mostly sustained by private funds and public funds at the local level.[6]

- With the exception of Centro d’Arte (which is a concert series featuring concerts spread throughout the year), all the entities of Group 1 are music festivals, whereas all the entities of Group 2 (with the exception of La Digestion, which is a festival) have programming that spans most of the year.

- Group 1 has on average more expensive tickets than Group 2. Group 2 tickets are sometimes connected to associative fees.

- Organogram/Staff. The entities of Group 1 have a more structured and pyramidal organisation and more people involved in their staff, while Group 2 is mostly made of teams with few people collaborating as peers. Moreover, curators working in Group 2 are on average younger than those working in Group 1 (30-40 years old in Group 2 vs 50-60 in Group 1).

- While the institutions of Group 1 can program their events in both conventional venues (i.e. theatres, concert halls, etc.) and unconventional ones (i.e., flexible spaces, art spaces, etc.), the entities of Group 2 schedule their events mostly in unconventional venues, reconfiguring them every time according to the different requirements of the performances.

There are some considerations we would like to add concerning programming choices.

Group 1 includes in their programming events aiming at reinforcing historic literature of a specific repertoire. Group 2 focuses instead on contemporary sonic research linked to both historical experimentation but also hybridisations with video art, improvisation, sonic studies and other arts on a more regular basis. Indeed, their events are not necessarily concerts but can also be installations, performances, projections, etc., and they stress the boundaries of traditional concert forms with a broader range of professional roles.

When artistic directors and curators choose specific musical programmes for concert series and festivals, their choice influences the reception of the works presented—and, consequently, of their authors. This means the artistic and curatorial choices, especially in this case of contemporary and experimental music festivals/concert series, actively contribute to the formation of the musical canon. For example, festivals like Milano Musica and Traiettorie feature programming that is strongly linked to the twentieth-century Western avant-garde and its legacy: programming works by not-yet-established composers, they are actually contributing to forming the new musical canon. The same can be said for AngelicA and Centro d’Arte, which focus their concerts on historical experimental music, free jazz, and the present-day legacy of these musical movements, and for Tempo Reale Festival, whose programming is mostly devoted to historical and contemporary electronic and electroacoustic music. It is precisely in the curatorial choices that concern the new music that reflection on gender and ethnic representation can lead to important results in the future, so that the new canons will be more inclusive and also more flexible and open to diversity.

fig. 3: Tour 2018 (international artists)

Occasionally, different concert series share the same performance—on consecutive or close days—by international artists, thus promoting their mobility within the Italian musical circuit (see fig. 3). This improves the economical sustainability of single performances presented in institutions (especially those of Group 2) that are constantly struggling due to low budgets. If we look in detail, it is interesting to notice how two institutions like Standards and MU shared four international artists in 2018. This is for several reasons: relative geographical proximity (the artists can easily reach the two venues in a few hours); close artistic and human relationships between the curators; and solidarity in terms of economic sustainability. All these factors create—especially between institutions of Group 2, economically more fragile—strong connections that also improve the creation of a cooperative musical scene.

Concerning the soloists, here is a list of the most frequently recurring names during the years 2018-2019 (all included in the programming of Group 1).

fig. 4: Most recurring performers (2018+2019)

We can observe how the two most recurring roles, in these two years, are those of sound directors (due to the large presence of electronic music works in the festivals/concert series). The list also shows how some artists are particularly linked to specific institutions (e.g.: Alvise Vidolin and Matteo Polato to Centro d’Arte, Massimo Marchi to Milano Musica, Francesco Giomi to Tempo Reale, of which he is also the director); this could be explained by geographical proximity and strong artistic relationships between artists and curators forged in previous years. Moreover, Milano Musica has a special programme of residencies for musicians that includes a certain number of performances in the frame of the festival; this is why, for example, the festival scheduled four concerts between 2018 and 2019 featuring percussionist Simone Beneventi, who is in residence there (from 2018 to 2020) together with his trio ZAUM_percussion.

Obviously, this reiterated presence of the same small pool of soloists and performers in different concert series reinforces an artistic circuit that becomes a point of reference for the performance of a specific repertoire. Similarly, the reiteration and stronger visibility of certain gender and ethnic categories can also influence the normative biases in that role for future generations.

fig. 5: Distribution of ethnicity and gender in institutional and independent venues (all roles included)

While there are some noticeable differences between institutions and years of programming (fig. 2), fig. 5 shows that there is great consistency in ethnic and gender density across different years. Despite the fact that the two groups of institutions might seem very different with actions informed by an incomparable ethos, their ethnic and gender density is very similar. Independent venues have a slightly higher percentage (about 6-8 points) of white women in their event series. Obviously, we do not consider these figures sufficient to claim that independent venues show more awareness towards programming women. Both Group 1 and Group 2 have a lot of work ahead to become places of equity and promotion of the artistic voices of non-white artists.

