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by Jennifer Kessler

A Multi-Layered Approach to Equity in the New Music Field

For the past ten of my eighteen years as an arts professional, I have sat through a myriad of meetings devoted to the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion in Western classical music. Until recently, I would see an initial investment in diversity initiatives, but nothing that would fundamentally empower people who have not historically had leadership agency to play a lasting role in deciding what gets performed on our world’s stages. What was lacking was a comprehensive approach to equity by addressing all entry points to an organization. Very few organizations asked: What are all of the ways we uphold the status quo? And what are all of the changes we should consider making if we want to create a truly equitable and diverse future?

“Equity” is often understood in different ways. The Annie E. Casey Foundation defines equity as “giving people what they need to enjoy full, healthy lives, regardless of race.”[1] I once heard philanthropist Ayo Roach say that equity is not just giving a person a seat at the table for decision making, but making the table bigger so that more people can participate and benefit from whatever is being offered. As an extension of his article “A Small Act of Curation,” George Lewis gave a keynote at a Chamber Music America conference, discussing his concept of equity as “investment.” He said:

Decades of curatorial, commissioning, and academic employment decisions proceeding from what bell hooks has called white supremacist capitalist patriarchy amounts to an investment in a certain sector of the society, and a complementary disinvestment in others […].  The complementary disinvestment in other segments of the population expresses itself in the very low number of women and people of color that I find in applications for graduate school, grants, academic employment as a composer, and more.  Despite decades of effort, the system does not allow these people to build up equity, and the myth of absence dovetails with ersatz meritocracy to support the spurious claim that these people, in fact, do not exist. Yes, they do exist—but fixing the problem will take more than just opening the doors and proclaiming, “Y’all come.”[2]

I understand equity as a combination of these things: a commitment to making the proverbial table bigger and fairer to effectively investing in more people who have decision-making agency. It is also a commitment to interrogating and changing the practices around the table that have historically prevented certain people from living their full lives, and making specific choices beyond “just opening the doors.”

Now in its 20th year, the International Contemporary Ensemble is a collective of musicians who advance experimental music by commissioning, developing, and performing the works of living artists. The organization has always valued equity as part of its mission and has commissioned and programmed composers and sound artists from many different, often under-represented, backgrounds. Since I began as the Executive Director in January 2020, we have taken a multi-tiered approach to assessing and improving all aspects of the organization with a focus on equity, inclusion, and diversity, building on work the Ensemble had started previously.

We started by asking: Why is it important to us that we become more equitable and diverse? Research can help make the case for organizations to embrace diversity initiatives, but we need to understand why it’s important to us personally and as a community in order to fully prioritize supporting diversity in the workplace and in our field. To me, it’s a matter of fairness and humanity: in the U.S. and Europe, resources have historically flowed to predominantly white institutions, and the funders, presenters, staff, boards, musicians, and other partners have all been complicit at keeping the white status quo. Adapted from the Ensemble’s guiding principles, we live in a mosaic world with an extraordinary depth and breadth of human experience. I believe that what is presented on our stages should reflect the world we live in. It is time to change the status quo.

At the International Contemporary Ensemble, we believe that in order to contribute to a thriving mosaic musical ecosystem, we need to make changes to all of our practices, in addition to programming and curating. We identified multiple gates of access to our organization and created actions to address areas that we believed prevented inclusion. At the time we launched this work, our staff, board, and musicians were primarily people who identify as white and cisgender, but that has changed, and we continue to discover other gates of access that we have historically ignored. Part of what's important in this process is staying open and curious, and, when discovering another entry point for growth, we lean into addressing it.

While we have yet to formally evaluate the outcomes of all of our actions, we continue to assess which areas of our work need more attention in terms of equity and inclusion, by way of conversations with staff, board, musicians, funders, and collaborators. From early 2020 through May 2022, these areas and actions have included the following:

Workplace culture: We believe that for an equitable workplace to exist, we must create and uphold a culture of belonging, and set expectations that everyone will contribute to a positive workplace culture. Through multiple meetings with small groups from our board, staff, and Ensemble members, along with outside counsel from labor attorneys, we examined and updated our codes of conduct, fundraising policies, and processes for grievances. This is ongoing work, and some of our policies still need updating.

Examining policies is an important way to align an organization’s values and mission with mechanisms for implementing those values. For example, in October 2020, we implemented clearer protocols for administrative employees and musicians to submit grievances to management. As we became more intentional about receiving grievances to understand where improvements and reconciliations were needed, many people in the organization who had previously felt afraid to come forward felt trusting enough to share concerns. Some of these conversations have been painful for everyone involved, and we hadn’t anticipated the volume of concerns to address.

As a mid-sized non-profit, we had historically not invested in human resources expertise, instead relying on whomever was in the Executive Director and Artistic Director positions to manage most complaints. I believe that leaders have a responsibility to take action and be held accountable for steering the organization in a way that fits with its mission. I also believe that the idea that senior leaders should be martyrs for their organizations is problematic, and that dealing with and healing from an organization’s faults should not be solely on the shoulders of one or two people. Yes, leaders need to take responsibility for steering the organization; and to truly transform and become an equitable space, many more people in the organization need to understand the underlying issues that perpetuate inequities and play a role in improving them.

Although our organization has reporting structures in place, and a Musician’s Committee which liaises with our musicians directly, we began to notice that each complaint required multiple hours invested in investigation, documentation, reconciliation/healing, and decision-making about next steps. It required much more time than we had prepared for. We could instead address each situation with more care and in a timelier manner with regular access to human resources (HR) expertise, and in fall 2022, we secured an HR legal expert on retainer. Our goals are to address acute issues as they arise, to acknowledge and lead trainings around larger systemic issues that are pervasive in our organization and field, and to set an expectation in our organization that everyone can show up and enjoy the dignity they deserve.

We also learned through investigating workplace culture that musicians and staff wanted to improve their skills of resolving interpersonal conflicts. We hired a conflict resolution consultant —Tania Clerisme—to host a training workshop on how to have brave conversations, and the musicians, staff, and board members who participated have reported that they’re using the skills they learned in the workshop to address conflicts that come up in rehearsals, at the office, or even in their personal lives.

Other actions we took to improve workplace culture included updating employee job descriptions and hiring and recruitment practices, with an emphasis on our commitment to equity. These hiring changes led to more diverse applicants in every job position we’ve posted since 2020. We also revisited our practices around how musicians join the Ensemble, which is an ongoing process that is occasionally met with resistance. However, the conversations helped us better understand what gatekeeping mechanisms we had been upholding that might have prevented us from inviting extraordinary musicians to join the Ensemble.

One advancement I’m especially excited about is that we recognized that musicians who are parents were not always able to join a project because all of their earnings would go to childcare. We are now piloting a caregiver stipend for musician parents to offset their childcare costs when joining a project with us.

Learning: We committed to ongoing learning and growing around anti-racism and anti-oppression. We launched an anti-oppression book club for the staff in early 2020; researched and learned from others in the field such as the Arts Administrators of Color Network, Black Opera Alliance, university scholars, and local Native American organizations; and engaged several facilitators to lead workshops for the board, musicians, staff, and collaborators on topics around equity, including Dr. Derrell Acon, Tania Clerisme, Rania El Mugammar, and Dr. Durell Cooper. For more information on our approach to learning, please see our website.

Our book club has been a generative way for staff to share ideas and questions around equity that show up in our personal and professional lives and has been a way for us to get to know each other better outside of our regular agenda-driven meetings. In 2020, one staff member expressed concern that once we were back to more live performances, we might not have time to continue these discussions. In fact, it has become more difficult since 2021 to carve out time amidst our artistic production schedules for these discussions and for the readings leading up to them, and the pace of our book club conversations has waned. However, the staff is still committed to discussing topics centered on equity, and we’re exploring new formats for our book club that involve listening to podcasts, reading shorter articles, and meeting less frequently but consistently.

Commissioning and education programs: We examined our commissioning and education application, recruitment, and adjudication practices through an equity lens. We invited artists to make recommendations to our application processes, and based on their input, we changed the language we use to invite people to apply, the formats we ask for submissions, the ways we collect demographic information, the questions we ask of artists on applications, and we increased our artist honoraria for commissions. Since we made these changes, we have seen the most diverse pool of applicants by far compared with previous years: racially, ethnically, artistically, and by gender and age. We also continue to design our Ensemble Evolution program to include an arc of learning around equity and racial justice (see videos from Ensemble Evolution).

Board development: Early in 2020, we began to reassess which board leadership skill-sets and qualities were important to advancing our mission. We have since welcomed six new board members, including artists and other professionals with diverse professional and life experiences, skill-sets, backgrounds, and networks.

Programming/curation: While we have programmed composers from diverse backgrounds from the organization’s beginnings, we now need to acknowledge the rest of our practices, and to recommit to programming composers from diverse backgrounds whom our field has historically ignored.