fig. 6a: Role distribution in group 1 and group 2 (2018 + 2019)

fig. 6b: Distribution of ethnicity and gender in relation to roles

Fig. 6a shows the distribution of different roles across event series in Groups 1 and 2. Fig. 6b shows the distribution of gender and ethnicity between roles in both groups. Fig. 6a demonstrates how different the two groups of series are. Indeed, institutions in Group 1 rely for the most part on the traditional concert-related roles of “composer” and “soloist” (accounting for more than three quarters of the artists involved in the series). Conductors are also relatively rather present, if one considers that these festivals and concert seasons work within stringent budget limitations, and events with larger ensembles and orchestras are rare. Conversely, Group 2 sees traditional roles of composers and soloists relegated to the margins, and sound artists, improvisers, and composers-performers represent the core programming of these concert series as a whole. Nevertheless, even with such a different distribution of artistic roles, the tendencies of gender and ethnic diversity for each role are very similar in both Group 1 and 2.

fig. 7: Distribution of gender and years of activity in relation to roles

Chart 7 divides living artists in any role in both Group 1 and 2 according to their activity time frame. Activity time frames are assigned with twenty-year intervals (from 1960s to the present, from 1980s to the present, etc.). If someone has been active in a professional way, even just at the end of that twenty-year period, they will still be included in it (e.g., someone who published their first recording in 1999 is in the “1980s-now” group) and it has nothing to do with the person’s date of birth. Similar to all other data dimensions, this category has been assigned through our research using online resources.

In particular, chart 7 shows the worrying prospect that new generations of artists are not necessarily bridging the gap between genders in any significant way. See, for example, the case of sound artists: we see that women are 0% in the timeframe “1980s-now” and 8% from “2000s-now”. Composers go from a 17% presence of women in the category “1960s-now” to 11% in the category “1980s-now” to 18% in the category “2000s-now”.

The only categories that see a meaningful improvement are those of composer-performers and soloists. Composers-performers go from 19% women in the category “1980s-now” to 37% in the category “2000s-now”. This can have many causes, but one of these might be a biased attribution of this category on our part (i.e., we were less inclined to assign these artists in the category of sound artists or composers due to internalised biases of what a composer/sound artist should look like, thus removing women from categories that are traditionally assigned to men and creating a new hybrid category where they are overrepresented). We want to make clear that we explored this possibility and reflected on it, and we do not think this is the case. However, even if we merge the categories of “composer-performer” and “composer” or “composer-performer” and “sound artist”, the new statistic would still look grim and with no meaningful improvement across time frames.

For what concerns soloists, we can see an improvement from 10% of women in the category “1960s-now”, to 27% in the category “1980s-now”, to 40% in the category “2000s-now”. This seems to be good news. In reality, we have no way to say if it is, yet. It might also mean that it is harder for women to have a lifelong career in music and that more women might quit at some point, privileging teaching or less travel-intensive careers. In the case of soloists and instrumental performers, a category that sometimes relies on traditional circuits and artist agencies and might not provide full control on the use of the performer’s image in photo shoots, the gender discrimination might also be coupled with discrimination based on age and physical appearance.

fig. 8: Geographic origins of non-white artists

Chart 8 supports the initial claim that ethnic diversity is often coupled with migration and with foreignness. Indeed, artists from all European countries together account only for 13% of ethnic diversity in all these series. It is also worth noting that most of these European artists moved to Europe during their formative years. It is undeniable, then, that in Italy there are still strong barriers preventing the musical world from welcoming voices from Italians of diverse ethnic backgrounds.


While the project started only recently, and we pursued it independently in our spare time, without any support (economic or infrastructural), we have:

- published two datasets and one report on chamber and symphonic music in Florence and Milan;

- presented our research at two international conferences;

- published the dataset related to this text;

- we are working on an article with our qualitative data on the chamber and symphonic scene in Milan, which will be part of a volume published by Routledge in the coming months.

In total, we covered twenty-one institutions active in Italy for a total of 657 events, for which we considered not only composers but also all other music-related roles involved (adding up to more than 2,000 individuals). With this groundwork data available almost entirely online, we hope it will be now impossible to hide or deny the blatant gender- and ethnic-based discrimination within the music industry. And now what?

While we have been writing this article, live performances stopped virtually everywhere due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Live performances in Italy have now been suspended for almost five months. Every music worker (musicians, curators, performers, technicians, etc.) is dealing with the consequences of the pandemic personally, physically, psychologically, and economically. In the midst of all these challenges, our plea to end discrimination and re-emerge with more inclusive programming might seem insensitive, if not completely disconnected from reality, to most music organisers and artists. Yet, the ripple effect generated in Italy by the Black Lives Matter protests and the ensuing conversations (re)started about the country’s colonial past as well as the inadequacy of its broadly accepted colour-blind approach (justified by meritocratic discourse) make our plea to the Italian musical world timelier than ever. There is no solution that fits everyone, except one: stop avoiding the problem.