As an Ensemble that performs and develops new work, with relationships to presenters, artists, funders, and audiences, we wanted to better understand what practices we might adopt to influence what gets performed on our world’s stages. In late 2020, we invited seventeen artists (Ensemble members, collaborators, and artists we hadn’t yet worked with) to join a Curation Task Force. They met monthly for six months and agreed that the problem to address was shifting power structures and decision-making in our field to create spaces where artists have the agency, support, and resources they need to make long-term sustainable changes to curation and production. The Task Force’s main recommendations were for us to consider expanding upon programs such as Ensemble Evolution to create more practical experiences for artists to curate, so that they see themselves as part of a curatorial profession, and to hire a senior curator for the organization.

In late 2021, we shifted some of our budget and secured new funding to change our leadership structure from two people to three people: an Executive Director, an Executive Producer, and a revised Artistic Director role. In April 2022, we hired a new Artistic Director, George Lewis, whose “New Music Decolonization in Eight Difficult Steps” framework has been guiding many of our practices and protocols.

George Lewis’s scope of curatorial ideas around Creolization and Afro-Diasporic new music is a thrilling inflection point in our organization: we are merging our institutional work with his vision to realize many more artists having their pieces developed and presented. I hope that what we create under George’s leadership will be a model for ensembles and presenters around the world, for generations to come.

How has all of this work affected our artistic initiatives?

As a result of changes to our commissioning program, we are presenting many artists whose artistic practices were new to us, and we’re proud to build relationships with and develop new works by sound artists including Lesley Mok, Kevin Ramsay, Mazz Swift, Chris Ryan Williams, Sandra Kluge, Bonita Oliver, Cleo Reed, and Sylvain Souklaye. We welcomed new Ensemble members/artists-in-residence, including Fay Victor,  Vimbayi Kaziboni, Clara Warnaar, and Gabriela Diaz,  who perform with the Ensemble and also join conversations to shape our organization’s policies.  Our productions from 2018—2022 were largely envisioned by our former co-Artistic Directors Rebekah Heller and Ross Karre, who were dedicated to presenting Afro-Diasporic artists, as well as with curatorial input from Ensemble members. To pilot the idea by the Curation Task Force to provide artists with more curatorial and producorial opportunities, we invited my colleague eddy kwon, whose work creates, expands, and reframes spaces of home, transformation, and transgression, to curate a series with artists with dynamic and varied connections to diaspora. The series, SOUND IS AN OPENING, premiered in New York City in June 2022.

Under George Lewis’s leadership, we are planning to feature fifty more artists of all ages, backgrounds, and career stages, who represent the thriving and diverse musical ecosystem in the US and beyond.

There is not a one-size-fits-all multi-layered approach to building equity. Our organization’s size, agility, and supportive board of directors and funders make it possible for us to invest in these kinds of changes. The musicians and staff have been willing to do the hard work of change. We still have a lot of work to do, including probing our inclusion practices around gender expression and identity, sexual orientation, and disabilities.   

Regardless of an organization’s resources, I believe that anyone can and should explore biases and take action to contribute to a fairer, just world. This work starts with us personally. As arts leaders, and especially if you are not from a marginalized group of people, ask yourself: Why is this work important to you personally? If you can’t answer that question, it’s time to do so. It is all of our responsibilities as arts workers to do our part to contribute to a thriving, diverse cultural ecosystem.

To me, it is reckless for arts institutions to receive public funding if they are not representing the diversity of artists in their communities on their stages. I live in New York City, and I experience an extraordinary range of diverse artistic experiences across our five boroughs. To be sure, arts presenters in many communities across the US and Europe aim to present local artists, and artists who have historically been underrepresented on their stages. However, if we examine who is in top decision-making roles at US presenting institutions, it is largely male and white. As Antonio C. Cuyler reports:

Arts managers connect audiences to the greatest artistic achievements of humankind... The US population is ethnically and racially diverse. Roughly, 63 percent is white; 17.1 percent, Hispanic/Latino; 13.2 percent, African American; 5.3 percent, Asian; 1.2 percent, American Native; and .2 percent, Native Hawaiian (US Census Bureau 2015). The most significant finding from this survey question is that 78 percent of arts managers identified as white […]. These results show that the arts management workforce does not accurately reflect US society.[3]

In a 2022 article about Opera Australia using yellowface in their production of Turandot, Cat-Thao Nguyen points out that, “It’s time to look at the stories we are telling and retelling over again and ask if they are racist.”[4]

It would help […] if the country’s leading performing arts companies were more diverse: a 2019 report by Diversity Arts Australia found just eight per cent of leaders in music and opera were from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds compared to thirty-nine per cent of the population.[5]

While these excerpts focus on racial diversity, there are many more identities not represented in leadership positions as well. What happens when leadership basically remains homogeneous? Even if every single white, cis-male arts leader were working diligently to shift practices in their organizations to be more welcoming to more people, examine and abolish racist practices in their organization, and present a season comprised of artists from many different backgrounds and identities (which I’m arguing they should all be doing anyway), we would still be missing out on new ways of operating and communicating and, ultimately, sharing art by not positioning more diverse leaders to make key decisions about what gets presented on our stages.

As curious art lovers, what wonderful art have we been missing over the years? Presenting organizations might argue that they need to sell tickets, and they might point to data that shows what their audiences will pay for. But they could also learn more about what art is out there and play a major role in shaping what audiences hear and who they hear from. What about the myriad of composers whose works never got funded or programmed because the artistic directors at that time made decisions based on racist ideologies?

Equity and inclusion are personal to me: I have experienced discrimination and harassment in past workplaces as a woman, a mother, a Jew, and when I lived in Europe, as an American. I have also perpetuated practices that have done the opposite of promoting equity, and I’m examining where I’ve failed and what I can do better in the future. It is unconscionable to me that anyone should not receive dignity and respect as a result of their identity, and too many extraordinary artists have been shut out of having their art seen and heard because of discrimination. This should be unconscionable to anyone who enjoys the arts, and equity and inclusion should be personal to everyone.

This is true not just in the United States, but the world over. Which communities in your area do you rarely see on your stages? In many countries, public funds go to supporting the arts. What barriers exist to people from benefiting from those funds and opportunities to have their works developed and performed? Who is making the decisions that determine who benefits from arts opportunities (like commissions, performances, and awards, and starting even earlier, with education opportunities)? Who is being left out of decision-making, and on what basis?

A multi-faceted approach to equity means that we are actively assessing all of our actions as participants in our field. In a thriving arts ecosystem, everyone should have a chance to participate, and as a community of listeners, we should get to hear from diverse voices representing the world we live in, and not just one slice of it. Imagine a world in which every artist and arts worker could stretch their imaginations and activate their creativity to grow a garden of new art that we all benefit from. It will take many small steps, but together, if we work towards a more equitable arts ecosystem, we can put into practice more compassionate, human-centered ways of daily living that could extend to the rest of our lives. What role will you play in those small steps?

I am proud of many of the actions we’ve taken during my time at the International Contemporary Ensemble, and I hope that our multidimensional approach is an inspiration to others in our field to make changes to their practices. We have much more to do, and while this will be a lifelong journey for me personally, I believe there are changes we all can make much sooner that will more urgently shift what we hear and whom we see on our world’s stages.

Jennifer Kessler is a New York-based arts leader. As Executive Director of the International Contemporary Ensemble, Jennifer steers the organization to align with its mission and commitment to equity. Previously, Jennifer served as Executive Director of Willie Mae Rock Camp, and in education positions at Carnegie Hall, the League of American Orchestras, and Orchestra of St. Luke’s. As a consultant, Jennifer has led projects for the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; Bang on a Can’s OneBeat; and the jazz ensemble James Farm with Joshua Redman. Jennifer began her career as a French horn player, and holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Northwestern University in Illinois; a master’s degree from Hanns Eisler Musikhochschule in Berlin, Germany; and a graduate certificate of nonprofit management as an El Sistema Fellow at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Jennifer is an Adjunct Professor at SUNY New Paltz, New York.


[1] “Equity vs. Equality and Other Racial Justice Definitions,” updated on April 14, 2021, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, accessed June 1, 2022, https://www.aecf.org/blog/racial-justice-definitions.

[2] George E. Lewis, “Reflections on Music, Equity, and Our Future,” Keynote address, Chamber Music America Annual National Conference, The Westin New York at Times Square, New York City, January 16, 2020.

[3] Antonio C. Cuyler, An Exploratory Study of Demographic Diversity in the Arts Management Workforce, Grantmakers in the Arts, GIA Reader 26, no. 3 (October 2015).

[4] Matthew Knott, “‘I felt sick’: Opera Australia under fire for using ‘yellowface,’” The Sydney Morning Herald, February 26, 2022, https://www.smh.com.au/culture/opera/i-felt-sick-opera-australia-under-fire-for-using-yellowface-20220221-p59yet.html.

[5] Ibid.


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