But what is next for us, Curating Diversity? At this point we do not plan to collect more data. However, we would like to find partners that are willing to reflect together with us on solutions. We are happy that during our interview with Standards we felt we found this was somewhat possible, and we are hopeful for the future.

However, we also need to grow and improve our methods, mapping discriminatory practices in a way that is more respectful of personal identity. Our binary classifications were unsatisfactory for us, and we can barely imagine how problematic and triggering they might be for some members within the community we are trying to reach and support. Thus, we would like to modify our methodology in a radical way. Possibly, we would like to explore how to move to smaller datasets within communities that are willing to participate in surveys. In order to do so, we do not only need to partner with an institution but also an infrastructure to be able to keep sensitive data safe and to assure anonymity at the level wished by participants.

Finally, and more importantly, we will continue to engage in direct and non-academic conversations with every event organiser, musician, curator, and artistic director we can get hold of to expose them to uncomfortable questions that are rarely asked within the musical industry in Italy at the moment.

Valentina Bertolani is a musicologist specialised in experimental and electronic music, collective improvisation, and cultural diplomacy. She is also interested in cultural policy and tensions between transnational and local cultural networks. She is one of the co-editors of the book Live-Electronic Music: Composition, Performance, Study (Routledge 2018). Her work has been published in miscellaneous volumes and in Music Theory Online and presented at numerous international conferences. She holds a PhD from the University of Calgary (Canada) where she was the recipient of various awards and scholarships, such as the prestigious Izaak Killam Walton Scholarship. She pursued master’s and bachelor’s degrees from the Department of Musicology and Cultural Heritage at the University of Pavia. She received the Deep Listening® certificate from the Deep Listening Institute created by Pauline Oliveros. She taught undergraduate courses and seminars at the University of Calgary (Canada) and the University of Birmingham (UK).  

Luisa Santacesaria is a musician and musicologist. She studied piano at Scuola di Musica di Fiesole and graduated from the Department of Musicology and Cultural Heritage of Cremona (University of Pavia) with a MA thesis on the relationship between sound and space in electro-acoustic music. She was music curator of the Luigi Pecci Centre for Contemporary Art in Prato (2016-2017). She currently collaborates as a musicologist with the Amici della Musica di Firenze concert season, the Centro Studi Luciano Berio, and with the research centre Tempo Reale, where she curates the experimental music concert season TRK. Sound Club and the website musicaelettronica.it. Since 2015, she has been a member of the collective of musicians Blutwurst.


[1] Lilla Farkas and European Commission. Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers, Data collection in the field of ethnicity: Analysis and comparative review of equality data collection practices in the European Union (Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2017), 23–24. See also Italian National Institute of Statistics, Indicatori demografici anno 2019, https://www.istat.it/it/files//2020/02/Indicatori-demografici_2019.pdf, presenting again the parameter of migration as the only one hinting to the diversity of the population.

[2] Farkas and European Commission, Data Collection; Ryan Heath, “Brussels is blind to diversity,” Politico, 12 March 2018, https://www.politico.eu/article/brussels-blind-to-diversity-whiteout-european-parliament/. The conflation population diversity/migration is also evident in the statistics available from Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, where one can browse statistics by diversity (age, gender, and disability) or population (where once again only migration and migrant integration is mentioned): See Eurostat, “Browse statistics by theme,” accessed 22 April 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/data/browse-statistics-by-theme.

[3] Valeria Deplano, “Senza distinzione di razza? Razzismo in controluce nel discorso pubblico italiano tra anni Cinquanta e anni Settanta,” European South 1 (2016): 95–102.

[4] Concerning our analysis of the 2018-2019 Milanese chamber and symphonic seasons, see Valentina Bertolani and Luisa Santacesaria, “Diversity in Italian music programming: symphonic and chamber music programming in Milan,” The Routledge Companion to Women and Musical Leadership: The Nineteenth Century and Beyond, eds. Laura Hamer and Helena Julia Minors (London: Routledge, forthcoming). See the data published for the 2018-2019 chamber and symphonic concert seasons in Florence (https://curatingdiversity.org/firenze/, last accessed 19 June 2020) and Milan (https://curatingdiversity.org/milano/, last accessed 27 June 2020)

[5] These institutions are publicly funded at the national level through the “FUS–Fondo Unico per lo Spettacolo” (Central Fund for the Performing Arts) of the MiBACT-Ministero per i beni e le attività culturali e per il turismo (Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism).

[6] The only exception is the case of TRK. Sound Club, which is included in the programming of the research centre Tempo Reale and is supported by the same funds.

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